column By: Terry Wieland | July, 19
Eighty miles west of St. Louis on the Missouri River is the hamlet of Rhineland, perched a few feet above a flood plain which, when not under water, is beautiful farmland. It was settled a couple of centuries ago by German immigrants, who brought many facets of their culture with them.
Outside Rhineland, you can turn onto a secondary highway that takes you into the hills and bluffs that line the Missouri. This leads to the even smaller village of Starkenburg, which is distinguished by a gray stone church that gazes out onto wooded valleys in every direction. This country is not unlike the Black Forest in Germany, or the Rhineland itself, which probably accounts for the name.
German immigrants, whether in Pennsylvania, Texas or Missouri, always transplanted their most cherished traditions, which include hunting, shooting, rifles and – not least of all – mythology. Closely connected with hunting and mythology is a penchant for keeping trophies of the chase. These take many forms. One that I had never seen before the first time I drove up County Road P from Rhineland was the impaling of giant catfish on fence posts.
One fence that skirted the road, turned and followed it up a hill, had every post – I counted 23 of them – adorned with the carcass of a catfish. Some had obviously been caught in the Missouri weeks or months earlier; others might have been snagged that morning. One had been reduced to a skeleton by weather and scavenging birds, and all that remained was its skull, jawbone and spine. These trophies might have been placed there to celebrate the farmer’s fishing prowess or to ward off “evil spirits.” Either way, it seemed an atavistic gesture curiously at odds with the Gothic beauty of St. Martin’s Church (est. 1875 AD) a few miles up the road.
At the other end of the trophy-taking scale, I would offer a Hapsburg palace in Innsbruck, Austria. It was hardly a palace by the standards of Versailles, and more a glorified hunting lodge, but a hunting lodge to an emperor is a palace to someone like me, so that may account for it. In two long rooms, the upper walls were lined from end to end with red-stag antlers collected over the centuries by the Hapsburg rulers of Austria-Hungary.
The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 sparked the Great War, was a devoted, almost obsessive hunter who reputedly shot some 5,000 red stags during his lifetime. How many of those I saw in Innsbruck fell to his rifle, I couldn’t say. Each rack, however, had a tiny engraved plaque with a short inscription in German and the date it was taken. Some were beyond spectacular as only serious red-stag antlers can be, with multiple beams and many-tined crowns. The main beams on some were as big around as my arm.
These were all what are now known as “European” mounts. This is usually the upper half of the skull, bleached and attached to a plaque, but that’s more modern stylization. Most of those I saw in Innsbruck had just a small part of the skull plate but were mounted in such a way that the antlers seemed to grow out of the wall. I have seen other mounts where the antlers were attached to an elaborately carved wooden stag’s head, and some of these have seemed very elegant. Others have resembled the eroded gargoyles seen on the stone walls of ancient castles and cathedrals.
Only recently have European mounts caught on in North America. Our usual approach is the mounted head complete, looking as lifelike as possible. If we used to find European mounts stark to the point of being gruesome, Europeans found the mounted heads that graced American trophy rooms to be too much like a natural history museum – and full-body mounts doubly so.
Also, poor taxidermy can be absolutely grotesque, with heads that do not even faintly resemble the live animal. Shoulder mounts from a century ago, when tanning techniques were perishable and “stuffed” heads really were stuffed, can look horrible today, with noses dried and cracked and straw leaking from shrunken seams. A properly done European mount, on the other hand, can and does last for centuries, as long as it is kept out of reach of porcupines.
Another consideration is that Europeans believe that every set of horns and antlers, regardless of size, should be mounted and kept for posterity as a tribute to the animal. Over the centuries, these can pile up. I have seen foyers of small inns in Austria, Germany and parts of Spain where the horns of roe deer or the tusks of wild boar cover entire walls, with some of the plaques dating back a century or more. This is possible with European mounts, which are relatively compact, whereas with mounted heads you very quickly run out of room.
In between the grandeur of the Hapsburg hunting lodge and the catfish-on-Missouri-fencepost approach, there is the age-old custom of nailing antlers up over the garage door. For that matter, they can be found on almost any farm outbuilding, but for some reason garages seem the most popular. There are elk antlers in Montana, moose in British Columbia and whitetails just about everywhere. Whether this is because the proud owner wants every passerby to see them, or because his wife objects to having them in the house, is impossible to say. Possibly both.
While some trophy rooms are tastefully arranged with the animals not crowded together, others are overwhelming, with every square inch of wall holding an animal part of some kind. By comparison, a single set of weathered antlers nailed up over the garage door, white with age or, in some cases, overgrown with moss, are very attractive in an atavistic sort of way. Their individual significance may have been forgotten long ago, but the simple connection of man and nature is still symbolized for anyone who looks at them.
Photos still exist of “soddies” on the Great Plains, the roofs of which were covered with skulls and antlers. Every time the inhabitant came upon an elk shed or a skull, he’d carry it home and toss it up on the roof. Exactly what the purpose was, I have no idea, unless it was to help bind the sod roof together or deter critters from trying to claw their way through. It may have been purely decorative, or perhaps there was some superstition attached.
Many, many years ago I saw the skull of a small African antelope, adorned with stalks of grass, used as the centerpiece for a dining room table setting. This was in a showroom window of the most expensive furniture store in the most expensive part of Toronto, Ontario, my nominee for antihunting capital of the world. The interior decorator who created that centerpiece certainly had nerve to offer it for sale there but, as I remember, it sold in a very short time for a considerable sum of money.
It seems the sight of a bleached and weathered skull awakens some sort of tribal instinct in even the most effete city dweller. It also goes a long way toward explaining that long line of fenceposts bearing the skulls and spines of Missouri River catfish.