Where The Buck Stops
GENEVA, Ohio--“There’s a story to them all,” Gene Clemens says, standing in front of about half a dozen deer heads mounted on the wall. He's flipping through a photo album, its pages filled with men in baseball caps and jeans grinning wide next to their lifeless catch.
“He had a little doe mounted for his boy,” Clemens says looking at one photo.
“Oh, this one’s a sad story,” he says, turning the page. “His brother-in-law got killed not long after he picked up his deer.”
“Here’s a deer that got hit by a car on Route 2,” he says of another. “It demolished the car.”
Whatever you think of the morality of hunting, there are many parts of the country where it is a way of life. The mounted wall ornaments in Clemens’ taxidermy shop are not just dead animals. They are rites of passage, trophies, fodder for stories that will be told for years, and probably embellished upon.
Clemens, 65, doesn’t just mount deer or paint fish by hand. He preserves memories: a father and son’s first fishing trip, an annual hunt among buddies, a once in a lifetime catch. For more than 25 years, people have come to Clemens' shop, North Ridge Taxidermy, to create wall mountings that they will hang in their homes for generations.
But lately, fewer have been coming. Preserving game, no matter how memorable the hunt, is becoming a luxury many in this region can’t afford.
Clemens, who also sells high quality boots, says he has seen his business drop by more than a third since the recession began, and customers are now taking longer to pick up their orders than they did in the past. He says he understands.
“How are they going to get something mounted when they can’t afford to pay their house payments or their cars?” he says. “It’s sad.”
Michael and I initially drove past the taxidermy office on our way through Ohio, but we didn’t get far up the road before turning around. We have a rule that has guided us through this summer trip: If we think about something for more than a minute after passing it, we go back. So we turned around and walked into a shop with a stuffed wolverine in the window and asked how business was doing. (The state's unemployment was at 11.2 percent in July, up from 6.7 percent that same month the year before).
“If I was trying to start a business today, I wouldn’t be here,” Clemens tells us. He adds that the days of excess are gone for everyone. “There’s not a lot of anything anymore. There’s only some. So I’m affected just like everyone else.”
Outside the shop's doors, he says, he’s seen a new desperation lead to strange happenings in town. The electric meter was stolen from the church next door, he says, adding that he and others believe those who took it plan to rig it to their house to trick the power company into giving them electricity they can't afford. He's also had two 40-foot aluminum ladders taken from his yard and thinks they were sold for scrap metal. Another time, he says, a man whose SUV broke down not far from the shop was wandering around the area and found a 300-pound air conditioning unit partially buried in an abandoned building. The man unearthed it and was dragging it to his vehicle when authorities stopped him and made him put it back.
“So people are taking some risky measures to try to get ahead, to try to feed their kids,” he says.
Clemens understands it if mounted deer, boar, and largemouth bass don’t make most people's priority list right now. A coyote can cost $1,500 to mount, a bobcat $500 and a fish, $9 an inch.
Still, he says, business is not completely dead (sorry, but I had to). There will always be those who find a way to pay for what they treasure.
Clemens takes Michael and me to a back room, where a foam mold of a boar’s head represents his latest project. He has shaped the eyebrows from clay and put in a glass set of eyes. Plastic makes up the menacing mouth. (He will later stretch the animal's preserved coat over the mold). On a wall nearby are fish that he will airbrush and paint by hand.
“It’s not only trophies,” Clemens says. “You’ve got a little bass on the wall and to someone that means something.”
To that someone, it’s not just a dead fish. Just as to Clemens, the bucks mounted on the wall behind the counter are not just dead deer. They are his prize catch from hunting trips of years past. They are the preserved remains of his memories, fodder for his stories.
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