Skinning Muskrats in Depression-Era Maryland

George North could skin a muskrat blindfolded. At 56 years old, North was a white man who had spent his entire life on the Eastern Shore.[1] He lived in Cambridge, Maryland: home of the first annual muskrat skinning contest in 1939. He was a waterman, meaning he served in various industries from oyster-catching to hauling fish and managing the harbor’s goods. For most watermen like North, they found additional sources of income and subsistence through trapping and hunting. When local hunters set their traps and registered for the contest, they engaged in a practice that traced its lineage among the Choptank and Nanticoke tribes, Euroamerican colonizers, and enslaved, self-liberated, and post-emancipation African Americans. The muskrats’ ubiquity throughout much of North America and Canada made settlers intimately familiar with this web-footed member of the rodent family. Along the Eastern Shore, fathers often passed down these hunting practices to their sons, and many trappers held jobs that brought them closer to the muskrat—from agricultural labor to seafood industries throughout the region.

The muskrat skinning contest illustrates how government officials harnessed local residents’ ecological knowledge to improve land management practices. Furthermore, the contest offers a window into the shifting meanings of “private” and “public” lands in the Depression era. While these practices changed with the transfer of this marshland into government hands, the division of public versus private proved permeable in the first decades of the refuge’s establishment.

Locals had long commodified the region’s natural resources before the 1933 designation of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (originally named Blackwater Migratory Bird Refuge). The federal government purchased these 8000 acres from Delmarva Fur Farm, a Pennsylvania-based company that hired local trappers. Commodification of “furbearers” such as muskrats defined the relationship between Delmarva Fur Farm and county residents. Maryland’s muskrat fur market gained increasing renown in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1936, for example, Maryland residents raked in more than $2 million from the muskrat fur industry. Trappers sent their furs to dealers based on the Eastern Shore, who delivered pelts to New York-based auctions.[2] While local residents may not have gotten to enjoy the pleasure of owning a fur coat, they could monetize the hides they skinned from the marsh’s bounty.

This furs economy set the backdrop for the federal government’s purchase of Delmarva Fur Farm, which continued to lease out land from the refuge in the 1930s. In 1935, for example, Delmarva harvested 38,000 muskrats from the property. When the lease expired, Blackwater refuge staff continued to hire local trappers and allowed sharecroppers to grow produce within its boundaries.[3] By collaborating with these residents, the new refuge simultaneously imposed species control mechanisms and restored marsh vegetation.[4] They also benefited from the support of local Civilian Conservation Corps and National Youth Administration troops to build refuge infrastructure on former agricultural lands.[5]

Through hiring locals to harvest and prepare pelts for commercial markets, Blackwater staff engaged in a slow process of befriending the neighbors. Admittedly, this was a challenge in the refuge’s first years. One 1933 quarterly report remarked that “Little work has been done [on public relations] except to bring before the local people at every opportunity the purposes and benefits of the Refuge.” Despite federal prohibition of hunting and fishing at the refuge, locals resisted the reconfigured boundaries that demarcated how they moved about the landscape. Violation of these rules resulted in criminal charges, as nearly ever refuge report detailed. According to the refuge manager, engaging the locals was “an extremely slow and difficult conversation.”[6]

For this reason, Blackwater staff needed to ensure that word got out: they welcomed muskrat trappers! In co-sponsoring the skinning contest, refuge staff legitimated the practice of trapping. Contestants provided their own carcasses as they competed for $100 in prizes. Each winner also received an axe, skinning knife, and six traps. For them, such prizes and grandeur were insufficient without the additional cash that flowed from an exchange with the fur dealer and meat for the icebox. Onlookers, meanwhile, filled the Cambridge Armory Theater’s 1200 seats, and the county gleefully welcomed its out-of-state visitors. The Outdoor Life Show wrangled in tourists, recognizing that visitors “no doubt, like many others look forward to the time when you can retire from the noise and the dirt of the large city to the peace and quiet that is the heritage of the Cambridge native.”[7] The skinning contest, in other words, acted as a booster for the local economy, and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge provided a restored landscape to welcome sportsmen and nature enthusiasts—all while state and federal officials sought to manage their muskrat population.[8]

