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Banding Together for Waterfowl

The Men Behind the Legends

Decoy carvers that dazzle us
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Shang Wheeler's Nickname a Bit of a Stretch Charles E. Wheeler, whose hand-carved decoys are considered by many to rank among the finest ever produced, had a nickname pinned on him at age 13 that lasted more than 60 years. Wheeler enrolled in Weston Military Institute (WMI) in the mid 1880s, about the same time that one of the tallest breeds of chickens was known as Langshang.

Circus icon P.T. Barnum was also touring during this era, and his entourage included a sideshow giant named Chang. Wheeler, at this early age, was six feet tall and thin as a rail. His classmates at WMI commonly referred to him as Chang or Langshang.

The moniker was eventually simplified to Shang, a name recognized by decoy collectors ever since a Wheeler mallard drake won the grand championship at the first American decoy show in 1923, at Bellport, Long Island, New York. Wheeler, who carved his first decoy at age 8, was also somewhat of a political animal, for a time serving as a Connecticut state senator.

3. Who Would Have Thought?
Laurent Verdin, who lived near Houma in southeast Louisiana, was more than a little resourceful. Verdin, a descendant of the Houma Indian tribe who spoke in a mixed native American/French dialect, employed brown glass from Jax Beer bottles to simulate eyes in some of his decoys.

4. Original? Think Again
Those pondering the originality of today's new motion decoys should think again. An ad appearing in the October 1930 issue of Outdoor Life depicts "flying decoys" created by Tuveson Manufacturing Company of St. James, Minnesota. These decoys were mounted above the water on rods, wings outstretched.

The only thing missing was the motor. And those floater decoys now on the market featuring moveable wings? Well, W.D. Trimble of Hampden, Maryland, filed a patent in1888 that had sheet metal wings secured to a hinge on the base of the decoy's neck. Nothing new here.

5. Early Bird
Start talking about Wisconsin decoys and the conversation sooner or later will come around to August (Gus) Moak, a German immigrant who grew up in Tustin, on the north shore of historic Lake Poygan. Moak, after all, rates as one of this state's earliest carvers, with his work dating to the 1870s.

6. Them's Fightin' Birds
G. Bert Graves, who ranks among the top five Illinois River carvers, spent hands-on time with birds in and out of the marsh and his workshop. Graves, it's been told, was known to spend weekends fighting gamecocks in Peoria-area taverns. Most likely, this occurred after the hunting season. But maybe not.

7. Along the Mississippi
W.O. Ewinger, a plumbing supply distributor, often was the first person on the scene whenever a building was demolished in Burlington, Iowa. He scavenged the wood for use in making decoys. Friends at the Leopold Desk Company (yep, the same Leopold family that produced Aldo, the pioneer conservationist), would band-saw the basic shapes of Ewinger's decoys, which he would then finish in his basement.

8. Crowell Produced a Golden Goose
As expected, Sotheby's auction of the late Dr. James M. McCleery's decoy collection earlier this year produced more than one record price. A rare sleeping Canada goose carved in 1917 by A. Elmer Crowell brought an astounding $684,500 (including buyer's premium)-more than double the highest amount ever paid previously for a decoy at auction. A Kinney & Harlow duck call, believed to be one of only a handful of its kind, established a new game call standard with a $63,000 price tag (including buyer's premium). The McCleery collection, recognized as among the finest in the world, featured hundreds of sporting collectibles and garnered a total of just less than $11 million.

Anonymous in Kingston

Beginning in the mid 1800s and continuing off and on for nearly 100 years, inmates at Ontario's Kingston Penitentiary, located on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, crafted decoys in the facility's multitrade complex, which included a wood shop. The problem inherent is identifying the individual carvers, who perhaps were better known by the numbers stenciled on their shirts.

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