The fur trade today bears very little resemblance to that of Colonial America through the first half of the 1800s.
The most important fur in those days came from the beaver, but fur, whether from beaver, or muskrat, was destined to become felt. The felt produced from beaver fur was of the highest quality and demanded a high price.
The felt hat or “beaver” actually went into production in the early 1500s, but it grew in popularity until by the mid-1600s it was a must have item for many people and classes.
The well-recognized stove pipe hat such as we see Lincoln wearing in photographs and paintings, was an absolute necessity for the well-bred gentleman. The 17th century cardinals wore red, wide brimmed beaver felt hats worthy of their rank, and every naval officer from lieutenant to Admiral had to have his cocked hat, made of beaver felt, of course.
I do not know if any beaver fur is used for the production of felt top hats today, because silk top hats became more popular by the 20th century, in a short time displacing the beaver.
But furs have become valuable and popular throughout the past hundred years, being desired for coats, jackets and stoles. Not many folks were around when every college man or up and comer had to have a raccoon coat, but more of us can remember the 1950s when mink coats were all the rage, commanding prices in the thousands, and a trapper catching two of the critters could earn as much as a full week’s wages from their sale.
I entered the world of trapping as a boy of 11, which coincided almost perfectly with the decline of many fur prices. I trapped mostly muskrat, but I tried my hand at raccoon, mink and ermine as well.
I did fairly well with the rats, caught a few raccoon, a couple of mink, and racked up a fair number of ermine during seven years of trapping. Above all the rest, each year I looked forward to March 1, the opening day of muskrat season.
Before I started trapping, muskrats were bringing close to $4 apiece; once I was trapping, they were bringing $1.35. The most I ever got for rats in the 50s was $2.35.
I skinned and fleshed the first few coon I caught, but quit trapping them entirely after I got 75 cents apiece for the ones I sold. I caught two mink. One was a beautiful dark male that brought me $48, the other smaller one brought me $32. The ermine were a buck apiece, but they were not hard to catch or clean, and I hunted small game as I checked my traps.
I trapped a few times after that, notably two years around 1981, when fur prices were high, and I received $10 apiece for the biggest muskrat pelts. I caught a number of raccoon and averaged $32 apiece for them.
I even tried my hand at fox, getting $75 for a red and $28 for a beautiful grey.
I thought about taking my grandson, Nathaniel, muskrat trapping in the fall of 2012, but ended up not doing it. That was a big mistake, as 2012 found fur prices soaring, and spring fur prices for many furbearers was at record highs.
Muskrats, for example, were averaging $12, with some lots going as high as $17 per pelt. Prices declined a bit from those lofty heights in 2013, but the market predictions are that the big late winter sales will still bring decent prices for good lots.
Beaver are expected to reach $32, up slightly from last year, mink on the other hand may be selling at $17, down nearly half from last year.
My favorite, the lowly muskrat, is expected to bring about $10 with some possibly going as high as $16. Other fur prices are equally impressive to me. I wish I was younger and a bit more agile, I’d be out there with a line somewhere.
One of the problems that arises whenever fur prices get to these levels, especially when the economy is a little lackluster, is that trappers work hard at locking up areas for themselves (which I am not opposed to by the way) but it does make it harder to find areas to trap.
State areas that are open to trappers get hit pretty heavily, even though the DEC limits competition by allowing only so many trappers on some game management areas.
The other problem that I ran into when trapping was paying good money, and to a lesser extent in poorer years, was trap thieves. There are always lowlifes out there who will steal animals from your traps, but the worst of them take your traps too.
One thing I know is that trappers earn their money. If they are like me, they enjoy being good at their craft as well. As long as I cannot be out there with them, I’ll wish them the best of luck and top prices, because trapping and the fur trade lives on.