by Jacob VanHouten
Christmas is a time for keeping many traditions alive. One of my family traditions, passed down from grandfather, to father, to sons, was running a trap line to earn “Christmas money”. In the “early days”, it was one of the few ways a young boy could earn cash to spend to purchase Christmas gifts for family and friends. One of my very early trapping seasons stands out clearly in my mind, even today…
It was mid-December and I was selling the first pelts caught on my own trap line. I think I had caught 20 muskrats or so and two nice raccoons and I was very proud of my catch. My father had shown me how to “do it right” and I had cleaned, skinned, stretched and fleshed each pelt with deliberate care.
Dad drove me to the “Corson Farm”… as in Gaylord Corson, our fur buyer. My grandfather, father, and older brother had all sold their furs to Mr. Corson. He was a legend in my mind.
“Go on,” dad said as I got out of our station wagon, “show him your furs.”
I picked up my bundle and walked towards the garage next to the house and barn. My father stood leaning against the hood of the car, smiling.
“Aren’t you coming?” I asked with some hesitation.
“No, I think I’ll just wait here, you go ahead… it’ll be fine” he said. So I entered through the small side door of the garage.
It was dark inside with a small overhead light bulb hanging from a beam with a pull cord attached. Mr. Corson was standing underneath and he pulled the cord, turning on the light to illuminating the area. I glanced around and saw the shelves and work benches were covered up with furs…hanging from every nail as well. Mr. Corson looked older than the sun with gnarled and wrinkled hands. One finger was missing a small portion above the last knuckle. These were workman’s hands. He had snow-white hair and blue “cowboy eyes” that burned with an intense light.
I walked over and without a word placed my bundle on the workbench and carefully spread out each pelt for display. As I did, I looked out the window expecting to see my Day approaching… but he hadn’t moved.
Mr. Corson studied each pelt. He looked to see that I had been neat around the eye holes and that I had removed the nose, whiskers and all. He brushed the fur back with his fingers and gave a soft breath into it, looking for the “prime” blue color. First he did this with each muskrat pelt, and then he moved on to my true price, the raccoon pelts.
“Well, well, looks like someone got into the ‘coon this year,” was his comment. I froze withheld breath as he picked up the larger of the two pelts.
“This one’s a beauty. Did you skin and stretch him yourself?” he asked.
“Yes sir, I did” was my reply.
“Looks like good work,” he stated.
With that he moved on to the next raccoon pelt… the “sick one.” He said that the pelt was mangy but that he would give me 50 cents for it anyway. I was a little bit disappointed, but I did understand.
“Okay, let’s go into the kitchen and talk business,” he said, and I gave one last hopeful glance out the window only to see Dad still standing in the same spot, smoking a Chesterfield cigarette.
I was on my own.
After leading me into the house through the garage’s side door, Mr. Corson sat down at a small kitchen table, opened a large green-colored leather bound ledger, and began writing very slowly. “Can I see your trapping license?” he asked.
I dug into the pouch of my red hooded sweat shirt and produced the crumpled document. He copied down my name, address, date of birth and license number. Then he entered into one of the last two columns the number and kinds of pelts, and then he wrote a dollar amount in the last column. I couldn’t quite make out what the numbers were, but the total looked “big” to me. I waited for him to finish, and as he did, he took out another book that looked like a fold-over file.
It was the first time I had seen a real business checkbook.
“Well son, you put up some mighty fine fur and I am proud of the care you’ve shown in handling it properly,” he said while looking me straight in the eyes. He was talking to me as if I was his equal, somehow, and I had to look him right back in his eyes.
“Fur prices are low this year,” he started with as he began writing out the check with his red ink pen. “But I’m going to give you top dollar for what you brought in today.”
He finished, carefully tearing the check from the book and handing it across the table. “Merry Christmas,” he said with a grin.
It was the first check ever written to “me”. “Thank you, sir!” was all I could blurt out. Then he reached across the table and held out his hand. “Keep up the good work… and hopefully I’ll see you again next year.” I shook his big hand with my smile so big it made my cheeks hurt.
As I stepped outside I found my Dad standing near the door, waiting for me. “Well, how’d it go?”
I handed him the check.
“It looks like we’ve got some banking to do,” he said with a slight smile.
As we turned to go, I noticed my dad give a little wink and a wave towards the farmhouse. Mr. Corson stood in front of the big picture window, and he was smiling too.
Each year thereafter, I looked forward to selling my fur to Mr. Corson. He always looked me in the eye, wrote the check in red ink, and always said, “Merry Christmas.”
After a few more years, Mr. Corson grew too old to keep up his farm. He leased for a while, but then sold off most the land, but he did continue to buy fur for a time.
But then one year he just stopped.
Although I went on to college, got married and moved away, I still “put up some fur” now and then just to keep at it. Trapping teaches many skills and I use what I learned every day in my current career.
Whenever I return to my hometown, I make it a point to drive by the old barn that stands there still… with the name “Corson Farm” long-since faded from view… all that’s left of the place, now surrounded by multi-family homes and strip malls.
As we drive by, I always comment to my wife, “That’s where Gaylord Corson lived. He was a fur buyer.”
Thinking to myself, I add, “Thanks Mr. Corson… and Merry Christmas.”