Bidding farewell to New Hampshire's renowned "Skinner"

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “Yankee” is defined as "a nickname for a native or inhabitant of New England, or, more widely, of the northern States generally".

When it comes to the embodiment of the rural New England yankee persona - ol’ Harris Ilsley, of Weare, New Hampshire, was pure quill.

Harris Ilsley sits content with his pipe. (Photo | J. Leibrandt)

I was a novice fur trapper when I first set foot on the Ilsley property; a series of stone white farm buildings stood amongst the overgrown weeds as if the structures hadn’t been touched in decades. Outside on the steps of the middle building known as “the shop” lay a screen basket containing a small assortment critter parts - a sure sign we were at the right place. The flies covering the basket’s remnants shimmered in the early fall sun. Months earlier, a good friend had convinced me that if I was truly serious about this whole “fur trapping thing”, I’d have to meet the local “skinner”. So here we were, wandering the property and calling out Harris’ name as our voices reverberated off the hollow farmhouse and outbuildings.

Harris Ilsley had long since hung up his steel traps. Nowadays, he made a decent living handling the fur of other trappers who didn’t have time (or the patience) to process their own catches. Harris had no website, no business cards, no signage outside his old farm property - just an old man with a strong reputation of being unmatched in skill with a skinning knife. Word of mouth traveled near and far about the “local skinner” who prepared valuable fur pelts for the market.

My friend and I finally found our way through the maze of freezers and trapping memorabilia through another door that led into Harris’ shop. “Harris, you in here?” my friend touted from the doorway. The shop in front of us rested wall to wall with soot-covered cobwebs and drying animal hides. A small man peeked through two prime coyote hides which hung like cattle quarters in a meat locker.

Harris greeted us with a nod and responded to my friend’s call with an abrupt New Hampshire native “a’yuh”. The small man sauntered through the pelts to a table next to a wood-stove, donned in a yellow button-down collared shirt and a fedora - an appearance I would come to later regard as a staple for Harris. With a few taps of a corncob pipe, Harris packed the chamber with fresh tobacco, struck a match, leaned back in his chair, and looked back at us, as if sizing us up for an in depth conversation on life. This would also be later known as a true Harris trait - the entrance of visitors meant a break from the work of processing hides and time for a puff of the pipe, a log on the fire, and a lighthearted conversation.

Harris’ reputation traveled so well that a large chunk of his business came from the damage control trappers across the border in Massachusetts; who would truck up loads of trapped beaver in the round for Harris to process, skin, flesh, stretch and dry. Those Mass boys were making money hand over fist on nuisance beaver control work in the shadow of heavy trapping restrictions years earlier, which prompted a decline in fur trappers and a spike in beaver issues. For the small fee Harris collected to put up the beaver pelts into sellable goods, the drive north was clearly well worth the trouble. It wasn’t just trappers who went searching out Harris’ craft either; I recall one late fall afternoon sauntering into Harris’ shop as he lay heavy work into a moose hide for a local hunter. Even average citizens would bring dead critters peeled fresh from the roadways into Harris’ shop in hopes of returning weeks later for a processed souvenir pelt.

Rural New Hampshire means business!

Harris Ilsley grew up living the rural New Hampshire lifestyle. Born in 1930, Harris worked hard on his family’s farm in southern NH, laboring over all those chores that need doing on a self sufficient farm. He quit school at grade 8, and worked at pursuing a robust assortment of small-town business ventures. At age five he had his own laying hens, and would sell his eggs right along with the family business on the roadside of the highway that cut through the farmland. He dug worms out of the manure piles to sell to the local fishermen, which he advertised as “mud worms”. He dug hundreds of porcupines out of the ledges of New Hampshire for the 50-cent bounty paid by the state. He raised pigeons to sell for pets or meat as squab. He picked up apple drops all over town and pressed them into cider. He kept hives of honeybees at various properties around town and hunted wild bees for honey.

Harris sits in his shop with a collection of put-up fur. (Photo | J. Leibrandt)

Early on, one of his main responsibilities on the family farm was to keep the vermin under control. When it came to furbearers like skunks and raccoons going after the family chickens, Harris became exposed to the art of trapping. He learned how to skin and care for the pelts of trapped critters, selling the processed hides to Sears and Robuck. When raccoon pelts were in demand, Harris convinced the local coon hunters to leave their catches with him for processing; in return, Harris would collect on half the profits. By the late 1960’s, Harris had established a fixed price to skin raccoons at $3 and immediately started skinning about 1,000 of the furry bandits.

