The stench of raw deer scraps filled a cold, blood-stained garage earlier this week in northwest Davenport, but the two elderly gentlemen inside appeared unfazed.
“A lot of guys wouldn’t touch a deer hide if their life depended on it,” Jim Koens said with a laugh, "but we're so used to it that it isn't a problem."
On behalf of the Davenport Elks Lodge 298, Koens, 79, and his pal, Jerry King, 78, collect, trim and salt deer hides donated by Quad-City hunters for the nationwide Veterans Leather Program. Since the start of deer hunting season in September, the longtime volunteers have prepared and preserved close to 200 skins for storage and future shipment to a tannery in Tennessee. The hides will be transformed into leather products, including kits for making wallets, belts and moccasins, as well as finished wheelchair gloves.
Military veterans in medical facilities throughout the U.S. will receive the complimentary kits to assemble and potentially sell. The professionally crafted gloves will be distributed to disabled veterans in wheelchairs at adaptive sports clinics and other events.
Answering the call
Koens and King, both avid hunters, salted a record 841 hides during the 2015-16 season, a number they hope to match this year. Since taking charge of Davenport's efforts in the early-to-mid 2000s, they have developed a reliable and successful system.
The partners routinely pick up donations from Schnoor's Smokehouse near Walcott, Iowa, and Johnnie's Meat Market in Davenport. Hunters, too, may drop off hides at the lodge, 4400 W. Central Park Ave., Davenport. Prior to each session in the garage, they spray themselves with insect repellent to ward off deer ticks. It takes them about 20 minutes to prepare each hide. Handling one at a time, they scrape off any remaining meat from the skin, cut off the tails and add copious amounts of salt.
They stacked 172 hides on pallets Tuesday and loaded them onto a trailer. Koens then delivered their first haul of the season Wednesday to the Cedar Rapids Elks Lodge 251, where the hides will remain in storage until early 2018, he said.
While King, a native of Rock Island, never served in the military or belonged to an Elks club, he believes it is his duty to take this opportunity to give back.
“Somebody needs to help, and as long as I’m able, I think I will,” he said. “We can’t just leave somebody hanging with nothing to do and no hope.”
Koens, a lifelong Davenport resident, does not have a military background either, but he has been involved with the fraternal organization, officially called the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, since 1969.
The Elks launched the Veterans Leather Program in 1948 at the organization's annual Grand Lodge Convention in California. During the 2016-17 hunting season, the program garnered 17,763 deer hides, creating 25,346 kits, the Elks National Veterans Service Commission reported.
The duo in Davenport gathered 804 hides this past year, more than any of the other 26 participating Elks lodges in Iowa, which provided 2,967 hides altogether. That total ranked second among the 17 contributing states; Missouri donated the most.
'Hunting is the fun part'
Thanks to the Elks, patients throughout the Veterans Administration health care system use the processed materials to pursue mentally stimulating projects that also help them exercise injured or aged muscles.
“It gives them something they can do and use,” Koens said, explaining the reasoning for his strong commitment to the effort.
The Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown received more than 2,828 feet of leather — worth about $12,726 — this past year, according to the Elks National Veterans Service Commission.
The therapeutic workshops held twice a week at the nursing home allow the veterans to socialize, laugh and work together, said Brad Shipley, resident services supervisor.
“It’s always good to see the smiles on their faces,” he said.
Following an afternoon of hide work this week, Koens and King retired to the bar at the Davenport lodge. Koens sipped on a Miller 64 as the friends swapped hunting stories.
"I used to live to hunt," King said, adding he has not killed a deer in six years.
He previously harvested an 11-point buck, which is mounted on a wall at his home.
"I'm after one bigger than that," King continued. "Hunting is the fun part."
If he does take a deer this year, one can bet what will happen to the hide.