Country Girl in the City

Late autumn to early winter is the time for turning those naughty teenaged ram lambs into tasty lamb chops—part of the continually turning cycle of life on the farm. And each year, we’ve watched those beautiful lamb fleeces and pelts disappear into the butcher’s waste trail (and be charged for the disposal). A long time ago, back when our first whether was processed, we tried to have his fleecy pelt processed, but it disappeared into the convoluted web of taxidermy, and we never saw it again.

But this year, Kara was determined not to let this potentially valuable farm product go to waste. Those were her pelts, and with the right equipment and training, she could learn to make hats or mittens—furry and warm for winter. Lamb fleeces are extra soft and have never been shorn, and a tanned lamb fleece can be a cozy place for infants or even pets to enjoy a warm, protected place.

It took some digging and scratching, but with some tips from a friend, Kara located a tannery in Duluth that could process her pelts raw from the butcher. We’d decided that the scraping, salting, and drying process wasn’t really our idea of a fun new farm project, so finding an affordable way to outsource that piece of the labor was very appealing. Heavens, as you know from reading these stories, there’s never anything else happening on the farm demanding our time!?!

So we loaded up the boys in the stock trailer Monday night, and Kara took the drive to Radisson in the morning, to the butcher. She was supposed to take some ewe lambs that were not being kept for breeding stock in that Thursday and pick up all the pelts at once, most of which would be frozen. But as Thursday rolled closer, the butcher called that everyone who could cut and wrap was out with the flu, so there wouldn’t be a way for him to handle even more lambs the next day. Kara quickly rearranged her breeding outline, pleaded for one him to take just one with a few genetic issues with her udder form, and made ready to pick up the pelts.

While waiting for the fresh one to be ready, she and a staff member loaded the pelts into the back of the pickup. They’d been stuffed into a barrel, so Kara scrounged around for a tarp to lay in the back of the pickup. Then she heard a thunk.

“What’s that? I heard something go clunk.”

“Oh, a couple of them still have their heads attached.”

“Oh no, I don’t think so,” Kara retorted forcefully. “Those heads are coming off right now. I’m not taking pelts to Duluth with the heads still on them!”

The weather hadn’t been cold enough to fully freeze the pelts, which were still bloody and smelly, with the fresh one on top completing the set of two dozen sheep skins. After a quick dash back to the farm for a bite to eat and printing out a map for proper directions, she headed off for Duluth while Mom and I held down Farmstead Creamery. I wasn’t there for this story, so this is based on Kara’s retelling.

Duluth is about a three-hour drive from the farm, so our trips to the area are extremely infrequent. So here’s Kara navigating the hills and one-way streets, looking for USAFoxx, the company that had agreed to tan her sheep hides. But as she neared the location, Kara realized that this storefront was going to be right in the middle of the downtown scene. One “15-minute” drop-off parking slot was posted, but it was full, and everything else was metered.

Kara pulled out her purse to check. One penny and one nickel. Well, that wasn’t going to work very well. So she turned off to go around the block and hope that the car in the drop-off station would leave. But just going around the block was not so easy. She couldn’t turn left right away, because of the one-way streets, and then it took a while to find another to head back, and then she turned too soon and had to go around again.

Finally, she was back at the storefront, and the slot was open. It was when she stepped from the aging red farm truck that the story really takes a strange twist. Now, remember, Kara had just been to the butcher and back, right after chores, and she was still dressed in chore boots and Carhartt coveralls, which had gotten so worn and torn that she had a second pair of overalls on top to hold it together. Everyone walking past on the sidewalk was wearing dress shoes, wool coats, and you can imagine the rest. It was country girl arrives in the city, equipped with pieces of dead critters. The surveillance camera operators must have had a hayday.

Up she stepped to the front door of USAFoxx, which required ringing a buzzer to even get in the door. Inside, luxurious fur coats and accessories in a 60’s style environment was both stunning and overwhelming. Kara felt like she didn’t want to move, for fear of touching anything with her farminess, even wondering if it might be better if she could hover than have her chore boots on the ground.

