End of an era: A Century-old New Jersey taxidermy business now at a crossroads

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As New Jersey has become less rural over the years, it has led to a decline in traditions like hunting. And the lack of hunting has led to the decline of another tradition – taxidermy.

The decline in taxidermy has caused a nearly 100-year-old family business to reconsider how to go forward in the future. Schwendeman Taxidermy in Milltown is a place where hundreds of animals are frozen in place, and the place is frozen in time.

“My grandparents started the business in the front of their house, on the front porch,” says Linda Schwendeman.

Art and Lillian Schwendeman moved their business from their house out back into a shop in the late 1930s. It still contains the old cash register, hundreds of mounts and antlers and tools of the trade for taxidermy. Art and Lillian's granddaughters Mary Ellen Davis and Lillian Schwendeman started cleaning deer antlers for a quarter apiece when they were 7 years old.

Davis and Schwendeman’s father, David Schwendeman, became well known in the taxidermy world, working as the chief taxidermist at New York's Museum of Natural History - a job he had for 27 years.

“It is an art and a science put together,” says Davis

David Lillian Schwendeman died in 2012, the same year that Davis and Schwendeman’s brother Bruce, who was running the Milltown business at the time, had to stop working due to losing his eyesight to diabetes.

Ever since then Schwendeman Taxidermy has pretty much been in limbo while Davis and Schwendeman decide what to do next in a state where taxidermy is not as popular any longer.

“If we could take everything and move it out to Wisconsin, we could make a living,” says Davis.

The sisters say that they have the skills to keep doing taxidermy, but that earning a living in New Jersey doing the practice would be difficult.

“There’s less and less hunting and it’s not paying the bills,” says Davis.

Some of the pieces still in the shop are headed to an environmental education center being built in their grandparent's old log cabin down the road. But the business remains uncertain.

“This is so much a part of who we are and how we grew up. I feel some kind of, no an obligation, but an honor, to do something with it for the good of nature,” Davis says.

The Schwendeman Nature Center in the family's old log cabin is a work in progress. The center will be run by the town of Milltown.

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