HIDES FOR VETS: Help the Elks help America's veterans

September 28, 2006 12:00 am
Donating your hide will help the Elks help veterans. Salting the hide helps prevent rot. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Donating your hide will help the Elks help veterans. Salting the hide helps prevent rot. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).


Doug Riggs and deer hides go way back.

So does his commitment to help America's military veterans.

Now you might think — and not without reason — that deer hides and veterans seem about as similar as, say, clam shells and astronauts.

But members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks — Riggs is one — have been using hides to help the country's heroes for more than half a century.

And not by sewing buckskin trousers.

(Although in some places the Elks use hides, which are donated by hunters, to craft protective, fingerless gloves for veterans who are confined to wheelchairs, and to create kits with which veterans can craft leather goods to supplement their incomes.)

The Baker Elks Lodge, on the other hand, sells deer hides — and, appropriately, elk hides — and then donates the proceeds, minus expenses, to veterans hospitals and homes.

Last year, for instance, the Baker Elks Lodge's Hides for Veterans Committee, of which Riggs is chairman, gathered 521 deer hides and 250 elk hides in Baker County.

The Lodge sold those hides to a buyer from Chehalis, Wash., for $3,483, Riggs said.

After deducting $707 for expenses, the Lodge donated $2,776 to the Oregon Hides for Veterans program. A state committee distributes those dollars to veterans facilities to buy items ranging from toiletries to TVs, Riggs said.

Nationwide, the Elks Veterans Leather Program, which began in 1948, set an all-time record in 2005 by collecting more than 14,000 hides, according to an article in The Elks magazine.

The program started at an Elks convention in Philadelphia when a delegate from each Lodge in California tossed a bundle of hides onto the speaker's rostrum.

The Baker Lodge's expenses actually totaled about $1,000 last year, Riggs said, but other donations — including $100 from the local Lady Elks — picked up part of the tab.

The biggest part of that tab was reimbursing Elks volunteers for gasoline, Riggs said. Volunteers logged 2,855 miles on Baker County byways last year as they collected hides from the network of 12 donation barrels the Lodge puts out every autumn just before the rifle deer-hunting season (it starts Saturday).

Riggs, who's 59, remembers tagging along with his grandad, Dwight Riggs Sr., on hide runs back in the 1950s.

"I was probably eight or so — it's a tradition that goes back a long ways," Riggs said.

Volunteers usually empty the barrels twice a week, he said.

Hides can spoil quickly when the weather's warm, Riggs said. That's why the Elks don't distribute the barrels during the usually scorching late-summer archery hunting season. Even so, many bowhunters donate hides each year, Riggs said.

He urges hunters to preserve hides if possible — a couple of simple, cheap precautions can prevent a $4.50 deer hide from becoming a $1 deer hide, Riggs said.

For instance, a deer or elk carcass that's been drug for half a mile over rocky ground — a not uncommon situation in Baker County, which has a wealth of mountains — usually loses patches of hair.

Those patches typically have to be sliced off the hide, slashing its value, Riggs said.

He recommends hunters sprinkle table salt on each hide — two to three pounds ought to cover a deer hike, four to five pounds for an elk.

Salt staves off spoilage and foils flies.

That last is as much to spare the Elks volunteers as the hide — imagine groping around in a barrel and coming up with a handful of maggots.

Or better yet, don't imagine that.

Elks volunteers haul donated hides — maggotless, preferably — to the Lodge's Wade Williams Memorial Park near the Powder River in south Baker City.

There they trim the hides, salt them (the Lodge used a dash or two more than a ton of salt last year, at a cost of $178), fold and stack them.

The hide buyer arrives twice each fall, Riggs said.