AFFTON — Seventeen years old and fresh out of high school, Frank Wagner Jr. wanted to be a taxidermist. He went to Schwarz Studio Taxidermists, then in Lafayette Square, and asked for a job, but they weren’t hiring.
A week later, he called the shop again. The next week, he called again. And again the next week. Soon, he started calling every day, until the receptionist convinced the owners to try him out for a job.
Twenty years later, he bought the place. It was a good decision. Taxidermy, as it turns out, is recession-proof.
“I’ve been through numerous bad economies, and we’ve never felt it,” said Wagner, who is now 62.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, business remained robust. The problem, he said, is that people who worked at his suppliers stayed home. As a result, it took longer — and still takes longer — to receive the specialty items that he needs, such as painted glass eyes that accurately replicate the eyes of animals in the wild.
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Schwarz Studio Taxidermists is the oldest taxidermy establishment in America, according to the Taxidermy Hall of Fame.
It was founded in 1882 after brewery owner and hunter Adolphus Busch could not find a good taxidermist in the area. He sent word to a taxidermist he knew in Germany, Frank Schwarz, that the St. Louis area would be a good place to set up shop. The town was a center of the fur trade at the time.
Schwarz came to the area, built up a list of clients and soon opened his taxidermy shop. A keen wildlife enthusiast, he became one of the five founders of the St. Louis Zoo and was an early advocate for what was then called a bar-less zoo, according to his extensive 1933 obituary in the Post-Dispatch.
Schwarz is also in the national Taxidermy Hall of Fame for his contributions to the craft. It was he who created the idea of “sculptural taxidermy,” which stretched the animal’s skin over a papier-mâché form instead of merely stuffing it.
That innovation is still used today, Wagner said, though the papier-mâché has been replaced by polyurethane plastic forms that show animals in dynamic poses.
“Some of the best sculptors in the world make these forms. I use the ones that I think are best and most anatomically correct,” he said.
Business is brisk; he has all the work that he and his apprentice, Dirk Tucker, can handle. His spacious shop on the eastern edge of Affton — he moved the company there after he bought it from the fourth generation of Schwarzes — is full of mounted deer heads.
In the loft upstairs, more than 200 racks of tagged and numbered antlers hang from poles, waiting to be used.
The work never slows down, Wagner said. At the beginning of the deer season, he tells hunters that it will take six to eight months for their trophy to be ready. By the middle of the season, so much work has come in that it will take eight to 10 months. By the end of the season, it will take 10 months to a year — and then it’s time for Wagner to start all over again.
Much of the delay comes from the tannery he uses in Michigan. It takes time to do a good, long-lasting job preserving the animal’s hide, and they, too, are swamped with orders every season.
Hunters and fishermen from up to 300 miles away come to use his services, Wagner said. After they kill an animal, a processor carves up the meat and, if desired, removes the animal’s head and skin up to the forelegs, which is called a cape.
The cape is usually what hunters want mounted by taxidermists. It is more rare that the customers bring in a full animal, but Wagner works with those, too.
Timing is critical: Wagner has to receive the trophy within a day or two, especially if it isn’t cold outside.
“You want to treat anything that you have mounted like a steak,” he said.
Wagner removes and stores the antlers, scrapes the hide and salts it for a few days until it becomes hard. He sends it to the tannery, from which it won’t return for several months, soft and supple. When he gets the hide back, he thins the lips so it fits better over the plastic form, splits the eyelids and removes cartilage from the ears.
Then he puts the cartilage into an ear-shaped form and uses it as a template to cut the form into the exact shape of the animal’s ears. Next, he sews and glues the cape against the form that has been chosen by the customer for its pose, securing it with pins and nails.
The glue is made from dextrin, which comes from corn. It takes three or four days to set. Then, Wagner removes the pins and nails, but he isn’t done yet. He still has to fill in gaps and holes with epoxy and touch up the eyes and nostrils with paint, which he uses to apply with an airbrush wherever the natural color needs to be restored.
It’s time-consuming work that requires years of experience and artistry, and it isn’t cheap. A mounted white-tailed deer head and shoulder starts at $855.
White-tailed deer “are our bread and butter,” he said, but he also gets plenty of animals that are more exotic. Every year he will get a grizzly bear or two, and he sees plenty of animals from Africa (the hides are skinned and salt-dried before shipping). He has mounted lions and leopards, and a giraffe from the shoulders all the way up.
When a gorilla at the St. Louis Zoo died, Wagner mounted it for the St. Louis Science Center. He also mounted an endangered red wolf for the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka.
Along with small mammals (bobcats, foxes, coyotes) and turkeys, Wagner also works on a lot of fish. He mounts real fish, but he also makes realistic replicas of fish, based on a photo the fisherman will send in.
“That is for our catch-and-release people,” he said.
The most unusual animal he has mounted was a full baboon, he said. The hardest was half of a rhinoceros because its hide was so tough.
Wagner is himself an avid hunter and fisherman. The trophies hanging on the shop walls are his own. But working with some of the heads that other hunters have brought in has given him a complex, he said.
“It’s kind of ruined me for deer. I see all these giant deer, and that’s what I want.”