Shed Madness: The Antler Man and His Cathedral of Bone

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."
Now 64 and retired from the talc plant where he worked for 39 years, Phillips still recalls the first shed he found. He was 10 years old, "just trying to find something to do," when he hiked up a creekbed behind the family camp and discovered a bleached elk horn. He hauled it back to the trailer. The next day he found a couple more, and the next weekend more still. "My father told me he wasn't going to drag those damn things home in the car, but my mother talked him into it." Soon he had enough elk and deer antlers to build a backyard tower that rose between 30 and 40 feet, capped by the biggest matched set of elk antlers he had.
From the beginning, displaying the sheds was as important as finding them. "I've seen so many piles of horns," Phillips says, remembering a huge mound of antlers that used to rise in Yellowstone Park at Mammoth. "You couldn't really see them; it was always just a big pile." That struck him as wrong. "To me, if you're going to take the time to collect it--whether it's a two-point deer or a big old elk shed--it deserves the respect to be displayed. I try my best to give each one its due."
Over the years he built freestanding archways of antler and progressively larger buildings to showcase his finds. When he began building his current shed from reclaimed lumber, he designed it to display the most horns in the best possible way: a cathedral of bone.
The tabletops in Phillips's shed are slanted for easy viewing and to put antlers within reach of visitors, who are encouraged to pick up for a closer look anything that catches their eye. One table holds the largest whitetail sheds. Another is dedicated to freak elk horns.
The "freaks" hold special appeal for Phillips. A table that displays the best elk oddities always gets special attention during one of his antler tours. "I try to point it out, because to me it's incredible what these animals live through," he says. Skulls with broken or bent pedicles tell a story, if you know how to read it. "He's hitting that rack on everything, and it's an open bleeding sore when in velvet," Phillips says of a bull so afflicted. "Then the rut comes and he doesn't have much protection on that side, so he gets his butt kicked." Philips's cousin shot a bull with a beautiful 6-by-6 on one side and on the other almost no horn at all, just a ball-capped shaft like a gearshift and knob. "The bull's whole chest and face was nothing but scars," Phillips says. "Because he still tried to breed, still fought. You see that a lot in elk."
Consider this 10-point elk horn, the most points of any elk shed he's found. "That probably weighs 25 pounds. To think that an animal grew that in four to five months, and then carried it around," he says. "That's like you or me growing an arm or a leg, and doing it every year."
The biggest racks hang together by type--elks on one wall, muleys and whitetails on others--rows and rows of the best each species can offer. "All the mule deer racks are really big and some are 30 inches wide or better," Phillips says. "The problem is, when you put them all together, they don't look that big."
Phillips doesn't go in for antler arts and crafts--"I don't make chandeliers or salt shakers" he says, but he does put his own creative flourishes on The Horn Shed's details and layout. Extensive rockwork uses calcite crystal salvaged from the talc mine, with hundreds of elk burrs inlaid in the mortar throughout.
With more than 14,000 antlers on display (another thousand or so are stored in a secondary shed) the first impression can be of chaos, of racks jackstrawed and jumbled into every nook and cranny. But look closely, Phillips advises. There's a method to his madness.
Symmetry--the standard by which all racks are judged--rules the shed's design as well. Chalky, pitted racks, bleached by long exposure, are balanced with fresher finds, tines gleaming like polished glass. A setting sun on the west wall mirrors a rising sun on the east. Sketched in rock and petrified wood, these tableaux feature the only two head mounts in his shed. Like so much in Phillips' collection, there's a story behind them.
The sunrise buck was taken by a friend of the family in the depths of the Great Depression. "He was so proud of it that he scraped and saved to get it mounted," Phillips says, even though times were hard. The monument to that long-ago hunt claims a spot of honor in his showcase.
The sunset buck is the other mount's opposite--discarded instead of cherished. Phillips salvaged the scruffy velvet buck from one of his favorite antler hunting spots: The town dump. He has turned up antelope, bison and even caribou horns there. One man's trash is often Antler Man's treasure.
