SOUTH DORCHESTER - Surrounded by her family, Nellie Flowers, a youthful 91 years old, beams with satisfaction. Having your family members on hand is always a comfort to anyone, but this is not your average family. Miss Nellie, along with daughter and son Rhonda Aaron and Mark Flowers, Dusty Flowers and wife Dakota Abbott Flowers, plus Justin and Kinsley Aaron, share a unique family tradition.
“We have four generations of muskrat skinners here,” says Nellie’s daughter Rhonda, very proudly. “Mom’s the first generation, then Mark and me, Dusty, Dakota, and Justin are the third, and Norah, who’s not here, is the fourth. Soon this one will be part of the fourth generation as well.”
Rhonda indicates 6-year-old Kinsley, dressed to the nines like any proud first grader, in a beautiful dress and amazing shoes. Her aunt Rhonda lets us know that next year, at 7 years old, Kinsley will make her debut as a junior muskrat skinner, to carry the family tradition well on into the future.
It started with Miss Nellie, back in the 1930s. She always skinned for the boys in her family. “My father always trapped, he and my brothers trapped along with him. I used to help them all skin rats,” she tells us.
In 1936 Miss Nellie skinned at her first Outdoor Show competition. If my math works out correctly, she should have been 8-years-old at her Outdoor Show debut, and the family brought out an old, restored photo of the event. Sure enough, there she was in her little dress, sitting on a small bench and skinning her muskrat with a big smile on her face, while a couple of bored-looking boys waited their chance.
“She was Michelle Mills then, when she skinned, and she was the first world champion,” says Rhonda, with obvious pride.
Miss Nellie passed down the family tradition from there. “Mom taught me how to skin,” said Mark, “then I taught Rhonda, Justin and Dusty how to skin.”
Mark tells us that there used to be a fur house on Hoopers Island, where the post office now stands, and he used to work there, doing skinning. “Yeah, I skinned there, and I skinned for different people, helping them all out.”
“Bill Barnes owned the fur house then,” offered Dakota.
Prices in the past
“There used to be buyers around the Crapo area, too,” says Rhonda. “It was Allan Smith over there, and then Bill Barnes bought here, but every place had their own fur buyers. So all you had to do was skin the rats and just take them right up there, and sometimes you could skin them and take the meats up there too and they would buy them, or you didn’t have to skin them, they would buy them green.”
“That’s the first place I ever sold a fur,” says Mark. “I think I had seven or eight rats that year.”
“But you were little and that was a big deal!” said Rhonda.
“Oh it was a big deal then, yeah,” says Mark. “I think we got $12.75 and $14.75 a fur.”
“The black got more than the brown back then,” said Rhonda, “but they culled them that way. Now I think they just throw everything in the same pile, color doesn’t make a difference.”
We talked about the economics of muskrat skinning for a bit. Our readers have to remember that in the early 1970s, when Mark was selling his skins for 12 to 15 dollars each, that was a whole lot of money. 70 or 80 dollars, back in the day when gasoline only cost 30 cents a gallon, went a long way, especially for a young boy. When Miss Nellie skinned at the show in 1936, the family tells me that the kids all received 50 cents for skinning in the show, and back in those days a half a dollar was a lot of money as well.
Miss Nellie didn’t skin in competition after that first year, but she always helped out the family. She tells us that the boys used to bring sackfuls of rats into the old farm house, and put them in by the wood stove to let them dry.
Dakota agrees. “A dry rat, that’s it, dry. You don’t want to skin a nasty, muddy one.”
Love that rat!
“You’ve got to love your rat!” says Dusty.
Dakota was the women’s championship class winner this year, while her uncle J.R. Abbott was the men’s champion. Not the first for either of them—J.R. has won the title twice, while Dakota has five championships under her belt.
“But you know what? Dusty is a contender, because he was second place this year,” says Rhonda, “and that’s pretty impressive. Dusty’s right there to pull it off for next year. And Justin just got back into it too.”
Clearly the family tradition will continue. When Norah’s name is mentioned, everyone rolls their eyes. Norah’s been skinning since she was 9-years-old, and even her family members can’t believe her level abilities.
“She’s like scary good,” says Dakota.
“She’s focused, she’s very focused,” says Rhonda. “I don’t think she hears anybody in the audience chatter. If you can block out all that, you’ve got total, if you’ve got total concentration, it means everything.” Norah won the Junior competition this year, with two rats skinned in one minute.
The talk turned to a discussion of knives and what works best, whether to use a new knife or an old one, and the ever-present danger of cutting yourself. Like motorcycle racers comparing their crashes, they talked about who cut themselves this year and year’s past, and how bad the cuts were. “Thank goodness there are EMTs there!” says Dakota, talking about the Outdoor Show, of course.
We talked about the show, the competition, and how exactly to skin a muskrat. The art of skinning brought up a lot of debate, because obviously everybody has their own little method and tricks, and it’s hard to find agreement on the right way to do it. Getting the hide off in one piece and without any extra cuts is the trick. The judges look for nicks and cuts and penalties are assessed.
“The judges look at them for cuts and tears,” says Rhonda. “If it’s really warm, a lot of rats will fight because it’s the mating season, and you don’t want to skin a rat that’s got a cut.”
Which, of course, prompts Dusty to bring in an example — he’s got some rats in his car. He brings in a brown muskrat with a nasty cut on its tail, from fighting with a rival out in the marsh. He also brings in a beautiful silver-white rat that he caught in his traps the day before. Nearly everyone picks up the white one, and strokes the fur, admiring the color. Muskrat love!
Just for fun
That’s what it’s all about — love for the tradition, for the sport of it, and mostly love of family. With muskrat pelts now bringing only $1.25 on average, there’s no way trapping and skinning can pay any kind of a living.
“It’s all for fun now,” says Mark Flowers. “Just a fun thing to do with the family.”
Four generations of “the family that skins together.” Their love of the sport is infectious, and in this family it all started with Miss Nellie, back in 1936.
“We all skin together,” says Rhonda. “The nice part of all this is having mom in the audience, because she’s 91 and having her in the audience, cheering for all of us, it’s just great.”
Like Dusty says, you’ve got to love your rat!