From Germany to Georgetown: Evelyn Billington is living her dream
Life in a ranch house up in the Texas Hill Country suits Evelyn Billington. Rustic handmade furniture surrounds a well-used fireplace; there’s a guitar tucked nearby. Mounted animals are the predominant decor. There’s a bobcat crouching on the mantle and even a coyote hiding under the television. Just off the porch, cattle and a handful of horses roam the rugged terrain next to the shops Evelyn and her husband, Mike, built. Some might think she’s an ordinary country gal, but they’d be wrong.
Evelyn grew up in Zuzenhausen, Germany. About an hour south of Frankfurt, the small village is surrounded by fields and forests—ample space for a tomboy who loved the outdoors. The wild and untamed landscape gave Evelyn a taste of where her young heart truly desired to be—Texas.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I loved watching Roy Rogers’ movies. I wanted to have a pony and a cowboy hat and sing western songs. I fantasized about being a cowgirl,” Evelyn explains. “I always told my parents—even when I was six years old—‘I’m going to move to Texas, and I’m going to be a cowgirl.’”
That fantasy wasn’t the only one lived out in the woods. Under the forest canopy, Evelyn pretended to be a paleontologist. She searched for dead animals among the fallen leaves, knowing that although they were deceased, their bodies still held secrets. The animals Evelyn found, she brought back home—much to the chagrin of her parents.
“I was into bones and recreating skeletons,” she recalls. “My parents were really wondering what kind of a maniac they adopted out of the orphanage, [a girl who] buries dead animals and then digs them back up a few months later and puts the skeletons together.”
It wasn’t until adulthood that Evelyn would realize her dreams in completely unexpected ways.
That’s Ms. Taxidermist
At eighteen, Evelyn married an American soldier—a Texan—and said auf Wiedersehen to Germany. The army whirlwind finally set them down in Killeen, where Evelyn joined the police force. In November 1994, Evelyn did what many police officers do to help with the bills: She took a side job.
Two of her fellow officers ran a taxidermy shop. When Evelyn stepped inside, she was surrounded by animals frozen in time. Evelyn remembers that first encounter: “Taxidermy was kind of like, ‘Wow, they’re recreating animals that were dead.’ I wondered how they did that.” For the girl from Zuzenhausen, having the chance to resurrect her woodland creatures and bring their form back to a semblance of life was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
So began her apprenticeship. Evelyn learned the steps to preparing the hides, adjusting the plastic forms that the tanned hide would cover, and most importantly, using an artist’s touch on the minutest details to give animals a lifelike appearance. “The best way to learn taxidermy is through an apprenticeship as well as joining your state and national organization, going to seminars, and hands-on classes,” Evelyn explains.
In 1997, Evelyn, newly remarried and living in Georgetown, ventured out full-time into her own taxidermy business, Billington Ranch Taxidermy. She built her reputation one custom piece at a time. But the journey wasn’t a smooth ride. Evelyn faced an uphill battle in a predominantly male line of work. Countless times customers called asking for the taxidermist, thinking she was the secretary. It wasn’t other taxidermists she had to convince of her skills—it was the hunters. And convince them she did.
Evelyn captured the title of National Champion in Reptiles and the National Award in Excellence at the 2004 National Taxidermists Association Competition. Over the years, she accumulated many other awards. As her reputation for quality work has spread, she doesn’t get mistaken for the secretary anymore. “It’s starting to change, but it’s still a male-dominated industry. But there are more and more women, and some of the best taxidermists in the world are actually women,” says Evelyn. “We’re slowly but surely starting to make our stand in the industry.”
She also taught her husband, Mike, the business. He brought his artistic talents as a custom jeweler and sculptor to the fine detailing necessary for the finishing touches as well as for creating the habitat the animal is mounted on. Together, they’ve created all manner of creatures, from a tiny field mouse to foxes, various birds, reptiles, and more traditional deer mounts. This past December, they finished their biggest project thus far: mounting a full-size African lioness and waterbuck. “The most fulfilling part is being able to recreate that animal as lifelike as it was,” Evelyn says.
A Yodeling Cowgirl
Working up in her shop, surrounded by wilderness and livestock, Evelyn is the cowgirl she always wanted to be. She rounds out the image when she starts to sing.
“Just about 12 years ago when I started picking up the guitar, I came across a Patsy Montana CD. All I wanted to do was learn some cowboy songs,” Evelyn remembers. “I had no clue she was going to yodel in it.”
Growing up in Germany, Evelyn often heard yodeling in traditional folk music. “I never liked [yodeling]; I didn’t care for it. I always thought it was kind of lame,” Evelyn says. But the old-country sound of Patsy Montana hit a nostalgic note inside Evelyn. Here was the music from her childhood dreams. And as she began to learn yodeling, she gained a new appreciation for the skill.
“With yodeling, can do so many things; you can go up and down with your voice, really play around with it. You can make it up as you go—it’s wide open for improvisation,” says Evelyn. But practicing during those first few months, in a ranch house with vaulted ceilings, was rough. “It’s pretty horrible when you first start. Yodeling is not something you can practice quietly.”
She began performing locally at private parties and farmers markets and has been a regular face at the Chisholm Trail Festival for the past ten years. While Evelyn sings all kinds of country music, it’s the old yodeling country songs that get the greatest reaction from audiences—especially children.
“A lot of these kids have never heard it, and when you see their faces—it’s amazement. It’s almost like you’re reaching a new generation that appreciates what their great-grandparents did,” Evelyn explains. “I’m a part of keeping that kind of music alive and going for the youngsters who have never been exposed to it.”
Evelyn Billington isn’t a typical cowgirl. She’s an award-winning taxidermist. She belts out tunes that transport audiences back to the golden age of country music. No, Evelyn’s more than an ordinary cowgirl—she’s a Texas cowgirl.