The first thing I think of when I step into Jim's Horn House in Three Forks is the catacombs of Paris. Not that I've actually been there, mind you, but I've seen horror movies, and I know that row after row of skulls stare down at you, lined up like birds on a power line.
Jim's Horn House is a lot like that.
Less grim, admittedly—while that in - famous medieval labyrinth couldn't have happened without a whole lot of death, most of the antlers on the walls of Jim's were shed by the animals naturally. And subsequently found by Jim himself.
Jim worked in talc mines for 39 years. "People don't realize talc is in just about everything," he tells me. Here and there are chunks of talc and quartz set on the long pine tables running along the room's length, but there are many, many more horns. I asked him, "how many antlers are there in here?"
"No clue," he shrugged, but after a chuckle, he specified, "16,304, but I add some every year." I visited Jim in late winter, a week before he was to go in for heart surgery. A pig valve affixed to his heart 17 years ago had gone kaput and he needed to go under the knife.
"I'm not worried about it," he said. 'I've done it before."
Taking in the astonishing number of bone-white antlers in the room, I asked him how he managed to get them all.
"I don't go anywhere you can't go," he said. "I just started earlier than most folks."
There are two hobbies he'd maintained since he was ten years old, he said: searching for antlers and keeping a diary.
"It's hard to find something you could do today that gives you as much joy as when you were a 10-year-old," he says. "I just looked everywhere. I might crawl down into a draw, or circle the north side of the hill."
His favorites are oddities, specimens that display some anomalous imperfection. He says that people don't realize that these oddities usually betray some trauma suffered not to the head or antlers, but by the animal's body—disease, mutilation, insects. He holds up an antler with a bulbous club growing out the end and tells me it's a blood clot. There are others, too; an antler with barbed wire wrapped round and round it as the animal worked its way free; one with a non-fatal bullet hole through its base; another with tines that look like the fingers of a skeletal hand. Jim admits that he has no idea what caused many of his oddities, but they paint a poignant picture of life's ability to persist and endure.
"Looking for shed antlers saved my life," he said.
Years ago, he took ill while searching for his lifelong quarry. He managed to get to drive but collapsed, falling out of the car. When his doctor saw him, he was told that the results of his x-ray showed what the physician described as the "biggest heart I've ever seen." That's because it was filled with blood, the result of an aneurysm in his aorta. He credits searching for antlers for his still being around because if it had happened at home, he might not have bothered to go to the doctor."It really did save my life," he said again before turning to show me his found 19th-century bison skulls.
Jim's Horn House has had visitors from Russia, Europe, Korea, the Philippines, and, of course, all over the United States. It's been featured by National Geographic and Atlas Obscura. It inspires a range of reactions, Jim says, from boredom to ecstasy. Some people can't wait to leave, and others Jim has to drive away. Finally, I ask him the question that has been absorbing me. Just what is this thing he's spent a lifetime creating? A science museum or a piece of outsider art? He answers without skipping a beat. "It's neither. It's not about me. It's a collection. That's what it's for. For people to look at it."
Two weeks after visiting, I wrote Jim an email with the subject line "SURGERY?" asking him if he'd survived, even though I already knew that no mere heart surgery would stop him that easily.
He responded promptly: "I left the hospital that evening and came home the next day. I had it done a week ago and have been walking three miles the last three mornings." I can't help thinking that his quest for antlers must have saved his life once again.