By Gary Koehler
The bright lights of stardom seldom shone on the typical old-time decoy carver. Celebrity was a stranger to all but a handful. Most were likely too busy to notice. The same individuals whose works are admired and treasured today often had traditional, full-time jobs. Many had families to raise, actively pursued other interests, and were tagged with a variety of colorful nicknames.
Some endured health problems and financial woes. Without question, their collective backgrounds touched every rung of the social and economic ladder. They were everyman. And perhaps that is what makes them so engaging. Each had a story. Here are but a few.
Charlie Perdew: a True Do-It-Yourselfer
Charles Perdew, easily the most revered of all Illinois River Valley carvers, made more than wooden decoys, game calls, and boats. A descendent of rawboned Scotsmen, Perdew took exception in 1955 when a dentist in the town of Henry quoted him a price totaling more than $100 for a set of false teeth. Perdew went home, made the necessary impressions himself, cast the plates, and carved his own dentures to fit. He wound up making four sets, and estimated they cost him 15 cents. "I can chew anything with 'em," he later told a reporter representing the Peoria Journal Star.
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"What more are they supposed to do?" Perdew, it is said, could build just about anything. And did. His personal handiwork included a house for himself and his family, and a car. Yes, a car. During the course of his life, which spanned nearly 90 years, Perdew farmed, hunted for the market, fished, trapped, and worked as a mason, butcher, gunsmith, cattle puncher, carpenter, broom maker, and bicycle repairman. Not incidentally, he also found time to attend the Chicago Art Institute.