116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
For more than 20 years, the Iowa Elks Association has collected deer hides from hunters to make wheelchair gloves and crafting leather for veterans with disabilities.
'We make wheelchair gloves which we give at no charge to wheelchair-bound veterans,' said Dennis Walker, state chairman of the Veterans Leather Program. 'They have a reinforced palm, but the fingers are cut off so they (veterans) still have dexterity to do what they want to do while getting around in their wheelchairs.'
The Iowa program collects between 2,500 and 4,500 hides a year at local Elks clubs, like the Cedar Rapids Lodge #251, 801 33rd Ave. SW.
The program, which has counterparts in 11 other states, also provides jobs by having the hides tanned and leather goods made in American factories, said Walker, of Indianola.
John W. Miller, of Waterloo, helped start Iowa's program in 1998, when organizers collected 640 hides.
'I thought that was great,' Miller said.
But the program grew. One year, the Elks collected over 6,000 hides.
When hides are dropped off at the Cedar Rapids lodge, Ron Gardner, 79, trims off the fat and salts the hides to preserve them until mid-January, when they are loaded on a semi and taken to a tannery. He removes the deer tails, which are sold for 25 cents each to a man who makes fishing flies.
'So far, I've done 70-some hides,' Gardner said. 'We collect them from all over Eastern Iowa.'
The annual haul depends on how good of a deer hunting season Iowa has and whether hunters know about the program. Iowa hunters harvested nearly 95,000 deer last year, down from 108,000 in 2018-2019, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported.
'There are so many hides that when they skin them, they just throw them away,' Walker said. 'We have a use of those hides for the veterans.'
Although regular gun season for deer is over, bow and muzzleloader hunting seasons continue until Jan. 10.
Leather workers can get four pairs of gloves out of a good-sized deer hide, he said. The rest of the hide is used to make moccasin kits and crafting leather, also free for veterans.
'They can use this to make leather goods, such as vests, checkbook covers and belts,' he said. 'They make and are able to sell those things for their own benefit. It gives them something to do, plus it provides a little bit of income to them.'
Elks Lodge members deliver the completed gloves and crafting leather to veterans homes, including the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown. Walker, who winters in Florida, said he also takes some gloves to a veterans home there. Florida does not have its own program, he said.
'They are good quality gloves they can use,' Walker said. 'They are real soft leather, reinforced in the palm. As you operate a wheelchair, it's kind of hard on your hands.'
Voluntary service members or lodge veterans chairs may request gloves or leather goods for their center at the program's website, elks.org/vets/leather.cfm.
The Iowa City Elks Lodge #590 does not participate in the leather program and is not a drop-off site for hides, but the group donated $2,500 for $50 gift cards for veterans, among other community support.
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