The Orthobers: One Family, Three Artists

Isn’t it amazing how life turns out sometimes? Who could have imagined that a little boy’s interest in birds would have led, indirectly, to two outstanding careers and a retirement hobby?

“Door County was a wonderful place to grow up in the 1940s and ‘50s,” said Gary Orthober of rural Sturgeon Bay. “We farm kids spent whole days in the woods, just roaming around. Everybody knew one another in those days and nobody cared whose land kids were on. We’d take a sandwich and a pint of water and be out all day. When we ran out of water, we’d lie down and drink out of a spring.

“I’ve always been interested in birds since I got my first BB gun at age eight. When I was a child, there were meadowlarks everywhere in the hayfields. Now that farmers start cutting their hay so early in the summer, the larks’ nests are destroyed, and they’re all gone. Bobolinks are disappearing, too. I haven’t seen one in 25 or 30 years.”

Down the road a bit, Gary married Marilyn Whitwell, and within a few years they had three lively little boys – first Mike, and then the twins, Matt and Mark. To keep them occupied when they were really young, Gary often sat them down at the kitchen table, gave them paper and pencils, and told them to draw birds. Being little boys, they drew lots of airplanes, too, but Mike, especially, concentrated on birds and showed amazing talent for his age. At three, he was drawing recognizable birds, and in 1970, when he was 10, he painted one of his drawings with model airplane paint and gave it to his mom for Mother’s Day. It’s still on her wall 46 years later.

Like their dad, the three boys got BB guns when they were eight. They had to learn to identify birds they were allowed to shoot – starlings and English sparrows – because if their dad caught them with others, they were in big trouble.

At 11, Mike became interested in taxidermy.

Mike Orthober’s interest in drawing detailed sketches of wildlife led to a successful career in taxidermy. Photo by Len Villano.

“Dad’s brother, Roger, in Jacksonport had sent away for a correspondence course on mounting birds from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy. He mounted two birds then decided it wasn’t the hobby for him. He gave me the lesson book and tools, I got more books from the library and went to work on a bird.”

“Yes, he did,” Marilyn chimed in. “Right on my kitchen table.”

Mike still has some of those first tools hanging in his shop on Oak Road near Egg Harbor.

By the time he was a sophomore at Sevastopol High School, he had created a little workshop in the basement at home and had a part-time business mounting birds.

“The cool thing about taxidermy,” he said, “is to take a dead animal, take it apart and put it together again so it looks like it’s alive.”

In 1981, two or three years after the Wisconsin Taxidermy Association was formed, the organization had a booth at a sports show in Appleton. At that time, Gary and Marilyn were co-owners of the County Sunshine Campground (now Harbour Village Campground & Waterpark), and their booth was next to the taxidermy booth. It was Mike’s first glimpse of something that was to become a major part of his life.

“The next spring,” he said, “my girlfriend, Lorie Smith, (now my wife) and I drove down to Milwaukee for a statewide competition. It was just incredible. I’d never seen anything like it. The next year I took a mounted squirrel to a mini-competition and got second place. The year after that, I entered two ducks and a squirrel in a big competition. There were 28 ducks in the category. The international judge gave one second, one third and three honorable mentions. My duck got honorable mention. It wasn’t that great, but I didn’t know it at the time. Actually, it was one of the biggest ‘mentions’ I ever got.”

Professionals usually agree that the most difficult branch of taxidermy is fish mounting. Most of the top award winners are also outstanding “flat artists” with the ability to draw, paint and mix colors. (Remember those drawing sessions around his folks’ kitchen table and the bird he painted with model airplane paint?) In 1997, at a competition in Springfield, Illinois, Mike became the world champion in the fish category.

“For 16 years,” he said, “I’d just kept entering and learning.”

His world-champion entry was a 16 to 17-pound brown trout that he showed reentering the water after leaping out. The tip of its tail just touched a plastic wave, surrounded by little splatters of water.

There have been countless more “artistic” entries, including a sora rail that he mounted walking on lily pads. Most of the pads are copper, but Mike painted one to look like a real lily pad with a little copper flower.

Perhaps the most unusual mount Mike has done is the head and shoulders of a giant Cape Buffalo that he took to a national show in 1993.

“Most entries were still habitat mounts,” Mike said. “What I did was like modern art; the buffalo had spit running out of his mouth and looked like he’d been wallowing in the mud.”

Because it didn’t receive a blue ribbon, it wasn’t eligible for a special award. A terrible disappointment, but out of that incident grew something remarkable. Sallie Dahmes and Ken Edwards had just become owners of the Wildlife Artist Supply Company (WASCO).

“There was one entry that I was drawn to that was unlike anything I had ever seen before,” Ken wrote later. “Mike Orthober of Wisconsin had entered a beautiful Cape Buffalo game head that literally blew me away. The buffalo was looking up, to the left and covered in mud. His shoulders seamlessly morphed into an oversize natural representation of a giant Cape buffalo horn which gracefully followed the curve of the composition down to the floor, where it was tastefully embedded into a smooth, black-lacquer base. It was original, it was unique, it was artistic, and it was compelling. I was sure that this would be the standout piece of the competition, soon to be featured on magazine covers throughout the industry.

“Mike didn’t know it at the time, but his mount was the reason that the WASCO Award for the Most Artistic Entry in a show came into being. It has become the most coveted award in the field. Recipients have said it is like receiving an Oscar for taxidermy.”

