Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

By the first light of dawn I could see my fencerow set held by a big skunk! It was Wednesday, November 17, 1943, the day after my sixteenth birth­day. I walked a four-mile trap line for skunk and possum from our farm near Millersburg in the Lykens Valley. Trapping was very important to me, as I had no other income; also, it was exciting, adventuresome, and challenging.

I slowly walked up to the set, admiring the size of this captured black furbearer. My system to ruspatch a skunk was to raise the barrel of my .22 rifle to its nose. When the skunk inquisitively sniffed the end of the barrel, I would quickly raise it an inch and fire a .22 short into its brain. The dispatch was quick and without any odoriferous results. Except this time!

This skunk had pulled dirt around the trap, which had frozen during the night. In a split second, all hell broke loose! A heavy stream of sulphur yellow liquid was coming at me as the skunk pivoted from his solidly trapped front foot. Both of my eyes were hot so fast that I could not blink. I did manage to kill it immediately, though. My eyes burned and I dropped my gear and headed for water. This was at the far end of my trap line and although I was unfamiliar with this abandoned farm, I knew the Yellow Creek, the Little Wisconisco, was a field away. I ran with closed eyes across a field of uncut timothy, tumbled into an erosion ditch, got up and ran into a barbed wire fence. I wiggled through and there was the Yellow Creek! I knocked away a
thin layer of ice and plunged my face into the frigid stream, swishing water about my eyes. I felt better knowing I could see again.

I was a mess. Tomato juice and homemade lye soap helped the deodorizing and cleaning process, which I undertook in an w1occupied building. Weeks later I received a check and state­ment from Sears, Roebuck and Company, which was then a big fur buyer. The skunk graded #1 Extra Large Black, the very top grade, for which Sears paid $4.25! Now I felt rewarded. $4.25 in 1943 is $51 today by compounding the Consumer Price Index. Skunk pelts were valued by the amount of black on the back: black; white on the head only; short, with stripes of a few inches; narrow, full-length stripes but with plenty of black; and broad, white stripes, which had the least amount of value.

Recently, I found a box in our attic labeled “Trapping.” It had been moved from farm to farm and from house to house. In this forgotten box were detailed trapping records from my boyhood days. In the 1943-1944 season, I caught twelve skunks, nine possum, and eight muskrats for a gross total of $49.21. The one cent was for a small, unprime possum. These chronicles tell that I first trapped in late November 1937. My first skunk brought sixty cents.

These old, handwritten – and sometimes misspelled – accounts list the date of every catch, the price received, and the size and grade. One year, according to my diary, I had fully prospected my territory, had the location of the sets planned, and the traps were ready. l was eager to go for a season that probably began on November 10 of that year. I found a business card I had designed for myself as trapper of skunk, possum, mink, raccoon, muskrat, and weasel. Also, the box contained full records of the traps that were stolen each year – “hooked” was the word used then. In seven seasons, forty-six traps were hooked. Usually this happened with muskrat sets because they were easily located by others. Skunk sets allowed for more stealth.

1 did not have a mentor. Uncle Dan, while visiting our home, would tell of his trapping triumphs a generation earlier, but a nine-year-old asked few questions as the culture of the era was “Children should be seen and not heard.” So I read, read, read. I devoured Tips to Trappers, an annual by Sears, Roebuck; Fur, Fish, Game, and many paperbacks.

The writers emphasized ethics as they told the art of catch­ing furbearers: “Don’t let an animal suffer, check traps early every morning, and take the very best care of your furs.” These were principles I knew I should follow, so I checked all traps early every day and pulled or snapped them in cold or severe weather. I followed trapping laws fully. Like the Ten Commandments, they were not to be broken.

Skunk trapping was a very positive life experience for me. I had to learn and do it myself. It imposed discipline, planning, timing, the concept of risk and reward, and even some elementary accounting. When I was in basic training in the U.S. Army, I was surprised how unresourceful other eighteen-year-olds were. Trapping for farm boys in the agrarian era not only provided money but also encouraged entrepreneurship. For me, trapping fostered maturity and it illustrated the principle that top quality – #1 Extra Large Black at $4.25 – is what really pays off in life.


Marion R. Deppen, of State College, Centre County, was reared on a tenant farm in the Lykens Valley, north of Harrisburg, which lacked utilities and was “powered by mules.” He graduated from Millersburg High School at the age of fifteen. He received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from the Pennsylvania State University and his master’s degree in agriculture administration from the University of Wisconsin. He was a medic with the United States Army in Korea. For thirty-five years, he served as a county agricultural agent and administrator with the Penn State Agriculture Extension Service. He currently operates a hardwood tree Jami of more than two hundred acres and is active in the preservation of farmland. The writer and his wife of fifty-­five years, Winabelle, are the parents of four children and the grandparents of eight.