MILFORD — Joe Millham's taxidermy business thrived for nearly three decades in New York's Catskill Mountains where he collected state and national awards and raised two daughters with his wife, Carol. But about three years ago the couple decided it was time to think about retirement, albeit a working retirement.
Joe Millham researched available land in towns with good hunting seasons and shorter winters. They hopped on a Harley-Davidson and prepared to spend a month on the road.
His targets: West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
He didn't see anything in West Virginia that caught his eye, and "Tennessee would have had to have a miracle to win over Kentucky," Millham recalled recently.
Last summer Millham opened his business, Mountain Rest Taxidermy, in the countryside of Harrison County.
The certified taxidermist said he hopes to lure plenty of new clients. But many of his regular customers say the detail in his artwork — and taxidermy collectors certainly cherish quality pieces as art — is worth the drive.
Millham described the site he found in Harrison County as "majestic and beautiful." It was a perfect 130 acres on rolling hills. It was less than two hours from an international airport and not far from a hospital.
Repairs to the 80-year-old wooden building that would become his home and shop took a few years of traveling back and forth between Kentucky and New York.
"This really fit, and it reminded me a lot of home," Millham said.
The building was once used as a summer camp for boys and was last occupied in the early 1960s, Millham said. He lives in the shop, surrounded by mounted animals, prize ribbons and plaques dating to the 1980s. Millham received an Award of Excellence in 1988, which is a taxidermist's highest honor.
"How many people get to get out of bed and you're already at work?" Millham said.
He said his dream is to turn his property outside Milford into a wildlife paradise. He said he probably will never truly retire.
He recognized his affinity for taxidermy at a young age and unsuccessfully attempted to teach himself the craft, using small animals, in his early teens.
"I always liked looking at taxidermy," he said. "You're taking something and you make it look alive again."
Years later Millham became determined to learn taxidermy after his wife took up knitting. He recalled thinking that he could learn about taxidermy if she could learn to create a nice sweater.
He figured out the trade, using a mail-order course, and then he attended his first taxidermy convention with the New York State Taxidermy Association.
"Boy, I thought I was hot stuff," Millham said.
Carrying a deer head, a bear head, a life-size pheasant and a life-size beaver, Millham quickly realized he was "a little fish in a big pond."
Still he walked away from the convention with a fourth-place ribbon. Millham would collect six first-place ribbons the next year. In the third year, he would be asked to teach a seminar.
"Pretty much, it just snowballed from there," he said.
Millham lived with his wife on Mountain Rest Road in Pine Bush, N.Y., where he started the business. And work seemed to double every year, he said.
Bob Antoinette, who lives in Putnam County, N.Y., started using Millham about 20 years ago. Millham has done at least a dozen pieces for Antoinette, including deer, elk and turkeys. Antoinette recently had a moose shipped from British Columbia, where the animal was shot, to Millham in Kentucky.
"He's got a real artistic eye," Antoinette said. "He takes pride in what he does. He's a true artist."
Sal Speziale of Hopewell Junction, N.Y., said he's had Millham do two or three pieces for him each year for about six years. He said the taxidermy serves as memories of certain hunts and friends.
Speziale also praised Millham for his attention to detail.
"When someone shoots a trophy animal, they want it to be as real as it can be," he said.
Millham's business attempts to make an assortment of animals look alive. A white tail deer shoulder costs about $385, according to his Web site. A life-size white tail deer would be about $2,800. He does various North American animals as well as birds, fish and exotic animals.
Millham encourages people to compare prices when looking for a taxidermist. But he said they also should look at the quality of the work.
He said taxidermy is not a used car that's kept for three years. But it's something "you're going to keep for the rest of your life."