Colorado’s Second Fur Trade | Articles (2023)

Colorado’s “Second Fur Trade” was typified by the burgeoning popularity of mink fur coats, a luxury item that enjoyed great popularity during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. As one of Colorado’s leading productive industries for several decades, mink farming is an example of the state’s transition away from resource extraction and refining during the mid-1900s. Today, activist groups and prohibitively high prices have largely curbed the fur industry in Colorado, although several prominent furriers and retailers still operate throughout the state.

Mink, Silver Fox, and the Fur Industry

Members of the weasel family, minks appear in both American (Mustela Vison) and European (Mustela Lutreola) varieties. Today, European minks are listed as an endangered species (in part due to over-competition from American ranch minks released from European farms). Their adaptable American cousins, on the other hand, make their home near freshwater lakes and streams in all parts of North America except in the arid Southwest. Wild minks move around frequently, feasting on muskrats, rabbits, mice, fish, snakes, and turtles. They mark their territory with a foul-smelling musk widely considered to smell as bad as a skunk’s. Aggressive and territorial to the point of hostility, minks of both sexes screech and hiss, discharge musk, and viciously bite intruders. Young minks pair up with multiple partners over their lifetime, bearing anywhere between one and ten kits per litter. Eventually, they settle down with a single mate for life.

Just after the Civil War, American farmers began raising minks for fur. Generations of captivity has bred out some of the mink’s wilder traits—so much so that modern ranchers assert that few can survive away from their pens for long. Most animal rights activists dispute this, arguing with some justification that escaped ranch minks are perfectly capable of adapting to the wild. Captive minks, on the other hand, normally survive for less than one year. Born in March or April, most spend their short lives in a cramped pen, feeding on horsemeat, beef heart, cereal grains, dried fish, and other meatpacking by-products. The bulk are slaughtered in November or December, before they secrete the fur-spoiling musk that signals their maturity. Raisers spare only a choice few as breeding stock for the following year; the rest usually meet their end with a dose of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide. Farmers next “pelt” the mink carcasses, stripping off their tube-like outer casing. The fatty layer below the mink’s flesh is rendered into mink oil (a lubricant used to treat certain human skin conditions and to condition boots and leather), while the pelts are sent along to coat manufacturers.

Transforming mink skin into clothing is a time-consuming process that takes skilled hands. A full-length mink coat requires between seventy and ninety full pelts. Trained furriers hand trim the pelts, meticulously slitting each into dozens of diagonal strips. The strips are laid alongside one another and re-sewn into long, coat-length panels. Furriers then “nail” the coat together with about four pounds of pins. Having over sewn the seams, coat-makers finish the garment into a glossy sheen through long hours of soaking, glazing, and beating to raise the nap.

Ranchers looking to break into this modern fur trade had first concluded that minks were hardly worth the trouble. In the 1920s and 1930s the clothing industry considered the silver fox its fashion darling. The Denver-based National Fur News, the industry’s leading trade magazine, gushed over the silver fox, calling it the “miracle fur” and the “fur most universally admired by men and desired and sought after by women.” Denver furrier Coloman Jonas, founder of Denver’s elite Jonas Brothers Fur Company, hailed silvers as “the King of Foxes . . . praised the world over as the choice of the elite.” At its peak in the late 1920s, prime silver pelts fetched upwards of $200 each, compared to a “well-selling” mink’s price of only fourteen dollars.

As fox ranches sprouted up all over the Rocky Mountain West, Colorado breeders rushed to cash in on the boom. By 1927 local ranchers had organized the Rocky Mountain Fur Breeders Association. Within ten years, Colorado fur farms were considered national leaders in the quality and diversity of their breeding stock. Despite their prestige, few Colorado breeders dabbled in mink—and for good reason. Trapped wild minks proliferated in the marketplace while captive mink-raising was costly to start. The best breeding pairs—from Alaska, Labrador, and the Yukon—could set ranchers back anywhere from $150 to $1,200. Constructing pens and providing feed was also expensive, and minks suffered from a number of notorious personality quirks.

Stressed by captivity and highly sensitive to sudden noises, minks can literally be scared to death. They succumb to an astonishing range of illnesses, from respiratory conditions and intestinal worms to distemper, botulism, kidney stones, and tooth decay. They have a discouraging propensity to bite and gouge each other and their handlers. They often mutilate themselves in fits of nervousness, ruining their pelt in the process. Sometimes, all it takes is the noise of a passing airplane to drive a mother mink into a frenzied attack on her own children. It was with great understatement that an industry expert warned prospective breeders in the early 1930s that minks “cannot be raised in captivity without difficulty.”

