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Mountain Home Magazine

Dem Dry Bones

Dec 31, 2014 02:35PM

Roger Kingsley

Roaring Branch is a tiny village along Route 14, established in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, at a point where Mill Creek and Lycoming Creek unite. The name supposedly originated from the roaring waters of Mill Creek descending through a rocky gorge on its way to meet the Lycoming. Recent demographics list a population of about 1,100 people who use the Roaring Branch zip code as part of their home address. A portion of those 1,100 villagers and outlying residents use Ogdensburg Road as their street address—like Lance and Colleen Swarthout, whose property also borders Mill Creek.

The Swarthouts—unlike any other resident of Roaring Branch—have a sign erected beside their mailbox notifying passersby that it’s the home of Swarthout’s Skullworks. It’s been a few years since my first acquaintance with Lance and Colleen, and, since then, I’ve often wondered how many people have driven by that sign bewildered by its antlered skull logo.

The story behind the name is as common as the roaring of Mill Creek: just ordinary people who achieved success through hard work and determination.

Here’s how Swarthout’s Skullworks evolved.

During the 2007 Pennsylvania deer hunting season, Lance tagged a nice buck. His pride in taking such a fine deer encouraged him to preserve it, not by a taxidermist, but by his own attempt. With no tanning or taxidermy experience, cooking the skull in a large pot of boiling water was the only means  Lance had to accomplish his goal of creating a European mount—the whole head of an animal cleaned of all flesh, named for its popularity in Europe.

His efforts to end up with a worthy display turned into a failure. “There must be a better way to do this,” he thought. One day several weeks later, Lance had a business meeting in Williamsport with his employer Pepsi- Cola. After the meeting, a co-worker invited Lance to his vehicle to show him something—a European mount of a whitetail buck beautifully done by a professional. Lance was impressed…very impressed!

What set that skull apart from the one Lance tried to preserve was the use of dermestid beetles to clean the skull, rather than a boiling process. Boiling—as Lance learned from his virgin experiment—must be done with strict control. Over-cooking the skull will result in rendering the bones into a pitted, fragile condition. Plus, periodic scraping and removal of the flesh and other matter while the cooking advances can turn into a frustrating, time-consuming affair.

The labor involved is an absolute must, because any remnants left behind in the unseen cracks and crevices of the bone structures would eventually emit an odor that would serve as a dinner bell to uninvited critters.

Submerged Skulls

Dermestid beetles—one of the hardest working insects known—use their size and voracious, flesh-eating abilities to locate and consume even the tiniest particles of meat and membrane. Moreover, the process causes no harm to even the most delicate bone structures.

When Lance returned home from that meeting in Williamsport, he immediately set to work researching dermestid beetles and their skull-cleaning benefits. “For days he talked about how nice that skull looked that the co-worker had shown him,” said Colleen. “And for days he continued researching the subject until one day he announced, ‘Honey, I want to buy some bugs!’”

During his research, Lance wasn’t just acquiring facts about the beetles, he was also figuring out a way to utilize a beetle colony to possibly provide a future skull-cleaning service to local hunters and taxidermists. The nearest person who peddled such a service was ninety to one hundred miles away, and Lance saw that as an opportunity to fill the void in his area.

It would be foolish to purchase a colony just to clean what few heads he might collect in a season. After that, they would perish without a steady supply of flesh. So Lance began exchanging his idea with anyone who had an interest, especially Colleen’s brother who was a part-time taxidermist. “I’ll get the bugs, and you bring me the skulls from your harvested animals so I can practice,” he told him. That was mid-2008.

In the meantime, some preparations became a priority—like where to house the beetles and conduct the process. A 240-square-foot wooden building in the backyard was the logical workbench…so to speak. “My great grandmother Swarthout used it as a canning shed,” said Lance. Over a period of three months, Lance and Colleen renovated the building and fabricated the equipment necessary for their trial phase. The plan was to collect a good supply of skulls during the 2008/2009 hunting season, and be ready to feed them to the beetles when they arrived.

Beetle colonies can be ordered in amounts from 100 to several thousand. 2,000 beetles will clean a deer-sized skull in three to five days. A colony of around 250 would need one to two months to multiply large enough to clean a deer skull in short order. Despite the decomposing environment that beetles thrive in, they are still susceptible to pests. While searching a number of sources, Lance found a supplier in Alaska that guaranteed pest-free bugs, so he placed an order for 5,000. The price? $300. When the shipment arrived in January 2009, Lance was shocked to discover that the 5,000 beetles were a much smaller cluster than he had anticipated.