The WASCO was first awarded in 1994. In the 22 years since then, Mike has won seven times. The buffalo now resides in his shop. (His dad has suggested that Mike put it in the front window of his home, like the “leg lamp” in A Christmas Story.)

In recent decades, Mike has become one of the most respected seminar leaders and judges of international competitions, traveling to Russia, Austria, Italy, England, France and Africa. His dad said, “My job is to do the bragging. He won’t say, ‘I’m the best in Wisconsin, North America and the world.’ But I will!” And Mike responded with a modest, “I am pretty high up in the taxidermy world.” He is also responsible for the amazingly life-like displays in the Door County Historical Museum in Sturgeon Bay.

Another of Mike’s interests is teaching the wildlife portion of hunter safety classes, something he’s done for 20 years.

Photographer Matt Orthober, whose career began in nature and now focuses almost entirely on portraits. Photo by Len Villano.

Younger brother Matt Orthober got his first camera for his birthday or Christmas when he was in eighth grade.

“Mike was mounting birds,” he said, “but I liked to go take pictures. I took all three photography classes Sevastapol offered and was really interested in nature photography, but thought that wasn’t a career path.

“However, at the beginning of Mike’s taxidermy career, I often worked with him, getting shots of birds and animals that would be useful in his mountings. At the end of one spring, we were sorting through about 25,000 slides, saving the ones Mike could use. We had thrown most of them in a wastebasket, when I looked down and saw a perfect shot of a Blue-winged Teal that I later entered in competition. Mike said it looked scabby, but he was looking only at the bird, and I was looking with a photographer’s eye. That photo is one I have on National Traveling Loan.”

In 1983, Matt went to work for Harmann Studios, selling cameras. He let the owner know he wasn’t interested in shooting weddings. Three weeks later, he shot his first one. Now the total is more than 2,500. In 1989, he went into business for himself.

“I’ve had my own lab for 25 years,” he said, “and love to work in the darkroom. Digital photography opened up a whole new world of options that weren’t available 10 or 15 years ago. People used to be in awe of a photographer because he came in with lots of fancy equipment. Now my cameras look just like everyone else’s…In the old days, the camera didn’t do anything. The photographer was in charge of the picture from flash to processing. Digital is a lot harder, but I love being able to see the picture right away. I used to have four colors to work with; now there are 16 million. I’ve had to relearn everything, but I would not go back to film…Digital is so much easier for school pictures, because they go right to the computer, and the order is done. I shoot the kids on a green screen, then put them on whatever background they want.”

School pictures are a big part of Matt’s business. The day before this interview he arrived at T. J. Walker Middle School in Sturgeon Bay at 7 am, was finished with staff pictures by 7:45 and with the pictures of 600 to 700 students by 10:30 am.

“Now,” Matt said, “99 percent of my work is people pictures – family portraits, senior pictures, babies. I have one of the few jobs where what I do will last the life of the people I photograph and the lives of their heirs forever. That’s kind of cool. I’ve had relationships with lots of families for many years. I really like young people, and it’s fun to watch them grow up.”

Among the special projects Matt has done is taking multiple photos of Mike’s mounted birds and animals at the historical museum and posting them at all the spots from which the mountings can be viewed.

A long-time Rotarian, Matt has been the district chair for international youth exchange for nine years and has visited Brazil, Bolivia, Poland and Colombia many times.

He makes clear that his career is living in Door County, and he does whatever is necessary to make this possible.

“I believe you can either be a career man and go where it takes you, or make a living where you want to be and do what you have to do to make that possible.”

All three Orthober men are firmly rooted in Door County. Long ago, when Western Electric wanted to transfer Gary to Texas, he resigned.

Gary Orthober with one of his handcarved pieces. Photo by Len Villano.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he recalled, “but I looked around Door County, where I’d grown up. Everyone seemed to be making a living, and I thought, well, if they are doing it, I guess I can, too. I’m a fellow who likes to try something new every seven or eight years.”

Since he left Western Electric, he’s had a little farm on Plum Bottom Road, done plumbing and electrical work with his brother, Roger, built cabinets and furniture for others and his own Spanish-style home next to the carpet shop his wife operated, co-owned a successful campground for several years “until a man offered us a lot of money for it,” and, finally, established the Orthober Gallery on Third Avenue with Sturgeon Bay’s first coffee shop in back.

After Gary retired, he and Marilyn spent a number of winters in Texas and Florida.

One year, she gave him a set of chisels for Christmas. On a day in Florida when he seemed restless – “Or,” he laughed, “she just wanted me out from underfoot,” – she suggested he go to the carving class in the community center. His first project was a mushroom. Then a bittern. Much later, an incredibly detailed and painted meadowlark. Now Gary’s work is displayed at Fine Line Designs. The talent was inside him all those years ago, when he was encouraging his little boys to draw birds.

“It’s come full circle,” Matt said. “Dad encouraged us to love art and nature. I helped Mike with photos to aid his career. Now Dad goes to the museum to see Mike’s mounted birds to be sure the size and proportions of what he’s carving are true to life.”

And Marilyn, the wife and mom?

“She’s always been a huge supporter of whatever we wanted to try,” Matt said. “And she’s right there with Dad, leading the cheers.”

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