By Gary Koehler
You know the neighborhood is friendly when the radio station's call letters are KWAK and a greenhead graces the front page of the newspaper on a daily basis. Breakfast can be ordered at the Mallard Restaurant, which is right across the street from the Best Western Duck Inn. The mayor is a former world duck calling champion. And more Winchester steel shotgun shells are sold at the local sporting goods store than any other retail outlet in the world. Can life get any better than this?
Well, yes, if one chooses to join a cast of 30,000 the second weekend of the Wings Over the Prairie Festival. This is when Stuttgart shuts down six blocks on Main Street and rolls out a feathered carpet. Some visitors come to watch the World's Champion Duck Calling Contest, which in November will celebrate its 67th anniversary. Others opt for the annual Sportsman's Dinner and Dance, duck gumbo cook-off, the chili luncheon, carnival rides, arts and crafts fair, 10K run, clay bird fun shoot, sporting collectibles show, off-road vehicle track, and duck dog contest.
"And everybody comes downtown to see the commercial exhibits because a lot of times you will see the latest gear and apparel before it even gets into retail stores. Companies will come here to test-market new products," says Stephen Bell, executive vice president of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the duck calling contest and assists in coordinating other festival events.
"We could not put on the festival without volunteers," Bell adds. "If we tried to pay people for all the things that are required to put on the festival, we just would not be able to do it."
No one is exactly sure how many volunteers are involved each year, because folks show up unannounced and pitch in, but the most popular number is 200-plus. There are 50 chairmen and cochairmen, who attend regular meetings in preparation for the weeklong event. This is a duck culture, plain and simple, and hometown pride plays a prominent role in sustaining enthusiasm for this one-of-a-kind festival.
So does duck hunting, which is what put Stuttgart on the map in the first place. More mallards are shot in Arkansas County than any other county in the nation. In addition to the availability of thousands of acres of public hunting nearby, 61 commercial duck hunting clubs are listed in the chamber's annual Sportsman's Guide. Birds are such big business that Stuttgart labels itself the Rice and Duck Capital of the World.
"The message is that if you want to get great duck hunting, you have to go to Stuttgart once in your life. We are sort of the mecca of the duck hunting world," Bell says.
This is indeed duckdom at another level. Two-time world duck calling champion Pat Peacock (1955-56) once exchanged a duck call and waders for a crown and high heels when she was voted the first-ever Queen Mallard. The beauty contest lives on today, with 31 young women participating in last year's competition. Scholarship money is at the top of a lengthy list of prizes.
"It's not on the beauty pageant circuit or leading up to anything else, like Miss Arkansas," Bell says. "But Grand Prairie women who compete in it, it's a big thing for their fathers, really. They grew up here and are duck hunters, and to be able to tell their buddies that 'My daughter's Queen Mallard,' that's pretty big braggin' rights for a lot of people."
Shake hands with Clarence Barendse and prepare to wince. Though he is on the far side of 70, his is the crushing grip of a commercial salmon fisherman, which is understandable coming from a guy who worked for some 40 years as a Columbia River gillnetter. The squeamish need not apply to that old-school fraternity.
The city's roots run deep, too-all the way to 1805 when explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis took the Corps of Discovery to the mouth of the Columbia River. They spent the winter just south of present-day Astoria and constructed Fort Clatsop. The town is recognized as the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast.
The river provided residents a way of life. And each fall, many fishermen would retreat to a maze of islands that were home to countless duck shacks and wait for the ducks, geese, and swans that poured into the Lower Columbia from the north. They still come-both the birds and the hunters.
"They have had duck shacks on the river since the turn of the century," says Barendse, a former waterfowler, accomplished clay target shooter, and decoy buff. "There used to be a place out there they called Brownsport, and that was full of duck shacks. All those guys were fishermen, but they also were duck hunters."
Duck camps are not unique to the mighty Columbia, but these particular cabins on rafts and their history might be. The structures were first built on floating logs and moored to pilings, allowing the shacks to rise and fall with the tide. Many are still in use. All of the shacks came equipped with boats.
