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 them again. The next week, he called them again. And again the next week. Soon, he started calling them 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.
People are also reading…
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That innovation is still used today, Wagner said, though the papier-mâché has been replaced by polyurethane plastic forms that show animals in dynamic poses.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…
Read More:Country’s oldest taxidermy shop calls St. Louis home, with roots to Germany and Busch family