BELFAST, Maine — Ape-raham the lowland gorilla once again was in his usual spot Tuesday afternoon — welcoming visitors to Perry’s Nut House from a perch overlooking the displays of homemade fudge and knickknacks.
But the difference is that now he looks fabulous, after a semester-long refurbishment project done by the Nokomis Regional High School taxidermy class. The gorilla was killed in Africa more than 100 years ago, and had been looking the worse for wear after a century spent on display or stored in a barn.
“We could have lost him,” said George Darling, who has owned the iconic Route 1 store since 2004. “He was in such bad shape. Now we have a 100-year-old gorilla back. I think they did a wonderful job — and I think we caught it just in time.”
Taxidermy teacher Howard Whitten and three of his four students delivered Ape-raham to the store and wrestled the animal and its heavy stand through the narrow corridors. The gorilla’s head banged against the ceiling tiles while being manhandled onto his display perch, leaving tufts of soft black and brown hair behind.
Then the group of students — members of the only high school taxidermy class in the world, they said — sprung into action.
Caitlin Parent, 16, of Plymouth, ran to grab a box of taxidermy supplies, including glue and an airbrush painting kit.
David Moore, 18, of Newport began to fix the fur and paint a slightly chipped spot on his face.
Elijah Anderson, 17, of Dixmont, made sure the moss that covered his stand was looking its best.
“I think it looks a lot better,” Moore said, after the refurbishing efforts.
Whitten said that he and the students fixed cracks and holes in the gorilla, rebuilt his ears and face and fixed his hands and feet. They cleaned him — a very dusty job, Anderson said — and added more hair to the patchy spots.
“There’s a big difference,” the teacher said, gesturing to photos of the premakeover Ape-raham. “Look at that. Look how sad he looks. Now look at him — he’s got to be happier.”
Ape-raham seemed right back where he belonged as the students worked on him. He is older than the Nut House, which was founded in 1927 by Irving O. Perry and enlarged in 1940 by Joshua Treat, who added the menagerie of animals that lurked both outside and in.
One of Treat’s most famous customers was Eleanor Roosevelt, who would stop on her way to Campobello Island each summer. A mention of the Nut House’s wild Maine berry jams in Mrs. Roosevelt’s syndicated newspaper column earned the store a national following.
But in 1997, the Nut House was closed and its collection of curiosities — including Ape-raham — sold at auction.
The store opened under new management a year after the auction, with much of its collection gone. But some of its most beloved curiosities — the gorilla, a cougar, a 21-foot long python hide and more — had been purchased by a Searsmont woman and stored in her barn.
She offered to sell them back to George and Ellen Darling at a good price after they purchased Perry’s Nut House.
Parent said that the students worked on the gorilla in a secured cage at the end of a hallway on the second floor of the high school in Newport.
“Some of the other kids thought it was really cool. Some thought it was gross,” she said.
But enough thought it was cool that Whitten’s taxidermy elective — which had an uncertain future earlier this year — has 15 students already signed up for the fall.
“The best part was learning more about him,” Parent, who wants to be a forensic medical examiner, said. “And we had fun with it.”