From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 4, Number 16 - July 15, 2004
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Gage Skinner gives valubale time, collection to museum

by Casey Dean

Gage Skinner has been collecting mountain man artifacts for more than 30 years, pursuing an interest sparked in Golden, Colo. While working for the National Park Service in the Division of Interpretation, Skinner attended a community parade in which a group of wild-looking men and barefooted women were whooping and hollering and shooting off black powder guns. Curious, Skinner tracked the gang down after the parade.

"I asked them, 'What are you?'" he laughs. After a 15-minute introduction to the fur trade, Skinner says he was hooked - or trapped. Upon his return to the office, he took the opportunity to visit a few sites related to the history of mountain men and the fur trade. Being a cultural anthropologist , a self-proclaimed "flea market junkie" and having a strong interest in "living people, living societies and learning about culture and society," Skinner quickly became very active in rendezvous across the country, gathering countless artifacts and invaluable knowledge along the way.

"My primary focus in life is teaching," Skinner said. Children, adults and the elderly have all benefited from the incredible amount of learning Skinner has to offer. With all these contacts, Skinner rapidly started acquiring "items of the trade," and has continued the collection since.

Skinner earned a degree in anthropology, and began excavating historical sites, but found the tedious job to be somewhat dull. It is the lives of the people he studies in which Skinner is interested, "the living history ... bringing history to life."

Skinner then joined the Peace Corps, living in Chile with Native Americans for several years, as well as in Columbia. He returned to San Diego for further schooling, earning an advanced degree in anthropology. He held a position with the State of Oklahoma, evaluating historical sites and the state of museums, as well as the National Park Service with the Rocky Mountain Regional Office in Denver, where he discovered mountain men.

Skinner has found that the study of the fur trade involves every discipline, "There is everything in the history of the mountain man," he declares. "It's so exciting ... a fun thing to be in." He has dabbled in many of the crafts of the era of the fur trade, including tanning and beadwork.

Skinner is enthusiastic about the history of the time period, but "I don't think people realize the importance of the fur trade to history."

In fact, he finds it is "pretty mind- boggling how widely distributed" the fur trade is, spanning the entire country and affecting American history entirely. The only aspect Skinner finds frustrating is time.

"We don't live long enough to learn all there is to learn," he says.

Skinner has managed to learn a great deal about the fur trade, and has assembled a remarkable personal collection of fur trade items. Among the rare artifacts to be found in Skinner's "Field Museum of the Fur Trade," are hand-forged camas root diggers, a straight-handled felling axe, a wrought- iron flapjack spider and pipe tongs. Camas root was a staple of the Nez Perc Indians, and according to Skinner, the digger is "a very unusual and rare item ... priceless." Skinner was warned by a fellow mountain man to hide his felling axe rather than keep it on display because it is so rare.

"He told me it may be gone tomorrow," Skinner said. These axes may have been very common on the frontier, but Skinner has never seen one aside from his. Another one-of-a-kind item in Skinner's field museum is the flapjack spider. Skinner has only seen them in books.

"Another item I'm kind of proud of," are the pipe tongs. These hand-forged tongs were used to light clay pipes on the frontier. The Aztec drink "chocolatera," was very popular with the mountain men, and a bronze pitcher for heating the drink, as well as a "chocolate stirring ... thingamajig" are also part of Skinner's remarkable collection.

A hand-forged trammel is yet another "fairly rare item" of Skinner's.

"It's not exceedingly rare ... a good example of a hand-forged piece." Unrefined, raw sugar was yet another staple for mountain men. Sugar molds were popular and are still being made, but are disappearing quickly; the old wooden molds have been discovered, and used as candle- holders.

"It's kind of too bad," Skinner says.

Skinner and a friend were given the opportunity to visit the site of a Columbia Fur Trade Post in North Dakota, north of Fargo. The area is now a bean field, and the two were given permission to look around, under the condition that they not step on any of the bean plants. They crawled through the narrow rows of plants and found many hair ornaments popular among Indian women during the fur trade. These hair plaits were produced in the millions prior to 1868.

In relation to another rare piece in his collection, Skinner challenges most everyone he meets with a search that is "almost driving me crazy."

The first medical book published west of the Mississippi in English was by Dr. Sappington. This M.D. also distributed anti-fever pills said to fight the rampant malaria in the West. Skinner's collection includes the book, but is still in need of the medicine containers. More than one million boxes were sold in the South and West, but Skinner has found no one who knows of any remaining boxes or bottles.

These items, along with many more, have all found a new home in the Museum of the Mountain Man. Skinner donated nearly his entire collection to the museum this weekend, after giving lectures and demonstrations throughout Rendezvous on the museum grounds.

"I am happy to give this to the museum," he says. According to Skinner, the Museum of the Mountain Man is the best place his personal collection, the Field Museum of the Fur Trade, can end up.

"My son loves the stuff, he really appreciates it ... not enough to inherit it ..." laughs Skinner. "And my wife doesn't want it. I know what would happen if I were to die tomorrow, it would all be out in a yard sale ... And my buddies would love it, because nothing would be over $1," he joked.

In an effort to locate a recpient of his collection , he came across the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale.

"I had heard a lot of good things about the museum's program," Skinner said.

He contacted Museum Director Laurie Hartwig, and was invited to attend the 2004 Green River Rendezvous, giving lectures and demonstrations and visit the museum. Upon visiting the museum, he was "astounded at the quality of artifacts." Compared to museums he has reviewed and visited across the country, Pinedale's museum is a "first-class museum, as far as presentation of the history of the fur trade and mountain men" in Skinner's opinion. He provided crowds of visitors and locals alike with a fascinating insight into the lives of mountain men, providing a new perspective, tangible evidence and the opportunity to question and discuss ideas about the fur trade and mountain men. Skinner also provided the Museum of the Mountain Man with an invaluable addition to the mountain man camp, a donation greatly appreciated.

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