Earl Wolfe may owe his successful, 50-year career as a professional master taxidermist to some momentary mischief as a schoolboy.
“I was screwing around in assembly hall,” the well-preserved, 74-year-old Wolfe recalls.
This was at Lake High School in 1947, not far from his home hamlet of Latcha in northern Wood County.
Wolfe's biology teacher, the late Ralph M. Benard, who proved to be a pivotal figure, was supervising the hall. He had in his possession the carcass of a ferret, a member of the weasel family, and he decided to put it to good use with the wayward youth.
“It was either mount the ferret or get three swats.” The taxidermist, who observes half a century in business this year, opted for mounting the ferret. He still has it, 55 years later.
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In five decades in business he has mounted at least 5,000 deer heads. “I like to do deer and wild turkeys.” And he doesn't even count the number of fish mounts - bass, walleye and crappies are favorites. His simple fish estimate is, “oh, tons ... tons.
“A couple of years ago I mounted a Chinese snakehead fish.” The snakehead, a commercial import favored by Asian customers, now is considered a biohazard to native American fish species if released in the wild.
All of which hints that Wolfe has had a fascinating career addressing the wants of customers.
His most unusual mount? “I mounted a kangaroo with a zipper.”
Some customer had a pet wallaby, a small member of the kangaroo family, and on its death wanted to preserve it.
“He wanted a zipper [on the pouch] and he wanted the [body] cavity hollow. I have no idea what he put inside.
“I also once mounted 12 black squirrels, side by side.” In various rude and crude poses, as requested.
Wolfe's crowded shop, known for years as Oregon Taxidermy Art, is a converted attached garage at his home in Oregon. It contains a menagerie of mounts - a Ross' goose, a piebald red fox [mostly white with reddish-brown streaks], a gorgeous Lady Amherst pheasant [rare for here], oldsquaw or long-tailed ducks, an armadillo, a small anaconda snake native to South America, and a host of wild turkeys and white-tailed bucks.
Largemouth bass, walleye, crappie and more glisten and seem live, but frozen in motion and time.
There also is a small rattlesnake, embalmed and preserved forever in clear “bioplastic.” The snake lies, coiled on a gravel base, within the solid plastic. “It'll be there for eternity.”
On the floor, awaiting preparation for mounting, lies the head and cape of an American bison, or buffalo, taken by an area hunter on a ranch in Colorado.
Considered a master taxidermist, Wolfe's shop walls are lined with ribbons, certificates and shelves of trophies from various taxidermy competitions. Not to mention licenses and diplomas.
Wolfe, however, downplays the honors, preferring to talk about the people he has met.
In a way, the taxidermist is a philosopher, saying he merely is the sum of the people he's known. “Anytime you meet anyone you try to learn something.
“I worked many years with the Toledo Zoo. I helped skin Elmer the giraffe.” The taxidermist said that the late Dan Danford, curator of mammals, had the deceased giraffe's hide tanned, as was customary at the time. “They tanned some big cats too.”
Wolfe actually has had two professional careers, which went together like bacon and eggs. In addition to his taxidermy, Wolfe was a high school biology teacher, the last 22 years at Bowsher High School till he retired from teaching in 1985. He also has taught the mounting trade to two generations of younger taxidermists.
“I supplied my [high school] students with brains, eyes, tendons and ticks,” Wolfe notes, explaining their value in learning anatomy. The school administration was happy, he added, because it saved them money on pickled animals for biology labs.
After the ferret experience as a schoolboy, he began to visit taxidermists in Toledo, such as the late Richard Ost. Teacher Benard took him to Bowling Green State University and introduced him to the late, great naturalist, Edwin Lincoln Moseley.
While at BG, he adds, “I used to plant tulip bulbs with the president of the university, [the late] Dr. Frank Prout.” At BGSU Wolfe helped mount two falcons, the university mascot. “They're still there, somewhere.”
His all-time hero as a model and mentor, however, was the world-class taxidermist Harold Frahm of Detroit. A native of Finland and head taxidermist of a major museum there, Frahm was Wolfe's wonderman.
“He could carve a beaver tail out of balsa wood in an hour that would look better than the real thing.
“He was the Einstein of taxidermists 40 years ago, way ahead of his time. To me he was right with Moses.”
The Finn's attention to details was incredible, Wolfe said. “He talked about the symmetry of the eyes on a buck, the maseter muscles in a bear's jaw ... Frahm also introduced Wolfe to taxidermy conventions, which he still attends annually to learn even more about the art of mounting animals. (Don't call it “stuffing” animals, unless you want to taste a mild dose of German temper).
Over the decades the basics of taxidermy have changed little, Wolfe says. But preservative chemicals are much improved and safer, there are better skeletal forms on which to apply the preserved capes, and better eyes. “And the artwork has come 100 percent further.”
But, he adds, “The thing I like best about taxidermy is I like people. Every person is another source of information. I actually spend too much time talking with people.”
Oh, and he doesn't hunt or fish. “Never, never.
“I taught biology and I tried to live in a world in close association with it.”
For proof, look no further than his deep backyard. It is a veritable arboretum, complete with grafted English walnut trees, and plots of flowers interspersed with bird-feeding stations.
“But I don't like squirrels,” he said. “They eat all my English walnuts.”