Mink raising also suffered from a limited market. Compared to fox pelts of gray, silver, white, red, or tawny brown, monochromatic minks held limited appeal. From time to time a lucky rancher would rear a so-called “mutation mink” —literally a mink of a different color—that fetched a premium price in the fur market. But until ranchers could selectively breed minks to produce these qualities on an industrial scale, the silver fox remained the most profitable furbearing animal of the 1920s and the 1930s, even as higher market prices and better-quality domesticated pelts were slowly making minks the furbearer of the future. Once setup costs were dispensed with, minks were both relatively cheap to raise and under-produced. By the late 1930s fur producers were harvesting more than 1 million fox pelts per year, causing industry analysts to wonder if the market for silver foxes was becoming dangerously crowded. Taking stock of these conditions, US Department of Agriculture specialist Frank G. Ashbrook advised breeders in 1934 that “the Mink is coming.”

Second Fur Trade

Minks develop their richest pelts between 5,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level, which made sites as varied as Strasburg, Delta, Rifle, and Golden ideal for raising mink in Colorado. Located 7,700 feet above sea level, the Genesee Mountain Fox and Mink Farms set the pace for successful mink cultivation. The farm’s proprietor, Dr. M. R. Howard, was elected as the first president of the Colorado Mink Breeders’ Association when it formed in 1938, and his “Mink Manual Methods” column, published monthly in the National Fur News, provided valuable advice for startup breeders. Mink raisers got another boost in 1937, when fur growers in Wisconsin developed specialty “mutation minks.” Previously, mink raisers produced pelts in variations of brown, enhanced somewhat by careful application of dye with a feather brush. Over time, ranchers learned to selectively breed new stock in a variety of colors, ranging from snowy white to platinum blue to gunmetal gray to glossy black. The price of mutation pelts skyrocketed over natural ones.

Between 1943 and 1946 the going price for single pelts rose from a range of six to twelve dollars to a range of twenty-two to forty dollars. Finished prices advanced commensurately. During World War II “blended” coats, made from the dyed furs of lesser-quality minks, sold for between $800 and $1,200. High-end coats were almost twice as expensive, and the best coats sold for as much as $20,000. By the end of the 1940s ranch mink had eclipsed both silver fox and wild mink, becoming the fashion standard for fur.

Postwar demobilization and a return to normalcy benefitted the fur industry greatly. Led by Colorado Senators Ed Johnson and Eugene Millikin, Congress repealed wartime excise taxes on fur-trimmed garments. As fur prices took off, more than a few returning GIs took interest in mink farming’s low overhead costs and high annual returns. Denver’s Emily Griffith Opportunity School took advantage of the buzz by offering a special GI Fur Farm School to interested veterans. The school blurred the lines between production and consumption by offering an open house and fashion show for prospective GI ranchers and their wives.

Reinforced by the returning veterans, Colorado’s second fur trade era reached its zenith in the late 1950s. Annual production zoomed more than eightfold from a statewide total of around 8,000 pelts statewide in 1946 to roughly 65,000 pelts in a fifty-mile radius of Denver in 1958. Local fur ranches proliferated; a 1958 estimate reached 265, easily the high-water mark of Colorado mink ranching. Cold War–era prosperity brought a new maturity to the fur industry as well. Although the new fur boom enjoyed some of the reflected glow of the glamorous fashion industry, fur breeders of the 1950s consciously distanced themselves from the rowdy associations of the Rocky Mountain fur trade—associations that had been more apparent during the 1920s and 1930s, when ranchers relied heavily on trapping to replenish their stock. Unlike the devil-may-care trappers of yore, modern fur producers valued their mastery of scientific breeding and progressive economic management strategies. During the 1950s and 1960s, trade publications such as the National Fur News filled their pages with articles on scientific advancements, genetics, nutrition, market trends, and marketing advice. One spokesman compared Colorado’s fur breeders to contemporary cattle raisers: “The breeding and raising of fur animals today is as exact and cut-and-dried as the production of pure-bred beef cattle or race horses.”

Decline

From its peak in 1958, the industry slowly declined as family operations consolidated or producers got out altogether. In Colorado, Aurora rancher Jack Duckels absorbed many of the state’s other outfits and became Colorado’s biggest mink producer by the 1960s. A graduate of Denver’s South High School, Duckels had bought his first breeding pair of fur producing animals, a pair of silver foxes, in 1932. For all of his eventual success, the end came as abruptly for Duckels as it did for others. In just three years, pelt production plummeted nationwide, from 5.7 million in 1969 to 3.2 million in 1971. Analysts attributed the sudden collapse to a precipitous price drop, sparked by a decline in demand. Suddenly, it cost more to raise a mink than its pelt was worth. Duckels’s sales figures support this assumption. In 1961 his 20,000 minks averaged between thirty-five to forty-five dollars for each pelt, yielding an annual profit of roughly $400,000. Ten years later he received just six dollars per pelt, amounting to an annual loss of $150,000.

Although Colorado no longer shares in the riches of the mink industry, its absence has allowed a measure of social peace. Aside from occasional anti-fur protests at area fur retailers, Colorado has avoided the controversy and the “mink liberations” that have shaken fur-raising communities in Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. There is no guarantee of the future, however, as cycles of fashion and resistance come and go.

Adapted from William J. Convery, “Minks to Match Our Mountains: Colorado’s Second Fur Trade Era, 1925–1971,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 26, no. 1 (2006).

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