I was driving down Dimond Hill at dusk to go to the evening shift at the health center when I saw a dark colored mink lying in the middle of the road. He must have been trying to get to Ash Brook when he was hit. I slammed on my brakes and pulled over and made all the on-coming cars go around me as I stood over the still body, protecting it from getting further injured. It looked like the animal’s spirit was still in its body, so I gently nudged it with the toe of my boot to avoid a nasty bite, if he was still capable. No response.
I leaned over and palpated a very faint heartbeat. He was still warm but his eyes were getting dim. His life force was leaving him. I scooped him up to get him out of traffic and put him in the back hatch of my Jeep. I sat stroking his silky fur. His body was perfect, no sign of trauma. He was a buck male with beautiful mahogany colored fur and a little “soul patch” of white fur under his chin. I had no idea what I was going to do with him but I had to get to work.
The next morning I called a man whom I had met from the NH Trapper’s Association to ask who could help me preserve this mink. He said none of the NH trappers skinned their own animals any more; they all brought them to a man in Weare for processing. I was astounded. All these macho trappers just caught their animals—but didn’t clean them? What the hell? He said the man who did the skinning for all of New England was a guy named Harris Ilsley. He explained to me where he lived because, apparently, Mr. Ilsley didn’t believe in using the telephone.
I drove around Weare until I knew I was at the right address. The yard was littered with rusted out trucks in varying degrees of dilapidation. There were numerous wooden buildings in sad states of disrepair with blown out windows and blue tarps over leaking roofs. There were muddy ruts in the leftover snow leading to different shacks. But in all this squalor, rather surprisingly, there were several bird feeders and hives of honeybees, the remnants of a green house and the skeleton of last summer’s vegetable garden.
I parked in the ruts next to what I thought was probably the main house where someone could maybe survive the winter. I walked over rotting porch floor boards up to the door that was leaning on its hinges. I knocked on the door until I noticed it was closed with a screw driver—from the outside—so Mr. Ilsley obviously was not within.
I walked up the lane to an outbuilding and stuck my head inside, calling, “Hullo? Anybody here?” That’s when I noticed all the freezers—and the blood on the floor. I was getting pretty sketched out at this point. I had no idea what Mr. Ilsley would be like—or if he’d be delighted to see me. Just then I remembered that I hadn’t told Tom what I was doing. I called him on his cell phone. I left a voice-mail telling him that if I wasn’t home for dinner it was because I was in a freezer in Weare.
I could feel someone watching me but there wasn’t a sound. I got back in my car and sat for a few minutes. I really did need to do something with this poor mink. I drove out of the yard and across the road to a gas station/convenience store. I asked the guys there if they knew if Mr. Ilsley was home. They shook their heads. They said they hadn’t seen him in over a decade. They also said that if Mr. Ilsley didn’t know me, he wouldn’t come out.
Damn it. I drove back in the yard and got out of my car. I was standing in the sun and now I could really feel someone watching me. I looked around at all the wooden structures until I saw a slight movement. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Standing next to an apple tree was a little Leprechaun. A little man with a pork pie hat who was smoking a curved pipe. He was peering at me intently.
“Mr. Ilsley?” I walked through the snow toward him. He didn’t move. He just kept puffing on his pipe.
I stuck out my hand. “I got your name from the NH Trappers because I have a mink that needs to be skinned.”
His eyes grew wide and he broke into a grin—his teeth looked like a NASCAR checkered flag.
“Oh jesus, deah. I thought you were one of them anti’s.”
He gestured for me to follow him inside a big unpainted building. At this point I was wondering…anti? Anti what? …Anti-choice? Anti-women’s reproductive rights? Where am I right now? Oh…anti-TRAPPING! I get it now, another beleaguered and misunderstood, marginalized group.
When I crossed the threshold into the building, I stood shock still. I felt as though I had crossed over into the early 18th century. When my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, I realized I was standing in a big barn-like workroom that had hundreds and hundreds of fur pelts hanging from hooks from the roof rafters. Coyotes and fox and raccoons. Row upon row of beautiful lush fur pelts.
Along the far wall were stacks of skinned beavers, pink and white carcasses. I only knew they were beavers because of the big flat black tails that were still attached to the bodies, about fifty tails hanging down in the pile. Along side of the beavers were skinned coyote carcasses with their teeth leering menacingly. In front of us were huge round wooden pallets for stretching beaver and otter pelts. The beavers that were already dried were stacked in row after row of round pelts that had been removed from the wooden spheres. At our feet were many more animals—still intact—waiting for Mr. Ilsley. There must have been over a thousand dead animals in this place.
