By Jay Rendall
I have many vivid memories of mornings in the marsh with my son, daughter, friends, and yellow lab watching the sun come up over a spread of decoys. On some mornings, the day's first light on clouds, cattails, and water appears as if a stage manager made the call to light the scene. Duck wings whistle in the air. And flocks of migrating blackbirds fly by, synchronized, undulating, and making a racket. A spread of a few dozen decoys on the water, thoughtfully placed with canvasbacks and bluebills negotiating the waves, as well as feeding mallards and teal closer to the blind, completes the scene.
The concept of deceiving waterfowl using decoys has a long history. American Indians were the first to create and use decoys in North America. They wove reeds into duck shapes and stretched bird skin and feathers over ducklike frames. In 1924 archaeologists discovered 11 decoys in Lovelock Cave in western Nevada. They are believed to have been crafted about 2,000 years ago by the predecessors of contemporary Paiutes who hunted waterfowl in marshy areas of the Great Basin.
From the late 1800s to 1918, market hunters (also called gunners) -- who provided waterfowl for butcher shops and restaurants in Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, and New York -- created strong demand for decoys and decoy carvers. In his book Wild Fowl Decoys, Joel Barber boldly states: "The market gunner, more than any other, is the father of decoys." After market hunting ceased due to state laws and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, recreational hunters -- who pursued birds to put on their own table, continued to play a significant role in creating demand for decoys.
Decoys have been crafted from wood, cork, metal, and canvas -- in many styles, from floating to flying, and many levels of quality. Around 1950, plastic decoys began to replace those crafted from other materials. Not surprisingly, handcrafted decoys became more sought after as collectables -- attracting people instead of ducks. Many people enjoy them as a hobby because of waterfowl decoys' connection to hunting. Some collectors recognize handcrafted decoys as American folk art. And some aim to invest in decoys that appreciate in value.
The first decoy in my collection was a gift received more than 25 years ago. It was quite primitive -- a drake mallard crudely carved from a fence post. Its blockish head was sawed rather than carved. It lacked elegant curves and the touch of a renowned carver, but it sparked a new hobby that complemented my passion for waterfowl hunting.
Collecting and displaying old decoys allows me to recall -- throughout the year -- past mornings in the marsh. On my shelf, a favorite canvasback decoy from the 1930s belonged to my grandfather. Looking at its dark red head, cracks in the wood, and worn paint reminds me of stories my aunt told about family hunts years ago, when flocks of canvasbacks and American black ducks visited their decoy spread.
The wide variety of decoy styles and materials caught my attention as I added decoys to my home collection. Within Minnesota one can find considerable variability in decoy styles, owing to the diversity of waterfowl species that visit our prairie potholes, farm fields, rivers, and large lakes.
Local carvers handcrafted many of the decoys produced in Minnesota during the market-hunting era and later. Around Heron Lake in southwestern Minnesota, the site of numerous hunting camps, a distinctive local style emerged among the decoy makers. An article in the Conservation Volunteer in 1966 named Albert Olson, James Dalziel, Abe Nelson, and Herman Becker among the best-known decoy makers there.
The so-called "horse head" design and deep keel of Heron Lake decoys eventually influenced carvers in Manitoba, Canada. As habitat and waterfowl numbers at Heron Lake declined, businessman James Ford Bell -- who hunted there and led an effort to restore the lake in the 1920s -- took his decoys to hunt at the Delta Marsh on Lake Manitoba near Winnipeg. His Heron Lake decoys, possibly carved by Abe Nelson, became models used by several Delta Marsh carvers, who eventually developed a regional style of their own.
After the decline of Heron Lake and the end of market hunting, some local carvers continued their work. According to records of the city of Heron Lake, Albert Olson carved 60 bluebill decoys in 1928 for John P. Upham, a businessman from Minneapolis. In 1929 Olson made 24 bluebill decoys for C.T. Jaffray, then president of Soo Line Railroad Co.
