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Trophy-seeking hunters keep Greenwood taxidermist busy

April 6, 2009

The late winter sun has yet to rise, but brothers Charlie and Mark Masheck already are hard at work inside a sprawling cabin along Matthews Road outside Greenwood, setting up for the day.

A painted sign out front reads Hoosier Trapper Supply Inc., but the rustic shop also houses the brothers' other endeavor: Leatherwood Wildlife Art, a full taxidermy service.

Much of the showroom floor—not to mention its walls and ceiling—is lined with preserved animal hides and mounted heads. Long shoulder mounts of antlered animals surround displays of carnivorous mammals in frozen pursuit.

A 6-foot-tall log cabin in the middle of the room is covered with raccoons and foxes, and a black bear peers in a window. But the avid sportsmen observing this tableau aren't reaching for a weapon.

"There's nothing that moves very quickly around here," jokes Charlie Masheck, 51.

Despite the apparent carnage, the shop smells more like a wintry garage than an autopsy suite. Chalk that up to climate control and the brothers' use of salt and an all-natural tanning process to cure the animal hides.

A lifelong trapper himself, Charlie opened Hoosier Trapper in 1976 to sell supplies to other fans of the sport, eventually developing his own line of trapping scents sold under the Leatherwood Creek brand. Mark, 44, came on board in 1995 to help launch the taxidermy business.

They spent five years studying the craft, familiarizing themselves with common techniques as well as the anatomy of a variety of animals. In addition to preserving and mounting deer and raccoons for local hunters, Leatherwood also handles larger animals that hunters bring in from out of state.

The most memorable mount: a life-size American buffalo for the customer's home.

Experienced hunters often skin their prey and clean and salt the hide before handing it over to the Mashecks, who tan the skin before stretching it over a foam mold. Salt tightens the hides and keeps the fur from falling out; it also helps the skins dry quickly and evenly. Leatherwood also can handle the whole process, if the hunter prefers.

The display room is impressive, but the real work takes place next door, where employees work with animal forms made by filling casting molds with polyurethane foam. Leatherwood orders the molds for each animal, using detailed measurements from the hide. The result looks much like a store mannequin.

On this day, Mark Masheck scrapes the sides of a newly molded deer head form with a wire brush, scoring the sleek surface so the glue he'll apply next will take hold—and keep the hide from shifting or sliding off later. Once the glue is down, he puts the glass eyes in place before meticulously pulling the skin over the form, giving it shape. Overhead, tagged antlers hang from the support beams until they are mounted.

As Leatherwood's full name implies, taxidermy is as much art as trade. Craftsmen like the Mashecks essentially rebuild the animals, largely with man-made materials. Eyes—specific to the game in question—are made of glass. Teeth and tongues likewise are manufactured. Only the skin and antlers are real.

"It's a time-saving issue," Charlie explains. "We want to make [the animals] as lifelike as possible. That's the whole idea."

Leatherwood Wildlife Art stays busy year-round, although Charlie still finds time to indulge in some trapping of his own, often with the help of his 13-year-old son.

He declined to share the taxidermy shop's annual revenue figures, but Charlie said the shop mounts about 200 deer heads a year. At $450 a head, that adds up. The brothers and a handful of part-time employees work six-day weeks year-round, and during deer season stay busy for 11 or 12 hours at a stretch, handling as many as six animals each day.

Most skins take about eight hours to finish, but the process—from skinning and tanning to the final display mount—stretches over three weeks.

Families trickle in and out of the shop, some buying small game traps, books or instructional videos. Others bring their children to look at and even touch the animals in the long display room.

The doors between the showroom and the workshop are always open, allowing visitors to observe the taxidermy process. Hunters especially like getting a firsthand view of how their prize will be taken care of, Charlie said.

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