Phillips spends between 200 and 250 hours a year hunting sheds, starting in January along the river bottoms and moving higher as the snow recedes. By May he's ready to break for summer, haunted by rattlesnakes. During hunting season in October and November, he's again stalking the hills for sheds and meat.
Though he enthusiastically hunted elk, deer, and moose in younger days to feed his family, he has always preferred shed hunting to meat hunting. "Four or five times I've had my gun over my shoulder, my arms full of antlers, and walked up on a big buck," Phillips says. "By the time I got the sheds unloaded and the gun up, the buck was gone." Once, working his way up a draw on a deer hunt, he found a half-dozen sheds before stopping for lunch. "It was a nice sunny day, so I sat down and had a sandwich. After a while, I gathered up my sheds and went on up the draw, finding a few more. It was probably a half hour later I tripped on a log and fell down. That's when I realized I'd left my rifle back at my lunch spot. It just floored me: I was so concerned with sheds that I forgot my rifle."
Obsessions can be tough on those who don't understand them. When he first married, Phillips says, his long absences bred suspicion. "My wife thought, 'Man, nobody does that. He must have a girlfriend.' So she started going with me. And pretty soon she figured out, 'No, he's just that nuts.'"
His daughters, he jokes, used to tell people, in all innocence, that their dad was the horniest man in the county. "They can tell stories about getting up before dawn and wading ice cold rivers to hunt for sheds," Phillips says. Last summer, on the day before Father's Day, the girls found a moose shed while hiking. "They were pretty excited to tell me about it, and they said, 'We'll take you back and see if we can find the other side.' And sure enough we did."
It turned out the sheds were off the same moose from which Phillips had claimed a matched set--his first ever set of moose sheds--just a year before. He's since spotted the big bull again, and hopes to find a third set of sheds this fall. It's the kind of serendipitous discovery that still delights him after 54 years.
"I still get the same thrill today as I did when I was 10," Phillips says. "To me it's like an Easter egg hunt every time I go." And rush is just as good for a whitetail spike as a big elk horn. His favorite find, in fact, is a tiny whitetail spike, a whole antler that fits in his pocket; he carries it on a keychain wherever he goes.
"I don't know how to explain it. Everybody collects something, I think. This is what I chose to collect."
Or do the horns choose him? Many times, Phillips says, he has been hiking along and stopped involuntarily, sensing--before seeing--that an antler is nearby. "I don't know if it's a sixth sense or what it is," he says, "but people think you're nuts when you tell them about it."
In one of the many journals he keeps, Phillips wrote, "I have always felt there is a spirit sealed in the antlers' hardness." He feels it when he picks one up, for the first time or years later in his shed. "When I grab an antler and hold it, my attention is on it. Even now, when I go in the shed I'll grab a hold of one and there's just a feeling." It's a thread that runs through his life.
Antler Man still collects, though the multi-day trips are more rare now. Miles are longer, finds fewer and farther between. Game numbers are down in this part of Montana, and more people than ever are searching for sheds. His best day ever for deer finds was 97, 35 for elk. "It used to be that anything under 30 deer antlers or 15 elk sheds was a bad day. Now 10 is good."
But numbers are not the point. "People say, 'Well, how many will be enough?' None will be enough. There's not a number I'm reaching for."
"Shed hunting for me is kind of a selfish thing," admits the Antler Man. "I don't give them away. I don't share real well." He sold hundreds to help put three daughters through college, lost others to thieves, and traded a few. The rest--15,533 and counting--he's holding onto, a collection of days as much as sheds, a way of life built one find at a time. "I'm extremely thankful I live in a place where I have an opportunity to do this, with a family that put up with it all these years," he says. "It has brought a lot of enjoyment." It's easy to forgive a man being greedy for that.

_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._