OAKFIELD — Greg McNally is living his dream, surrounded by animal pelts and skulls. An avid hunter who used to travel from Connecticut to Maine to hunt, McNally visualized living in the North Woods and hunting right outside his door, but it was only a dream.

Until he won the lottery.

That stroke of luck nearly 20 years ago enabled McNally to quit his job as a mill worker at International Paper in Connecticut, move to just outside Houlton and become a tanner.

“I didn’t win enough to not work the rest of my life, but I won enough to pretty much do what I want,” McNally said. “I bought a piece of land and I moved up here.”

He built a log cabin up on a hill with sweeping views of Mount Katahdin. And below his new home he built a small workshop where he slowly learned the business of tanning wild animal hides.

Situated perfectly in the heart of Maine’s big-game hunting country, McNally’s work came from taxidermists around Maine and New England. Today, his is believed to be the only business tanning for taxidermy in New England.


It’s quite a thing to be the only show in a big hunting state. But the process of tanning hides for taxidermy is mostly a thing of the past in the United States.

“There are not a lot now, eight to 10 across the country I would guess,” said Tom Stevens of Stevens Fur Co. in East Holden.

Stevens said when he got into dealing furs back in 1975 there were few tanners in Maine. However, at one time there were dozens.

Camden still had one in the 1970s. Bucksport had two booming tanneries until 1929 and 1959. And in the 1800s, Grand Lake Stream had reportedly the world’s biggest tannery, according to the town’s historical society.

Today, Stevens sends close to 3,000 pelts to a large tanning factory in Gloversville, New York, a city that once had a few dozen tanneries. Now, just two, Stevens said.

It’s no surprise to Stevens that McNally has made a living involving this one specific task needed in taxidermy.


McNally tans fox, bobcat, elk, caribou and grizzlies from Alaska, as well as some small mammals, like otter and mink. The bulk of his business comes from taxidermists needing black bear and whitetail deer pelts tanned. He does as many as 400 to 600 bear capes a year.

McNally still continues the trade much like it was done in the Colonial era.

The hide is “pickled,” or soaked in salty brine and chemicals, to loosen the flesh on the inside. Then the pelt is cleaned of fat and excess flesh, which McNally does leaning over a table saw he sharpens often.

Over the fleshing wheel he turns the damp skin inside out and carves the fat and skin off.

Then it’s dried in a room akin to a sauna, doused in oils and rolled in sawdust.

Afterward McNally said the hide is as white as paper. Then it gets the tanning oil that’s allowed to soak into the hide before it goes into the tumbler full of sawdust.


One wheel spins the hide with sawdust to help cushion it after the drying room. Then a second tumbler spins the hide without the sawdust to shake the wood dust off it.

Finally McNally puts mineral spirits on the hide to bring out the shine.

“It’s important to oil it because if I don’t, after 20 years it might start to show the cracks,” McNally said.

Hides from many wild animals are sent to his workroom, with more than a few Kodiak bears. He’s worked with white porcupines, albino deer, even an albino mink.

McNally had a woman call to have her dog tanned. Another woman wanted her dog’s pelt tanned, but only the body.

“I told her, ‘I can do it but I have to ask why.’ And she said, ‘I want to make a pillow out of it so I can sleep on it,'” McNally said with a shrug.

He’s been a tanner almost 20 years because he loves it. At 54, he doesn’t plan to quit any time soon.

“I can do a cape in 15 to 20 minutes,” McNally said. “Now it’s second nature. When I started I made a few thousands dollars in a year. Now I make more than I ever thought I’d make.”

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