Rusty Hellickson's shop, Hardscrabble Hides and Furs, just finished its season this past week.  Hellickson processed over 700 coyote hides that will be sold locally and on the world fur market.   PHOTO BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Rusty Hellickson's shop, Hardscrabble Hides and Furs, just finished its season this past week. Hellickson processed over 700 coyote hides that will be sold locally and on the world fur market. PHOTO BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Furs fill a downtown Spring Valley business that is gaining a reputation that spans across the globe.

"The last load of coyotes was 700 or more, so I have coyotes coming out of my ears," said Rusty Hellickson, owner of the growing Hardscrabble Hides and Furs, located in downtown Spring Valley.

Hellickson operated his business from his home for eight years before running out of processing and storage space there in 2011, at which point he moved his hides and equipment to his current location at 117 Courtland where he's experiencing some very welcome growing pains, having run out of processing and storage space once more. "We're literally hanging things from the ceilings and stacking the basement full," he noted.

Hardscrabble Hides and Furs was begun from Rusty's love of trapping and hunting - he started trading in deer hides, which led to becoming licensed to processing other species and opening a shop.

"It just didn't fit anymore, and the car traffic and the phone constantly ringing got to be a problem. I either had to build a new building or find a structure that was bigger," he explained. "This building fits the bill very well. It's convenient for trappers and hunters to get to when my place wasn't so handy to get to. This is a plus...I had people who told me that they didn't like the big hill to get to my house."

The kind of hides Hellickson processes varies according to the time of year. He just finished the spring beavers, and he's getting anywhere from 300 to 400 coyotes and coon is some of the best fur as well.

This year, muskrat is the hottest thing in the market because the ranch mink market prices never seen before have forced coat manufacturers to look for a product that could still meet those needs. Muskrat is not quite as expensive so manufacturers tend to go from ranch mink to muskrat, which forced the muskrat prices through the roof. It's prices not seen since the late 1970s and 1980s, said Hellickson. Last year, in addition to the drought, they had no water to swim in and no place to hide, so other predators get them. But the market for muskrat is very good right now.

Hellickson is impressed by the response to his decision to relocate to downtown Spring Valley. "We've been here for two seasons, and our product was picked out of a group of processors...we had two fur buyers come here directly from Hong Kong, China, to Spring Valley. That's sort of a feather in our hat - the quality of our work brought them here, because obviously, the quality of the furs is already there. It's because we process it properly that makes it stand out," he said.

"With international buyers coming in, it pushed more product our way...they're talking about it all across the east and west coasts and around the world to Hong Kong. Overall, the international fur market is very good. The rest of the world wants fur, so manufacturers are buying it in mass quantities. Some places, it's a luxury, and other places, it's a necessity, not a luxury item. Here in the U.S., it's starting to come back in small increments. It has really helped us."

The move to town wasn't a certain success until he arrived and set up shop, finding that he was more visible and accessible to potential fur sellers and customers. "We had no idea when we started whether it would be good or bad. It has worked to the plus side, and along with the extra numbers, we've had to add new skinning machines, a drying system, another walk-in freezer because we did not have the freezer space to handle the number of animals we were processing. I've never done this kind of volume of work before - I didn't have the space."

The retail shop on the building's south side was opened with just a shelf filled with leather gloves, but he expanded the retail shop, which now features finished deer, coyote, skunk, raccoon, ermine, beaver, and otter hides, traps both new and old, bait and scents, fur hats and mittens and more. The expanded retail area has attracted people of all kinds, including a woman who, having had chemotherapy, asked him to have a skunk hat made to keep her warm, even in church.

"I liked that she had a sense of humor," he said. "We also have other items that, if used during a party by people with a good sense of humor, can give a good laugh."

Hellickson spends the entire hunting season, from fall to spring, processing hides at Hardscrabble, then closes up for the summer, taking some time off to relax until the next hunting season opener. He thanked his customers and credited his sons with helping to manage the coyotes coming out of his ears.

"I could not do this without my three boys. They're absolutely key elements to make this happen. They've had a lifetime of training because they've been trapping and hunting since they were very little kids...they played with furs, and they like to work here, where they can come in to work at 10 in the morning. Granted, we're up at 5 checking our traps before we come to work, but we appreciate that we work with other responsible hunters and trappers who help manage the coyote population...that's why I've got coyotes coming out of my ears."