Richard H. Schmidt was an extraordinary man with many talents. He was a pioneer in the art of Taxidermy in the state of Kansas. Richard was also a founding charter member of the Kansas Association of Taxidermy (KAT). He was always looked up to by other taxidermists and enjoyed coming to the competition and conventions every year. His specialty was birds, very small birds like a fledging killdeer. He designed specialty tools for taxidermy and perfected techniques that are still in use today. He was one of the first recipients of the Colman Jonas Award which was for taxidermy excellence. He personally knew several of the early famous taxidermists, such as the Jonas Brothers, Leon Pray, Joe Bruschac, etc. He was a strong believer in arsenic as he ran experiments to determine what lasted the longest and said that arsenic was the only thing that would completely prevent dermestids from getting in bird skins. I think he developed a way of incorporating arsenic into a soap that was used on the bird skin so that you didn't have dust from the powdered arsenic floating around in the air in inhaling it. I don't think anyone would even consider using arsenic today but he was determined to have his mounts last forever.
After passing away, the KAT created the Richard H. Schmidt Memorial Award of Excellence in honor of Richard and all his contributions to the art of Taxidermy for the state of Kansas. This award is given every year at the annual state competition to the highest scoring mount in the competition. This award is meant to honor all the hard work, passion, high standards and mastered abilities that went into a taxidermy piece to make it as close to real life as possible. It is the most elite and sought after award for the KAT and its members
The following article written by Robert Boles describes the life of Richard H. Schmidt and how he became a taxidermist…………
With These Two Hands
Robert J. Boles
Richard Schmidt, was born on January 25, 1909. His father loved the land, and believed that hard work on the farm would occupy a person’s time, and provide for an honest, healthy living, even though there might be little money for anything else.
Richard, too, soon learned to love the land, and to work long and hard in the fields, but he also developed a great appreciation for the plants and animals about him. He especially enjoyed the birds, and spent some of his spare time carefully studying their shapes, behavior, and graceful maneuvers while in flight. These observations, along with native artistic ability, were to be of great help in what later proved to be his life’s work, the field of taxidermy.
It was a mounted owl that a friend received as a Christmas gift which first opened up such a world to him. He stood, open-mouthed, staring at the life-like stuffed skin that appeared to look fiercely back at him. "This is the kind of work I want to do," he felt like shouting. Armed only with boyish enthusiasm, he decided to give it a try. A sling shot is not a very adequate collecting weapon for securing a specimen on which to work, and there simply wasn’t enough money to buy a gun. The stories he had read of Daniel Boone and the early pioneers gave him an idea. Why not make a gun? So, in 1922, at the age of 13, he built himself a matchlock pistol. The finished gun took two boys to fire it-one to hold it and to aim, the other to touch a match to the priming. No self-respecting bird was going to sit and let itself be collected with such commotion going on, so Richard decided a more sophisticated weapon was needed. With an inventive mind and the aid of the school encyclopedia, he converted the matchlock pistol into a cap-and-ball pistol, with a trigger and hammer lock. Now even cottontail rabbits fell prey to the young collector.
Richard now felt that he was ready to study taxidermy in earnest. As far as he could find out, the Northwestern School of Taxidermy was THE SCHOOL in which to enroll to acquire the skills he needed for the field he had chosen. Two formidable obstacles stood in his way. First, the tuition called for the staggering sum of ten dollars (which he didn’t have), and second, he would not only have to secure his father’s permission to enroll, but he would also have to try to borrow the money from him. With more hope than faith that he would get the money and the permission, he approached his father. The answer was short and to the point-there was nothing practical about stretching the skin of a dead bird over a wad of inedible cotton, and any further requests of such a nature would receive a more emphatic answer in the form of a spanking. Richard’s world was shattered, but he had been brought up to respect his father’s wishes. Much as he wanted to enroll in the taxidermy course, the subject was dropped, never to be brought up again. Instead, he scraped and saved lowered his sights, and, a year later, having saved up a dollar and a half of his own money, he bought a book entitled "Home Taxidermy for Pleasure and Profit." With no outside help, other than his new book, he mounted his first bird-a Swainson’s hawk a friend had given him.