"They made some boats that you could row in pretty tough weather," Barendse says. "Later on, what they would do is tow the duck boat to where you were going to hunt with the gill net boat (24-28 feet long), anchor the gill net boat, jump in the duck boat, and row up the slough. You really didn't have to go through rough weather in the little boats, but over the years duck hunters have drowned."
In the old days, the islands were a mix of publicly and privately owned sites. Most are now part of the Lewis & Clark National Wildlife Refuge. The island names are legendary: Russian, Marsh, Miller, Snag, Woody, Karlson, Welch, Tenasillahe, and more. Upriver from Astoria are the towns of Fern Hill, Svensen, Knappa, Brownsmead, Clifton, and Braidwood.
Svensen is perhaps the best known among the smaller outposts, if only because of its colorful past. "For years they used to hold a big dance every fall," Barendse says. "They came from all over the county, some from across the river, and some from upriver, to hoot and holler. They called it the Duck Hunter's Ball. But it usually turned into a Duck Hunter's Brawl."
For more than 35 years John Affolter has prowled this tidal marsh from end to end-all 50,000 acres of it. Affolter, too, collects decoys and vintage duck boats, specializing in Astoria-area carvers and builders. "They were, in my opinion, the best decoy carvers in the entire Pacific Flyway," Affolter says.
His may be a regional bias, which is not uncommon among collectors, but Affolter knows his stuff. The carving icon is Charles Bergman, a boat builder by trade, who began crafting decoys full-time around 1929. Other Astoria carvers of note (no less than 16 have been documented) included Jim Titus, Oscar Hendrickson, Frank Bay, and Charles Pice, who sometimes was known to use his own style to repaint Bergman decoys.
"A lot of those decoys were made out there in those duck shacks," Affolter said. "I wish I could have been there to see that."
Vic Sulmonetti has been serving juicy cheeseburgers and various cold beverages to duck hunters for 46 years. His restaurant/bar sits on a bluff just up the street from the Illinois River. The homespun décor includes a small flock of waterfowl mounts preparing to fly off their perches from amid the clutter of fading photos and wildlife art. Tall tales are generously fertilized here.
Hennepin reposes just below what is called the Great Bend, where the Illinois River takes a sharp left turn and scrambles south to continue a 273-mile journey to Grafton and its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi. Researchers have determined that this is the apex for three major waterfowl flyways. In a single day in 1943, renowned biologist Frank Bellrose counted 1.2 million mallards and black ducks on nearby Goose Pond while conducting a waterfowl migration survey.
Sport hunters began visiting the region shortly after the Civil War. Trains and horse-drawn wagons were the primary modes of transportation. Situated approximately 125 miles from Chicago, the Hennepin area has received its share of Windy City gunners. Among them was old Scarface himself-mob boss Al Capone. "I've seen a lot of them come and go," says Sulmonetti, who has also listed duck club manager and guide on his résumé. "And I'll tell you what, one of the nicest gentlemen I've ever had in here was Mr. Donnelley. He'd bring his hunters in for lunch all the time."
That would be the late Gaylord Donnelley, a giant in the printing industry who served two terms (1975-76) as Ducks Unlimited President. Donnelley for years maintained the Windblown Bottoms Duck Club two miles north of Hennepin. The club property subsequently was donated, and the Donnelley/DePue Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is now open to public hunting.
"The Donnelley club, I think, was about 240 acres," says Mike Resetich, Illinois Department of Natural Resources WMA site manager. "It has since been combined with DePue, and over the years we've added a number of properties, and now altogether have more than 3,000 acres available for waterfowl."
Special youth hunts are held at least twice each season. Donnelley stipulated before he donated the property that the area be available to youngsters. As a result, this site, nearly 20 years ago, hosted one of the nation's first youth waterfowl hunts. That story, like many others, is still evolving.
"Three of the oldest duck clubs in Illinois-Princeton, Senachwine, and Swan Lake-are our neighbors," Resetich says. "They've all been there for over a hundred years and they are still going. It doesn't get much more historic than that."
