- Tom Stafford Staff Writer
The rattler under the chair. The spider in the air. The salmon in the pipeline. The buffalo that terrorized Catawba. The dead lion at the front door. The alligator behind the stove.
As someone who first dabbled in taxidermy at age 11, 81-year-old Bob Anderson knows better than anyone that it’s a laborious and taxing undertaking.
But in the course of all that hard work over all those years — the past 23 years full time — he has collected some stories that are themselves worth preserving and mounting on a wall.
We’ll get to them presently, but first, Anderson’s own story.
It starts during the Depression, when his parents’ business failures made it necessary for Anderson and his brothers and sisters to spend summers on their grandfather and uncle and aunt’s farm not far from Washington Court House.
“They had every animal you could have — plus chickens, turkeys, duck, geese and guinea,” he recalled in the taxidermy building behind his home on Collier Road south of Springfield.
“One day, I asked my aunt for a piece of paper and pencil and started drawing every living thing they had. I spent hours just watching and studying them.”
Hundreds of sketches later, he felt a connection with the animals.
At age 11, with the Depression behind and the family on the land they bought on Collier Road, young Bob shot his first rabbit, and wanted to do something to preserve the fur and the memory.
After failing miserably, he resolved to learn to do it right and spotted an ad in a magazine for a correspondence course, earning the money by trapping animals.
Against his mother’s advice to buy the lessons one at a time, he mailed in $10 for the entire 10-lesson course, but after three lessons, found the company asking for more payment.
Still, Anderson had a start and soon supplemented his education with a book in the ’40s and a magazine subscription in the early ’50s.
So-called hand-wrap mounting was the easiest and simplest and gave him a start with coyotes and foxes and then fish, his skills improving enough to land steady business from the roughly 10 aunts and uncles on the two sides of his family.
During a stint in the Army served in Germany, he did a little more taxidermy, then returned home to the construction work he’d helped his dad with since age 14 — the taxidermy helping with cash flow during the winter months when construction shut down.
He officially started his business in 1959, the year he married Carol, his wife of 67 years, and joined a construction union so he could work closer to home and have time for taxidermy in the evenings.
Anderson soon was annually mounting 15 to 20 small animals, 150 to 200 fish and 100 birds, geese, ducks and wild pheasants, the latter of which were soon to disappear from Ohio. The Borax he used to disinfect and dry the animal skins also helped to dry and clean feathers so they’d not mold after mounting.
In the coming decades, his business slowly but steadily grew as white-tailed deer first appeared, then began to flourish in Ohio grain country.
His first deer project was something of an experiment.
“I had no idea how to mount it,” he said, but finally decided to use the skull and horns, mount them on a wall plaque, fill the form with straw and use river clay to shape the sculpture that would hold the fur.
Eight years later, a book he came across advised readers to use the very procedure he’d followed.
Over the years, he’s seen fads come and go.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, there was a time “when everybody wanted a rooster and hen in their kitchen,” Anderson recalled. “I’d mount the rooster on a fence post and (the hen) would be in a nesting box.”
But during the 1970s and ‘80s, the deer mounts began to take over the business, to the point that Anderson eventually found himself with an 18-month backlog. As the ’90s arrived, he went to his first taxidermy show, entering a full-sized deer in the competition, and felt so beat down by a judge’s comments that he thought he’d never return.
Then the president of the organization offered encouragement, as did the fact that, despite his poor review, Anderson received nine orders for full-sized deer because of the work the judge hadn’t liked.
He soon was involved in two Ohio taxidermy organizations, which later merged. Anderson was also inducted into the Ohio Taxidermists Hall of Fame in 2014.
Learning more about his craft at each show and with more business coming his way, Anderson — after prayer and worry — decided to quit his construction job at Christmas of 1993 to do taxidermy full time.
Just as he’s seen species come and go from Ohio, he’s seen new techniques develop. The rag-stuffed figures of his early days gave way to the earliest paper forms that could be purchased. Two generations of paper forms gave way to the current Styrofoam models that can be ordered to size by taking key measurements, arriving as tailor-made forms.
More constant has been Anderson’s appreciation of the patience his wife and daughter have shown on nights when family plans were canceled because of what a customer dragged in.
Although he has loved his career, the constant demands of the job are something he’ll not miss. With the new freedom he has, he plans to continue something he’s already started — rendering in oils and acrylics the animals he sketched so many years ago and mounted for so many more.
Here are some of the stories from Anderson’s storied career.
The Rattler Under the Chair: Coming home from his construction job one day, Anderson found his wife cooking supper and sat in a chair by the door to take off his shoes. “As I leaned down to put them under there chair, there was a timber rattler, coiled (and with its) mouth open. In a split second I ‘destroyed’ the kitchen table and everything on it, and my wife was rolling in laughter. A neighbor boy had brought it and it was just stiff enough to pose.”
The Spider in the Air: “I mounted a woods spider about the size of a silver dollar. I painted it and took thread from nylon hose and hung (it) on two pulleys over by the door.” When his mother came in, he asked her to look out through the door to the garden while dangling the spider in front of her. She smashed it with both hands, said “Oh, my, what have I done?” Her son answered: “Mom, you just ended four hours of work.”
The Salmon in the Pipeline: “I came home and there was a 110-pound King Salmon at my shop door, about 50-inches long — no name and no information. Fed Ex had delivered it (and) it had started to defrost. (Taking off time from work) I got it skinned and ready to mount and still did not hear from anyone. I mounted it and it hung in my shop for almost three years. One day the customer came in and asked if I had his salmon. His dad was supposed to call me and tell me he was working in Alaska on the (oil) pipeline. He was very pleased with his mount.”
The Buffalo that Terrorized Catawba: One evening a truck came in driven by Harvey Haddix (the former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher). He had a 900-pound buffalo in his trailer. He wanted to have it mounted. He said he shot it at Catawba. (Nationally known entertainer) Arthur Godfrey had sent a truck load of longhorn steers to Gale Locke, a farmer in Catawba. When the last steer came out there was also a male and female buffalo Arthur had sent to Gale as a joke. The bull never stopped — it went full speed ahead through back yards, clotheslines with clothes wrapped around his horns. Harvey chased it eight miles in his Cadillac, finally caught up with the bull and put him down. In doing so, he destroyed his Cadillac. I mounted that buffalo as a shoulder mount. It was the first of several buffalo I have done.”
The Dead Lion at the Front Door: “One evening I came home from work and there was an African female lion, Sheba (the famous lion in the Barnum & Bailey Circus) in front of my shop door. She died on the train in Jamestown (and) the chief of police brought her up to me to make a rug out of her. Needless to say, I had to take off the next day of work. I worked all night and into the next day on her.”
The Alligator Behind the Stove: “A couple brought in a 4-foot alligator for me to mount. After they left, I picked the alligator up and it moved! I put it on a blanket behind the stove and he soon began walking out. They came back and picked him up. Two years later, he did die and I mounted it and took it (to a) competition. It was one of the biggest wins for me in my career … first place for alligator, first place for habitat, People’s Choice, Judges’ Choice and Taxidermist’s Choice.”