Richard’s father accepted his son’s deep interest in taxidermy, and behind his seemingly gruff and stern manner was a feeling of pride in his son’s perseverance and skill in something he believed in and wanted to do. His mother was more of a problem. "Bird stuffing" was not something to be done in her house, and Richard was banished to the barn to work by the light of kerosene lantern. The young man continued to make sly suggestions about a more cheerful and warmer place to work, and no one knows today whether it was his hints, to the sight of his third specimen, a tiny, pretty screech owl that did the trick, but he was given permission to do his work in the summer kitchen that his mother had already vacated for the winter. Much to his mother’s surprise, Richard left the place as clean as he had found it, and was rewarded by being given permission to mount future specimens in his room.
After missing school for a semester, during which Richard helped his father with the farm, hunted rabbits to help put meat on the table, and ran a trap line to bring in a little a cash, he returned to school for the spring semester of 1927. By a stroke of luck, his new principal Herman Janzen, was an artistic taxidermist. The tutoring that the aspiring young man received for the next five semesters in the field of taxidermy by this fine teacher and understanding man greatly influenced the course of his life. Little did he know that in later years he would have the opportunity to visit some of the finest laboratories and discuss techniques with some of the most famous names in the taxidermy field.
Richard was fortunate enough to marry an understanding and tolerant young woman, for living with a budding taxidermist wasn’t always easy. She well deserves the dedication he made to her in one of his books, "How to Mount Birds," which reads "...and to my wife Katharina, who spent altogether too many lonely hours with the children while I was burning the midnight oil in my taxidermy studio." Even farming, which Richard understood well, sometimes became a problem. After working on his birds until two or three o’clock in the morning, rising before daylight to do the chores and start on the day’s farming duties called for almost superhuman willpower and endurance. It was only natural that Richard’s sons would also develop a love of the outdoors, and they accompanied him on numerous collecting expeditions to obtain rare and elusive specimens for mounting. Unlike most farmers, Richard actually looked forward to rainy days, for then he could work in his laboratory without feeling guilty of neglecting the farm work.
Restrictions on the possession of mounted birds were much less stringent in the 1920's than they are today, and even before his marriage to Katharina the collection of mounted specimens in the Schmidt household had reached such proportions that by the fall of 1929 the first group of visitors, a troop of Boy Scouts, came to see the display. This group was but the first of many to come to the farm for an "educational museum tour."
The Schmidt family became adjusted to the visits of students, oil men, doctors, and distinguished professors and ministers, but an invitation to speak before the Canton Lyons Club in the spring of 1931 came as a distinct shock. What does a young, unsophisticated country taxidermist say to a group of city businessmen, especially when they were drowsy after a meal? Some of that first attempt did "fall flat," but since then hundreds of people over the state of Kansas will recall seeing Richards folding, seven-foot-wide display case, filled with examples of his work, including many of the interesting birds that pass through the state. The speaking engagements were educational and entertaining, and more and more groups requested him to present his program in Kansas and neighboring states.
Richard has always considered taxidermy as a hobby he thoroughly enjoyed. However, as word of his excellent work spread, more and more sportsmen began to ask for his services to mount their trophies. He had now become a commercial taxidermist, and enjoyed a booming business. Even during the worst depression years of the dirty thirties he never needed to look for work. It is understandable that many of his out-a-job friends, with all of their unasked for "free-time," envied this busy man. By the late thirties so many big game trophies were brought to him that his farming seriously hindered his taxidermy business. Most men would have dropped one or the other, but not Richard Schmidt. It was the outbreak of World War II and the great demand for farm products which brought his custom taxidermy work to a halt. After the war he did not resume trophy taxidermy for the sporting public.
When the Hesston College Audubon Society brought him a large raccoon to mount in 1928, Richard thought this might be a stepping stone to college employment in the museum field. Perhaps it was, but it took a long time to bear fruit. It was some twenty years later that he was employed to collect and mount the Hesston College Ornithological Collection. In 1944 the Kansas Historical Society invited him to Topeka to discuss possible employment. With high hopes of a lucrative taxidermy contract, accompanied by his wife, and two-year-old daughter, Kathryn, he drove to Topeka in his old model A Ford. It was with great disappointment that he learned that all the Society wanted him to do was to wipe the dust off the Col. N. S. Gross Ornithological Collection. Such a task appealed to him as a most unchallenging job, and he politely refused the offer.