As my eyes became focused in the gloom, I absorbed more of the 18th century I was standing in. There were crates full of discarded entrails and congealed blood inches thick on the floor. Decades of blood. Mr. Ilsley walked over to a small table that had two soda fountain stools in front of it and sat down and re-lit his pipe. He puffed a few times, still eyeing me warily. I’m sure he thought I was from PETA and I was going to scream and douse him with fake blood at any minute.
He asked, “You a midwife?”
“How’d you know that?”
He nodded toward the door, “Your car’s tags.”
“Oh, right!” I grinned. “Yes, actually, you might know the old country doctor who trained me, Doctor Francis Brown from Henniker. He was the one who taught me my trade thirty-seven years ago.” I thought maybe Mr. Ilsley would know Francis as Henniker was the next town over from Weare.
Harris let out a huge belly laugh and slapped his knee. “Doc Brown! He was my mother’s doctor!” He wiped his eyes. “Ain’t thet sumpthin!”
I was in like Flynn.
Now Harris became very animated and talkative. “I remember one time my mother cut her leg and she was bleeding pretty good. Doc Brown made a house call and patched up her leg.” He took a long puff and then continued with his story. “Doc Brown told her if she ever cut her leg again to do this, and then Doc Brown laid on the floor and stuck his leg straight up in the air. Can you imagine a doctor today lying on the floor?!?” Harris was practically yelling at this point he was so excited.
I looked around at the present bloody floor. “Nope, I can’t say I can think of a single doctor who would lie on the floor as a demonstration.”
After this, Harris pretty much didn’t stop talking the entire time I was hanging out with him. He agreed to skin my little boy mink for the hefty fee of $2.00. I sat next to him at the little table as he began skinning my mink. He started at the back foot and cut up toward the tail. He talked the whole time. As he deftly worked with a surprisingly small knife, he told me that he was born in 1930 and grew up on this farm in Weare and had pretty much stayed close to home his whole life. When he was five years old, he had his own laying hens and sold his eggs on the side of the road. Then he started selling worms for bait for fishermen. He raised pigeons to sell the meat as squab.
Harris struggled a bit getting the tail skinned but he finally got it freed and I have a great photo I took of him at that moment with a huge, triumphant smile. He continued his saga. He left school in the eighth grade saying school for him was “poison.” He started fishing and trapping along the local rivers. He learned to skin and care for the pelts very early on.
Next we moved over to a hook that was hanging from a rafter where he slowly pulled my mink inside out. I sat on a little Leprechaun stool next to him. As he worked slicing the fascia and separating skin from muscle, he told me he did a fair amount of “hellin” around in his youth but he never married. He worked hard and supported himself by gathering apple drops all over Weare and pressed them into cider. He kept hives of honeybees and also hunted wild bees for honey. He grew potatoes, collected sap for maple syrup and sold cords of firewood.
Harris put my mink on a ski-shaped drying board with a belly board to prevent the mink from sticking. He sat in front of the board where he “split the tail.” He made sure I watched his technique. He said he skins more animals in a year than most trappers will do in a lifetime. He skins whatever comes in the door. Generally, Harris skins about 3,000 animals a year and about 2,000 of those are beavers.
As the last step he skillfully “pleated” the tail with a dozen push pins. He said most skinners don’t bother to do this but he believes this enhances the grade and gives the pelt a more luxurious “viewing area” as he called the finished product of the fur. Somehow our conversation wandered to Benson’s Wild Animal Farm where we both had nostalgic memories of visiting as children. Harris told me he always had to ride with his teacher when they did the annual field trip to Benson’s as he was famous for getting car sick. He said it was an undisputed fact that if he took the bus, they would have to pull over to the side of the road several times so young Harris could yack.
As I was leaving, Harris said he wanted to show me something. Way in the back recess of the skinning building were dozens of large cardboard boxes. Each box had several exquisitely hand carved songbirds created by Harris. Each bird was lovingly carved and painted to be almost lifelike. I was astounded by their beauty. My favorite was a mother robin with a worm in her mouth feeding the four wide-open, outstretched mouths of her hungry little nestlings.
“How long before my mink is ready to go home?” I asked.
“Oh, it’ll only be about a week, deah.”
I smiled. Good. I get to see Harris again in only seven days.