ST. ALBANS — Milton resident Ed Poirier handed the white trash bag filled with antlers and innards to Steve Bushey, and told Bushey the story of how he bagged that huge, 11-point buck out in Kentucky, in early November.
Bushey is used to this by now — and he loves it.
“This is the crazy time of year, but it’s the great time of year,” said Bushey, owner of Top of The Knoll Taxidermy, in St. Albans.
Indeed, the days are a bit nutty right now for Bushey and the 40-plus other taxidermists scattered throughout Vermont. A unique hybrid of artist, mortician and gamesmen, taxidermists working in Vermont are just as vital as hunters to the state’s $260 million hunting economy.
“I haven’t slowed down one bit since I opened,” Bushey said.
With blessing from his wife, Carrie, Bushey opened Top of the Knoll in 2013. His 1,300-square-foot shop sits beside his Bronson Road home, atop a steep driveway.
Bushey averages 140 pieces a year and, in just three years, he has seen a profit. Deer are number one in quantity at Top of the Knoll; ducks and geese fall second, while turkeys, black bears and other animals account for the rest.
Most of Bushey’s work is from in-state hunters, but most of his large-game pieces are from outside Vermont. He will not accept domestic or farm animals, or reptiles, mainly because the latter is too technically demanding for the time they require, he said.
“A lot of the fun is hearing the hunters’ stories — getting a good laugh and hearing about their adventures,” Bushey said. “And then being able to bring that moment and experience back to life for them — it’s really fun.”
Bushey is a year out on turnaround of his pieces, but his clients accept that, because they understand that his artistry requires patience, diligence, attention to detail, plenty of creative space and a mastery of sewing.
Every taxidermist’s work is complicated, Bushey explained, but generally speaking, they all perform the same basic steps. For example, with a mounted deer head — the most popular piece in Vermont — they take measurements, remove the hide and skull cap, boil any red meat off the antlers, and store the hide until they start the piece.
They then salt, tan and stretch the hide, so that it fits over a foam form and most closely resembles what the hunter bagged initially.
“Then there’s the sewing,” Bushey said. “There is more sewing here than you would believe.”
Bushey, 42, graduated from Bellows-Free Academy St. Albans in 1993 and spent more than 20 years working in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry. He also spent time in the U.S. Army.
He is an avid, lifelong hunter, and is happy to apply that passion to self-employment. As with all other taxidermists in Vermont, his business is based at home.
To learn more about the trade, Bushey sought mentorship from Jim Williams, of the former Williams Taxidermy in Milton. Many of Vermont’s taxidermists are self-taught, while others, such as Joe Bishop, owner of Joe’s Taxidermy in Wethersfield, have received more formal training through The American Institute of Taxidermy.
The website for Joe’s Taxidermy also provides evidence for how the Internet has allowed taxidermists to expose their work to a wider audience, while growing their business and profile in the process.
Joe’s Taxidermy, Gameheads’ Limited (in Shrewsbury) and Bragg’s Taxidermy (in Middlebury) post galleries, pricing options, testimonials and their own personal stories on their websites.
The home page of the Bragg’s Taxidermy website features a photo of owner Ernie “Butch” Bragg, posing with a mounted deer head and two blue ribbons he won for it at the 2005 New England Association of Taxidermists’ competition.
A close friend taught Bragg how to mount his own whitetail deer in the early 1990s. He became a hobbyist in 1997, after attending a two-day taxidermy workshop in Albany, N.Y.
“From then on, I’ve been hooked on taxidermy,” Bragg says in an interview posted on his website.
For Kevin Parah, the bug bit sooner. As a child, Parah told his father, Arnold, that he was going to be a taxidermist.
Also a lifelong outdoorsman, Parah dabbled in taxidermy while he was still a student at Missisquoi Valley Union High School. He opened Kevin’s Taxidermy two years after graduation, and is in his thirty-fifth year of business at his Middle Road home in Swanton.
“It started as a hobby,” Parah said. “It turned into a job.”
Parah has finished about 6,000 deer in three-plus decades. He now averages 300 to 400 deer a year, along with all the other requests that come through his door, such as this year’s black wolf, or the coyote with a squirrel in its mouth. Parah promises an eight-month turnaround on his work.
“Hunters’ stories are unique, compared to everyone else’s stories,” Parah said. “It’s nice to see their faces when the work is done. It’s like a new beginning for the deer, and you’re kind of bringing it back to life for them.”
Parah hunts with his son, Chad, 27. Parah’s wife, Anita, has supported Parah throughout his career, but Parah is 57 now. In six or seven years, he will cut back his schedule.
Yet he will not retire, nor sell his business, and perhaps for the same reasons as his dozens of colleagues across the state.
“I could never look for a buyer, and I don’t know how any taxidermist could,” Parah said. “People hire you and pay you for your work, not someone else’s. How could I guarantee my own personal work if I sell this?”