In the spring of 1949 Dr. R. E. Mohler of McPherson College asked him to join him in presenting a paper on his rare bird and mammal records at the Kansas Academy of Science Convention. He earned a little cash for the trip by drilling post holes with his Ford tractor at ten cents apiece. And, now for the first time in his life, he checked in to an expensive hotel, and celebrated by soaking in a tub brim-full of steaming water. It was a never-to-be-forgotten event for a farmer to have his first experience with hot and cold water on tap. This trip to the Kansas Academy of Science meeting in Manhattan proved to be one of the first of a series of steps that led to his employment by the Biology Department of Kansas State Teachers College at Emporia. It was at a meeting of the Kansas Ornithological Society, of which he is a charter member, and which was meeting in conjunction with the Kansas Academy, that he met Drs. John Breukelman and Ted Andrews, of the Kansas State Teachers College, the two men who were instrumental in his entrance into full time college employment.
It was in Wichita at the Kansas Ornithological Meeting in 1956 that Dr. Ted Andrews approached Richard about the possibility of preparing specimens for the Kansas State Teachers College Biology Department at Emporia, Kansas. As a result, he was issued an invitation to come to Emporia and be interviewed for possible employment as the curator of the Kansas State Teachers Natural History Museum. At the college Dr. Andrews received him courteously, and offered Richard temporary employment at $250 a month in the Biology Department, which he accepted without bargaining for more pay. Later he took a Civil Service examination and was put on permanent status.
Richard had always been disappointed with the taxidermy instruction books that he had seen. Steps were not clearly explained or were incomplete, and the illustrations did not serve their purpose as teaching aids. For years he thought about writing his own taxidermy text, but it wasn’t until about 1945 that he made his first attempt to write bird-mounting instructions. This ambitious undertaking was soon abandoned as being too difficult. Twenty-five years later he discovered the long forgotten, unfinished manuscript among a group of old papers. In the spring of 1956, after he joined the Kansas State Teachers College Biology Department as taxidermy instructor, his teaching duties again stirred the long dormant desire to write a practical set of taxidermy instructions, based upon his many years of experience in the field. It is interesting that his daughter Kathryn did most of the sketches that appear in the later revision of his taxidermy manual
The text for the illustrated manual Bird Taxidermy was completed by 1959. After much editing a completely revised text was written in 1961. This revision was used for the next six years in instruction his taxidermy students.
A perfectionist, Richard continued to look for ways to improve his manual, and another revised text was written in 1967. By now the material had grown, with more and more illustrations and details, so that it was divided into two parts, Part I- How to Mount Birds,. with 210 original illustration and photographs, and Part II- How to Preserve Birds for Study, with 102 illustrations. At least five additional manuals have also been prepared or are being prepared, dealing with such subjects as how to mount fish, butterflies, and game trophies, rodent skin preparation, and tanning of furs.
Many of Mr. Schmidt’s former taxidermy students may be interested to know that the two texts, How to Mount Fish and How to Mount Birds, came off the College Press in 1971 and 1972, respectively, and may be obtained by writing the Printing Department at the Teachers College.
It is only natural that a taxidermist should dream of someday traveling the world in search of rare specimens to mount. Even as a farm lad Richard had done his share of daydreaming. It was in 1959 his dreams came true, when Dr. David Parmelle, the ornithologist at Kansas State Teachers College, asked Richard Schmidt to go with him as his field taxidermist into the far North. In late May, 1960, they arrived at Cambridge Bay, Victoria Island, North West Territory, a "city" of about thirty Eskimo families. It was spring, and many birds were arriving from he south to nest. In the twenty-four-hour daylight they sometimes worked for 18 hours at a stretch. Three hundred and fifteen bird skins were prepared during the summer, as well as 23 mammal skins. A second trip was made in 1962 for further collecting and research.
In the summer of 1968 Jose Gonzales, of the Universidad Industrial de Santander, Bucaramanga, Columbia, took Richard’s taxidermy course. He was so impressed with Mr. Schmidt and his skills and teaching that Richard was invited to come to the University of Bucaramanga to help establish a museum and train a taxidermist.
On January 21, 1970, Richard and his wife boarded a plane in Kansas City for their flight to South America. With little command of Spanish, and working with students who had little or no knowledge of English, proved to be an interesting, if not sometimes comical and near disastrous, adventure. The 6-month employment at the University was an enjoyable experience, and a lasting friendship was formed with his student Hernando Romeroz.
Richard Schmidt retired from the Biology Department of Kansas State Teachers College. Needless to say he will be missed. His many mounted specimens over the state, and especially in the Natural History Museum in Breukelman Hall on the Kansas State Teachers College campus, now Emporia State University, will stand as a memorial to this gentle, kindly man, who rose from the hard work and limited education in his early years to become an author, college instructor, world traveler, and Taxidermist.