“Can I help you?” the lady at the counter in the back of the store enquired.

“I’m here to drop off my sheep pelts for tanning.”

“Oh great, want to bring them on in?”

Kara looked around at the splendid furs, the narrow walkways, the spotless floor. “No, I don’t think you’d want them in here. Could someone meet me outside with a cart?”

“Oh sure, we’ll have a guy right there.”

One of the male staff passed returned after carrying a woman’s new fur coat to her car, with his dress shoes, dress shirt, and vest. But he was just going to help with the paperwork, and Kara was happy to make her escape from the store when a backstage fellow arrived with the cart.

But it wasn’t a tub-style cart. More of that red metal dolly made of pipes. “Are you sure this will work for you?” Kara asked. “Do you have anything to put on the bottom?”

“Aw, nah, this will be fine. They’re frozen right?”

“Um, well, sort of. One for sure is pretty fresh.” But the fellow was not assuaged, so Kara strapped on her bright blue exam gloves and began unloading the contents of the back of the truck onto the dolly. By this time, the stately dressed attendant had carefully evacuated. As Kara and the cart man began to stack the pelts, two girls dressed in knee-high leather boots, tailored wool coats, and trendy hats and scarves came down the sidewalk towards their car, which happened to be parked right behind Kara’s truck. They took one look at the sheep hide transfer-in-process and gasped “Holy Sh*t!”

Kara was thinking about the same thing herself, between the frozen time bubble of the fur shop to the fancy downtown atmosphere, while she stood there bloodied by raw sheep pelts in worn-out Carhartts and bright blue exam gloves. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!

The hides were certainly not frozen, draping down the sides of the cart, raw and still rather bloody. Only half of them actually fit, so Kara waited at the truck while the worker wound his way down the sidewalk, into a glassed atrium of the skywalk, and disappeared into the elevator, leaving a dribbly blood trail behind. This was taking longer than fifteen minutes, but at least anyone worried about her use of the parking space could see that the unloading process wasn’t finished.

So here she was, waiting at the tailgate with her remaining pelts, right alongside the sidewalk. It was all Kara could do to look as nonchalant as possible, like having a truckload of raw sheep skins was something of an everyday occurrence. But heads turned anyway. One father and ten-year-old son strolled past, exchanged nods, passed the car, then doubled-back to have a second look.

“What is that?” the father inquired.

“They’re sheep pelts.”

“Cool!” the sun exclaimed, and they stood and chatted for a while. Then a car with two ladies pulled up in the spot vacated by the fashion statement teenagers. Both doors opened, and they bee-lined over to check out this downtown mystery. “What’s that!?!”

“My sheep pelts.”

“What are you doing with them?”

“I’m here at USAFoxx to drop them off to be tanned.”

“Really, they tan here? Well, what are they going to do with them?”

“They’ll tan the pelts and then give them back to me.”

“Oh, well, what are you going to do with them then?” and on it went, with much chuckling at just how odd this was to have such a conversation on such a day and at such a place. Finally, the crowd dispersed as the ladies made their way into the skywalk, dodging the bloody trail towards the elevator. “You weren’t kidding they were fresh!”

Finally, the man with the cart returned, this time with a couple of blankets. One to lay on the bottom, for staking the pelts, and one to drape on the top. Kara gave him a look as he draped the arranged pile. “Ahem, well, there are some sensitive people around here.” Kara pointed out the blood trail, which had been a noticeable part of the kafuffle. “Yeah, I’ll clean it up” was his response.

Too bad she didn’t get to hear his side of the adventure! But it was time to get back to the farm, after ducking into an out-of-the-way parking space to shed her smelly, bloody Carhartts and gloves for the long drive back. Kara found herself laughing all the way home, and she certainly had us in bellylaughs as well upon her return, thinking of the adventures of the country girl gone to the city. Sure hope those pelts turn out swell. See you down on the farm sometime.