SPOONER, Wis. -- You have probably been one of the hundreds of people that have driven by one of Spooner’s unique business during the five years it’s been at its location, but haven’t known what they do there, or even if someone even works in the building. And you certainly would not have noticed the tight security system, cameras and all.
If you’ve taken your vehicles for tires and service at Wolverine Tires and Auto Care, or stopped down at the end of Dur-a-Bilt Road to visit Spooner Window and Door, or any other reason you’ve ever been down this very busy side street on the south side of Spooner, you probably never noticed this inconsequential beige building on the south side of the street.
What goes on inside the facility is amazing and so is its owner, David Karon. He grew up in Hibbing and his dad was raised in Duluth and, as a kid, David liked to hunt and fish and trap, like most kids, did back then. As an adult, he rambled around the United States and became a successful custom home builder in Colorado, the Vale Ski area to be exact.
The Rocky Mountains were beautiful and life was good until the area had a housing explosion as hundreds of new families moved to the area creating new communities overnight. Business was good during the boom, but when the bubble burst, David knew it was time to make a career change, so he took a huge leap of faith, moving back to the Spooner area and starting his new venture completely from scratch crediting hard work, ingenuity, and education.
Today, as owner Great Northern Fur (GNF) he’s already one of the four major fur dressing industries in the United States, the others located in Idaho on the West Coast, and New Jersey and New York on the East Coast, Wisconsin positions him right in the middle.
“To make sure there would be no opposition when I first wanted to buy the building and start dressing pelts,” he says. “I went to all the neighbors, the three houses across the street, the Indianhead Flower Shop and all the other places in front of me and behind, just to let them know what I would be doing.
“There was some opposition at first when everyone thought it would smell badly, and the process does include boiling, soaking the pelts in acids and salts to pickle the hides and then oiling or greasing them, but there is little to no smell at all.”
He got all the permission he needed from the neighbors and the city, and last year alone he and his eight employees processed over 100,000 fox, mink, coyote, buffalo, ermine, wolverine, wolf, bear, mountain lion, squirrel, badger and even skunk, lots of skunks. They’ve done a few African animals like lion and leopard, but they do not have equipment big enough to process elephants, not that they would anyway and they choose to leave the African pelts to someone else.
Once they did someone’s pet cat, but that’s the only one they did or ever plan to do again.
If you’re a hunter or a trapper, you can take your pelts into GNF for them to do the fur dressing for you. They are always well-supplied with huge orders from professional pelt buyers, skins that are salted or dried when they arrive btruckloadk load at GNF for processing.
The fishing industry buys the long thin and uneven strips of fur for fly tying, and there’s a constant market for the paws, tails and even the finished faces; don’t ask.
David runs a business that is complicated, to say the least with the way each pelt is processed, all of which are finished with its fur still attached. That’s why it works best to have hundreds of the same pelt type to process at the same time. Because each pelt is processed so differently they might be some that are soaked in chemical water to soften and swell the pelt in either a tank that has a slowly moving paddle-wheel device or in a static tank before they’re washed and possibly pickled using acid and salt. Some pelts go back into the soak cycle again and again and each go through the shaving machine which is a specially designed blade that is mounted on a table in a special device and then the shaver very, very carefully turns the skin inside out and shaves off the high spots of under skin by running it back and forth against the vertical blade. Some of these pelts then go back into a vat of something.
Eventually, the skins are greased or oiled, depending, and then they’re put into a tumbler with a specially imported extra fine saw dust from North Carolina to dry. Then they’re tumbled without the sawdust to soften them, and some are put into the machine that stretches them and some go into a device that combs out any remaining debris, and most end up in the glazer, which is like an iron.
As you can see, this is not a quick process no matter what kind of fur it is, most orders take 120 days to complete, and the employees have to be carefully trained in the art; one false move and much of the skin can be ruined.
After all the work has gone into processing each type of pelt, to ensure a long life depends on humidity. If treated properly, fur will last a very, very long time, whether it’s a full-length mink coat that’s stored properly by putting it into professional storage for the summer or an ill-placed bear skin hanging on a wall above a fireplace. As long as the pelt is not dried out, the fur stays firmly on the pelt.
Not only is each type of pelt processed differently, but when the animal was killed makes a huge difference. David can look at a pelt and know if it was an early season kill or late season, which makes a difference in the process, especially if the skin has a blue cast.
His favorite pelts are the farm-raised foxes. They’re large and more luxuriant than the smaller Red or Gray Fox which are not only smaller but have thicker skin. After the pelt has been processed, you can blow gently on the finished farm-raised fur and it separates seductively.
Great Northern Fur doesn’t do any retail business out of their building, so no fur coats, vests, hats or custom car seats at their location. For those items, you need to contact sellers who do business with China and the big buyers, and in this ever changing volatile political world, it’s easier to just Google for information concerning the purchase of quality fur products. And when you do buy that beautifully dressed item of fur, ponder this, it’s just possible the luxury item you just bought might have made a stop at this unique business in the little town of Spooner, Wisconsin, thanks to David Karon.