Between Bozeman and Butte in the Big Sky country of Montana, in a little town named for the nearby Three Forks that braid up the headwaters of Missouri River, lives a man with a magnificent obsession. His name is James Phillips, but most everybody in these parts knows him as Antler Man.
Since he was a boy living in a homemade trailer in the Gallatin Canyon, Phillips has hiked the area’s big tracts of public land to hunt for antlers dropped by whitetails, mule deer, elk, and moose. In a half-century of scouring hillsides, washes, and ridgelines for a glint of bone, he has amassed more than 15,000 antlers, which he displays in a 30x64-foot building he calls The Horn Shed.
The numbers, while impressive, are not the point. “All you need is plenty of money to get a shed full of antlers,” says Phillips, plainly proud that he’s never dropped a dime for bone. While a few have come as gifts, a handful in trade, all the others he packed out on his back, without the aid of ATVs or horses, on dawn-to-dusk hikes or multi-day trips that take him miles into steep back country.
Eighty percent were found within 100 miles of home. They speak to a life shaped by mountains, of resting and then rising to climb one more hill or delve one more canyon. All to reach down and grab hold of another antler. To give in to the collector’s hunger and then pack all of it home to show the world.
Anybody could do it. “All it takes,” says Antler Man, “is a strong back and a weak mind.”