Once the beetles were transferred to their new home, the Swarthouts began monitoring their flesh-eating progress with the forty-plus skulls they had recently collected from hunters and taxidermists. It didn’t take long for them to see for themselves that their colony was too small and too slow, but time and reproduction would cure that problem, which they knew.

Dermestid beetles have swift-moving lifecycles. A typical female will lay around 400 eggs during her 100-day lifespan. Eggs hatch in three days, and the tiny larvae will be fully developed beetles in about a month, at which time they are ready to mate and lay the next generation of eggs. By the time Lance and Colleen had completed their trial run of forty-plus skulls, the knowledge they had gained encouraged them to open their doors to the public in the fall of 2009. By December 31 of that year, they had taken in ninety-eight skulls. When the last of those skulls were finished, it was obvious that the Swarthouts had a problem—their building was way too small, and so was their freezer space, to store the skulls.

With many satisfied customers already spreading the word about Swarthout’s Skullworks, Lance and Colleen gambled on expanding. In July of 2010, a new building nearly six times bigger than the “canning shed” went up. To accommodate the skull storage, an eight-foot-by-twelve-foot walk-in freezer became part of the business, too. Good thing! Because by the end of that year, they had 471 skulls on the books—an increase of 373.

With business expanding, the hours spent taking care of customers started to run very late into the evenings. That’s when the couple decided that Colleen should quit her daytime job and focus on Skullworks. The European skull mount was obviously gaining more and more acceptance as a way to preserve a trophy. Antler restrictions and other management practices were contributing to a higher success rate of hunters harvesting trophy-class animals, and skull mounting offered a very affordable and unique way to display them. Furthermore, skull mounts are a space-saver compared to the traditional shoulder mount.

Lance and Colleen Swarthout

For each skull that arrives, Colleen assigns it an item number, then records the date, item, customer, and specific process. As stages are completed, more notes are recorded. Once the hide is removed, skulls are stored in the freezer in numbered totes for easy retrieval of the next in line. Freezing the skulls prior to beetle-cleaning is critical to kill any parasites that might infect the colony. After the beetles have devoured all signs of tissue, the skulls are submerged in a degreasing solution to rid the bones of the oils that would eventually leach out in a yellowing manner spoiling the goal of pure white bone. Deer skulls normally require four weeks in the degreasing bath, while bears typically need six to eight weeks.

Skulls then spend a couple days drying on well-ventilated, properly lighted racks before going into a daylong industrial grade hydrogen peroxide treatment for whitening. Then it’s back on the racks to dry before the final stages of bonding any loose teeth and staining any antler material that was exposed to the peroxide. Mounting the skull for display is next, but that depends on the customer’s preference of a wood or metal mounting system, or nothing at all.

Turn-around time for the whole cleaning, bleaching, mounting process runs three to four months, but a large volume of skulls during peak season can sometimes stretch that out to six to seven months, explains Colleen. “We took in 736 skulls in 2011, followed by 738 in 2012.” Add another 763 processed the following season and those numbers have imparted a great sense of pride in Swarthout’s Skullworks as a niche enterprise. And, as more work keeps coming through the door, their products and services keep expanding from new ideas.

Artwork incorporated into metal mounting systems for skulls is one product that has become a Swarthout’s exclusive. It’s a joint venture that involves Lance sketching out the artistic wildlife/habitat scenes, while Jeff Tice Studios in Mansfield uses computer aided machinery (CNC) to produce them. Besides mounting systems, the black, powder-coated metal art also includes welcome signs, coat racks, key holders, furniture, and many other rustic home and camp decors. The wide selection of wooden mounting systems available is custom built by Sharp’s Woodworking in Liberty.

Hydrographics (camo-dipping) is another service that the Swarthouts have undertaken. Commonly used in the firearms industry on gunstocks and barrels, it’s a process that applies printed designs to a variety of materials…including bone.

Lance and Colleen thoroughly enjoy the pleasure of conducting their niche business as a team. “It’s a dirty, stinky job,” they tell me, “but the rewards are the finished products, the satisfied customers, and the many friendships we’ve acquired in such a short time.”

To learn more about Lance and Colleen’s products and services, check them out at www.swarthoutskullworks.com or give them a call at 570-673-5052. If you’re passing through their village, stop in and see their unique mounting displays at 4874 Ogdensburg Road.