Frugality motivated some Minnesota carvers: They preferred to carve decoys with their own hands rather than buy them in a store. Alfred Moes, car mechanic and owner of the Mosey Inn Garage in Lakeville, carved a rig of 14 or 15 mallard decoys in 1938. Today collectors consider Moes' mallards to be some of the finest decoys crafted in Minnesota. The cover of Decoy Magazine featured them in 2005. But those were the only decoys Moes left for the world when he died in 1969. Like many Minnesota hunters, Moes carved only what he needed for hunting.
Oscar Quam was another well-known Minnesota decoy carver. From the 1920s through 1940s, he advertised in magazines such as Sports Afield and supervised a family operation that churned out several thousand decoys. He initially produced decoys from wood. Later he used cork to make a lighter yet durable decoy. His production grew into a family-based factory, which his children carried on until 1972.
Minnesota has been home to several other decoy factories. Tuf-Skin Decoy Co. of Minneapolis made canvas decoys stuffed with wood shavings. Horne & Danz Co. of St. Paul made a decoy of metal silhouettes above a wooden base (patented in 1881), as well as folding metal goose-silhouette decoys, until about 1915. Around 1920, Specialty Manufacturing Co. in St. Paul produced a "knock down" decoy, which hunters could fold and carry in a jacket pocket.
In the 1920s Carl Tuveson in St. James and in the 1930s George Herter in Waseca founded two of the state's better-known decoy factories. Tuveson produced a flying style of decoy with canvas wings and a pole supported by a wooden float to raise it above the water. Herter's company produced an incredible assortment of gunning decoys -- more than a dozen species of various materials, head positions, and sizes.
Herter's catalog of decoys and other waterfowl hunting supplies served as a predecessor of today's outdoors catalogs. Some have referred to Herter as the P.T. Barnum of decoys because of his promotional talents. The company's long list of products often included catchy names such as the Market Hunter decoy line or superlatives to imply the best such as Perfect, Superior, and Supreme models. Unlike many past decoy suppliers, Herter's brand decoys are still being produced and sold, now under the ownership of Cabela's.
With the prohibition of market hunting and the advent of plastic decoys, demand for wooden decoys declined. In the 1920s people put aside decoys in attics, garages, and other places where they remained out of sight for decades. But today those unused decoys are finding their way to collectors via decoy auctions, shows, antique stores, and online sales by individuals and businesses. Some decoy auctions, such as those run by Guyette and Schmidt Inc. of Maryland, prepare full-color catalogs that feature hundreds of investment-quality decoys. Christie's fine art auctions now include decoys because of their aesthetic appeal and value.
Decoys from some famous carvers fetch prices from $1,000 to $100,000. A few of those made by Elmer Crowell from Massachusetts have sold for more than $1 million.
Among the most coveted Minnesota decoys are those created by Heron Lake carvers because of their unique style.
John Tax, of Osakis, carved decoys from wooden blocks he made by laminating 1-inch-thick boards. Tax died in 1967, and today his decoys are highly coveted by collectors, some of whom consider his work the epitome of the bird decoy as folk art. With patina finish and graceful form, his decoys have sold for more than $100,000.
Today carvers are creating new models as well as reproductions of old decoys. Minnesota has several contemporary carvers, including Marv Bernet, Marv Meyer, Richard Schiebel, Pat Meneely, and Martin Hanson. A master carver from Prior Lake, Hanson crafts decoys of white cedar from northern Wisconsin. He uses a spokeshave, drawknife, and carving knife, just as did carvers in the past. Hanson began carving decoys in 1976, primarily for hunters and hunting clubs. Now he's gained notoriety for his decoys that are being sold as art for several hundred to several thousand dollars each.
Duck season is limited to the fall, but decoy season is year-round. In addition to checking out antique shops and searching online for decoys, collectors hunt for decoys at the annual Minnesota Decoy Show. Held in February in Bloomington, the show is an ideal place to meet carvers, talk with the experts, and enjoy the thrill of bidding in a decoy auction.
Like duck hunters, collectors never know what the decoy season will bring. And like some waterfowl hunters, some collectors find the greatest pleasure is in the pursuit.
Learn more about decoys during the annual Minnesota Decoy Show, Feb. 4-7, 2009, at the Bloomington Ramada Inn. The event is hosted by the Minnesota Decoy Collectors Association each year during the first week of February.