When Possum Was King

My desire to run a trapline and handle fur runs deep. This 40-plus year adventure was born and nurtured while sitting around a pot-bellied wood stove on cold winter nights, listening to my dad and granddad tell hunting and trapping stories from days gone by.

That old stove sat in an unpainted clapboard house, on a hill overlooking Simon Creek in Love County, Okla., where events of “plain living” took place. When I let my mind drift back to those nights around that old wood stove, I close my eyes… and I swear I can smell smoke.

My grandfather, John Moses Hull, came to Oklahoma from Arkansas in 1906, the year before Oklahoma became a state.

He rented land and farmed for two years before buying 437 acres. My grandfather raised cattle and hogs, growing corn to feed livestock and raising cotton as a cash crop. My grandmother raised turkeys, chickens, geese, ducks and guineas. A five-acre garden completed the operation. It was truly Old McDonald’s farm. All in the family helped in the farming and ranching operation.

Our family calls this piece of land the “Old Home Place.” My grandparents raised 11 children there.

The land has rich sandy loam soil. With enough rain, it will grow anything. Native pecan trees, wild plums and grapes were abundant. Black Jack and post oak trees provided acorns for the hogs and wood for the stove.

Simon Creek supplied water for the livestock and was a stopover for ducks in fall and spring. Mink, opossums and skunks roamed the streambanks and the rolling hills surrounding the creek. Rabbits and quail were plentiful in the brushy draws and fencelines.

All in all, the farm was a wonderful place to raise a family. If you were a kid, it was a wonderful place to grow up.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, money literally disappeared. For millions of people, there was no work, no money, just despair.

My dad’s family was lucky. They had everything except money. Many families didn’t have a garden, livestock, hunting and fishing to fall back on.

My dad remembers many nights when he would hear the dogs barking, and then there would be a knock on the door. Granddad would get the lantern and go to the smoke house and get meat for a hungry family.

I once asked my grandfather what was the toughest time he ever saw financially. He said in the early 1930s, he took 16 butcher hogs to the livestock sale in Fort Worth. The hogs brought two cents a pound. Two-hundred pound hogs sold for $4 each. Back at home, he had 21 hogs ready for market. When he got home, he made a decision not to sell the remaining hogs.

As hard as it is to believe, he and the family butchered those 21 hogs, then cured and smoked the meat. My grandfather figured he could get more value out of the hogs by trading the meat for farm work than he could get by selling them.

During the Great Depression, grown men did farm work from sunup till sundown for 50 cents a day, if they could find work. There was no unemployment, no social security. When tough times hit, you were on your own.

The family did everything they could do to make a quarter. My granddad and the boys in the family broke horses and mules, cut wood, gathered pecans, and of course, sold the furs from trapping and night hunting.

My father was born in December 1916. He was a teenager in high school during the Depression. His jobs at home were riding through the brush and hills checking on cattle, plowing, butchering, cutting wood, building fences and anything else that needed to be done.

The only way Dad could make any money was trapping and hunting. He had two dogs — Bigfoot and Littlefoot. They were Airedale-hound crosses. He owned a dozen steel traps. The standard set for opossum, skunk and mink was the cubby set — a V-shaped enclosure made of sticks or stones, with bait placed in the back and the trap hid in the opening of the cubby.

Through the years, this simple set has produced hundreds of furbearers for me, just like it did for my dad.

During the early 1930s, an opossum pelt from the southern-tier of states averaged 40 cents. A skunk pelt from the same area averaged 50 cents, and a mink brought $4. A young, stout, enterprising hunter/trapper could easily average five opossums and a skunk or two a night. Five opossums and a skunk at average prices would bring in $2.50 a night. A man working five days a week for 50 cents a day would make $2.50 for the week.

In a 60-day trapping season using the same numbers and prices, the sale of fur would generate $150. Dad always caught several mink, so adding in five mink during the season for a $4 average, his total reaches $170.

A man working for 50 cents a day would bring in $30 for the same period — that is if he could find a job for 50 cents a day, seven days a week.

Back then, that was a mighty big “if.”

My dad, with his dogs and traps, produced the fur and the income. In those days, a family was a family, and it was all for one and one for all. A man did whatever he had to do to make a living for his family. Those opossum and skunk Depression dollars were critical. They brought in cash when there was no other way.

Fur dollars are still important today for many trappers and fur hunters. When my wife, Cindy, and I were raising our boys, the fur check in December always helped make Christmas just a little bit merrier.

My sons spent a great deal of time with their granddad. Between the two of us teaching them, they are skilled in reading sign, handling guns, fishing, trapping and growing a garden. These are survival skills, as far as I am concerned.

Another huge plus is they have the enjoyment of spending time in the woods away from all the insanity of our modern world.

If hard times come again — and who is to say they won’t — my sons will be better prepared than most people.

Even today, a man will do whatever is necessary to take care of his family.

Just like during the Great Depression, when life was real, life was hard. For many people, life was real hard.

When ‘possum was king.

Mike Hull is a trapper from Chinle, Ariz.

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