By the 2000’s, Harris estimated he’d skin about 3,000 animals a year, with about 1,500 to 2,000 of those being beavers. He had no need to brag or embellish either - as every critter dropped off was marked down in Harris’ ledger; a small bound journal he kept next to the knife sharpener to keep tabs on who owed him what. Harris’ fixed prices for skinning from the 60’s had never been raised in the 40 years he handled fur. “I get faster every year and would like to challenge the trappers to try and swamp me,” he confided.

I had acquired a small cache of critters to offer Harris, and being limited on funds myself, was unsure what to expect. Part of my catch that first year included two roadkill Fisher, which I wanted to keep for myself rather than sell in the fur auctions. Typically, the feet and claws of furbearers were discarded with the bones - so I needed to request Harris “keep the feet on” with the hide. “That’ll cost you extra” Harris replied confidently to my request. I figured I was in for a financial hosing; here it was, the “extra costs” associated with fur handling. “How much extra?” I inquired. Harris sat back in his chair, chewed a bit on his pipe, and after what seemed like an eternity, he came back with a response. “Bout a dollar” he replied. I chuckled warmly inside - surely, I could part with a dollar for keeping the feet and claws on my Fisher hides. With that, my name and catch were etched into Harris’ little black book, and my business cards were affixed to the carcasses so as not to get mixed up with the others dropped off by other trappers. I swear, there were times in Ilsley’s shop where there wasn’t a square inch of concrete floor exposed - due to the high volume of furbearers dropped off from as far away as Massachusetts and Vermont.

The simple Things in life…

The next few trapping seasons were filled with robust education and insight in Harris’ shop. Sometimes I’d show up to drop off my week’s catch. Other times, I’d just stop in to hear the infinite wisdom Harris had to share resulting from a life filled with all the little things modern society seems to pass by. Harris always looked forward to taking a break from the nonstop skinning and stretching, to kick back in his chair next to the wood stove and do more gnawing on his tobacco pipe than he did actual smoking of it. For a man that seldom left his own property for 80 years, he had gathered quite a bit of insight on life, happiness, and current events. We talked about fluctuations in rat populations, the EPA, societal trends, and the way things “used to be”.

Harris works away on a beaver hide. (Photo | J. Leibrandt)

Given that he rarely ventured far from the family property, Harris managed many accomplishments around his fur handling and local lore. He was inducted into the NH Trappers Association Hall of Fame in 2000, a regular stop-in by the local game wardens and Fish & Game staff, and even managed a three-page spread in New Hampshire Magazine - complete with professional photography and a hefty interview! We chuckled over his new-found celebrity status.

I always wanted to somehow document Harris’ way of life myself, but in the same respect, didn’t want to impose and disrupt the atmosphere amid the company we kept. Some things are just best left experienced in the moment rather than physically documented, and in the absence of “taking selfies” with ol’ Harris, I opted to introduce my friends and family to his tales and lifestyle so they could create memories of their own.

My wife (girlfriend at the time) was enthralled with his intricate wooden bird carvings, which he whittled with detail in the August “off-season”. His birds were, at times, more renowned than his fur handling; and he ended up dedicating one of his outbuildings specifically for his carved masterpieces. I once inquired if any of the birds were for sale - in hopes of owning a piece of local history. You would’ve thought I asked him to sell one of his children, and in true Harris fashion, his birds were a labor of love and personal interest rather than for monetary venture.

If there was anything that would possibly be more important than his carved birds, it would’ve been his honey bees - which Harris tended to and protected emphatically. In the heat of the summer, you could sometimes drive by the Ilsley property and catch a glimpse of ol’ Harris tending to the garden, doting over his honey bees, or nestled down on a milk crate with pipe in hand soaking the warm summer sun.

A few years went by before I decided it was time to learn how to skin and process my own hides and trap catches - and so the visits to Harris’ shop grew less and less. I still tried to stop in at least once a season to catch up and have a meaningful chat by the ol’ wood-stove amongst the drying hides. A couple years ago, Harris decided it was time to pack in the skinning business and stopped taking on fur processing. Last week, at the fulfilling age of 89, Harris Ilsley passed away after a brief illness, and with him goes a lasting legacy and another rare embodiment of a die-hard rural New Hampshire yankee.

Calling hours for Harris will held at French & Rising funeral home in Goffstown, NH on Wednesday October 2nd, followed by service at Pine Grove Cemetery in Weare. Harris’ full obituary can be read here.

An extensive synopsis of Harris’ biography via the NH Trappers Association, can also be read here.

In 2014, the NH Fish & Game Department featured a short video on the antics of ol’ Harris Ilsley, which is posted below.

Meet Harris Ilsley, a long time New Hampshire trapper and skinner.