The muskrat skinning contest cemented Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge’s presence on the Eastern Shore. While the Outdoor Life Show framed the skinning contest as entertainment, it also acknowledged this critical skill: not only the trapping for meat, but the pelt’s utility in the fur market. In co-sponsoring the contest, refuge staff attempted to signal to residents that Blackwater was their ally, especially critical as the country emerged out of the Depression. Just as families needed to put a meal on the table (if not muskrat meat, then food bought with cash they exchanged for the hide), Blackwater staff needed to control its outrageous muskrat population. They depended on locals’ ecological knowledge to effectively manage this prolific rodent. The relationship between Eastern Shore residents and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge was therefore mutually (and, for some, begrudgingly) beneficial.

According to the refuge quarterly narratives and local newspapers, Maryland continued to host the skinning contest until 1942. But World War II demanded the country’s men and women, and state officials decided to halt the Outdoor Life Show. By 1946, the town of Cambridge revived the Outdoor Show, complete with an oyster shucking competition, muskrat skinning contest, and participation from the state’s conservation organizations. In celebrating the seventy-fifth annual skinning contest in February 2020, Cambridge continues to recognize the muskrat’s contributions to the local economy.

A statue of young Harriet Tubman chasing a muskrat on display at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center. Photo by author (March 2020).
[Image descriptiont: A golden statue of a youn woman standing on a river bank is centered. In the background is an image of a yellow marsh and an overcast background. Text explaining the exhibit frames the statue on the right and left.]

Perhaps for this reason, it should not surprise visitors to find a muskrat—or rather, a statue of a muskrat—on display at the nearby Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center. To engage with the muskrat today, either by stewing the meat sold at local markets or viewing a statue of young Tubman as she chases a muskrat through the marsh, is to acknowledge the myriad ways of knowing a landscape. Indeed, such acknowledgements affirm the varied sociocultural meanings—official, vernacular, and even subversive—assigned to this fragile marshland. This knowledge manifests itself in Eastern Shore place-names, in the canals once dredged by enslaved African Americans, and among the best secret hunting and fishing spots passed on from one generation to the next.

[1] “Champion Muskrat Skinner is Selected,” The Daily Times (February 22, 1939).

[2] “Muskrat Season Closes March 15th,” The Star-Democrat (March 13, 1936).

[3] Census records of the known sharecroppers at Blackwater indicate they were all white.

[4] “Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex: Comprehensive Conservation Plan,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (September 2006), E-54.

[5] David V. Black, “Narrative Report for the Blackwater Migratory Bird Refuge,” Blackwater Migratory Refuge (January 1938); “Narrative Report for the Blackwater Migratory Bird Refuge,” Blackwater Migratory Refuge (February 1938); “Narrative Report for the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge,” Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (August-October 1940); “Narrative Report for the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge,” Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (May-August 1942).

[6] J.P. Van Huizen, “Quarterly Report on Reservation Wildlife and Activities Appurtenant Thereto: Blackwater Migratory Bird Refuge,” Blackwater Migratory Bird Wildlife Refuge (July-September, 1933).

[7] “Cambridge Outdoor Life Show and Second National Muskrat Skinning Contest, Cambridge Maryland, Jan. 31st and Feb. 1st, 1941, at the Armory, Conducted by Cambridge Civic Commission” (January 1941).

[8] Like much of the outdoors tourism economy in the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, such boosters catered to a white male audience. For more on this history, see e.g. Scott E. Giltner, Hunting and Fishing in the New South: Black Labor and White Leisure after the Civil War (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

*Cover image: Muskrat skinners, printed in “Blackwater Quarterly Narrative Reports: Feburary 1940 thur January 1941,” Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (1941), 17.

[*Cover image description: Two black and white photos side by side, the left picture shows two men standing outside against a flat background, the man on the right is skinning the light. The right photo shows a man sitting on a stool in long pants and a long shirt indoors, skinning a muskrat.]