No, not unless one considers the decoy carvers, call makers, and boat builders who once called this region home. Three of the state's finest carvers-Charles Perdew, Robert Elliston, and Charles Walker-all lived within 15 miles of Hennepin. But local legend does not stop there.
"I remember we had 26 or 28 kids in our school, mostly boys," Sulmonetti, 69, says. "One year, when opening day of duck season came, nobody was at school. At least the boys weren't there. The next year, school was closed on opening day." Schools no longer lock their doors on opening day. But a few miles downriver, in a neighboring district, every once in a while someone will wail on a duck call when the Henry-Senachwine High School basketball team takes the floor. And that only seems right. The gym, for generations, has served as the home of the Mallards.
Lake Charles, Louisiana
No one can be certain, but the rumor persists that Jean Laffite may have been a duck hunter, at least on occasion. When the smuggler/pirate found time for such activity while making a living looting Gulf Coast ships is in question. In 1815, however, when Laffite joined Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, he was reinvented as a patriot and received a full pardon. The good citizens of Lake Charles host an annual 13-day festival in Laffite's memory. Some say the booty he stashed in Calcasieu/Cameron parishes will be recovered sooner or later.
If that's the case, the smart money would be on W.L. "Cub" Wulff, who for 62 years has found waterfowling treasure throughout the region's vast coastal marshes. At 87, he is recognized as the oldest local gunner on the water-still hunting from a boat blind, up to four days a week.
"I've hunted every year since 1926, except for three years when I was in the army," Wulff says. His introduction to Louisiana duck hunting was memorable. The first stop was a commercial club.
"The road was muddy, and I was the only hunter who showed up. We used double-end pirogues, and those guys must have pushed me three or four miles. I couldn't talk to them, because they spoke French. There were plenty of ducks," Wulff says, "and I could pretty much shoot what I wanted."
Wulff's first pirogue was purchased from the late Miller Faulk, who was recognized as the finest at his craft. "I asked him how much and he said $3. I told him I wanted a really nice one and was going to pay $5," Wulff says. "That pirogue was tidewater cypress, and it lasted forever."
Pirogues, to the natives, were the equivalent of automobiles in other parts of the country. "They used to be a means of transportation here," Wulff says. "There was no intercoastal canal, and there was no road between Lake Charles and the town of Cameron."
Waterfowl have been wintering here by the millions for eons, and while residents relied on ducks, geese, and other marsh critters for survival (including sales to the market), sport hunters were quick to partake of the incredible shooting opportunities.
Among the immediate region's oldest duck clubs were the Oak Grove and the Coastal. Shortly after retiring from a career as a manufacturer's rep, Wulff for four years managed the Chateau Charles Hunting Club.
"We'd get people from all over the country," Wulff says. "We hunted as many as 3,000 hunters a year. We had 40 guides and 30,000 acres leased. It was a labor of love."
In his more than six decades of waterfowl hunting, Wulff has raised and trained 58 Labrador retrievers. He has also made his own duck calls and carved decorative decoys. Past acquaintances included the Grangers, Faulks, Pooles, McCains, and DeMarys-locally celebrated duck hunters all. Along the way, he's learned the ways of the marsh. "The coastal marsh doesn't look like it used to at all," Wulff says. "Saltwater came in and killed a lot of the grass; you don't see the bullwhips, the cattails, and other stuff we used to have. The number of ducks . . . there's no comparison to what it used to be. Waterfowl have changed their habits. The snow and blue goose used to be birds of the marsh."
Wulff also recognizes that nature often has the last word. "Hurricane Audrey, back in 1957, caused terrible damage," Wulff says. "We found bodies in our marsh two years later. There were houses, roofs, freezers out in the marsh."
One of the few buildings surviving the storm was the Cameron Parish Courthouse. It dates to around the turn of the century, and was built, in part, thanks to the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, another hunter. nWOODEN BIRDS While Louisiana is known for having more decoy carvers than any other state (more than 300 documented), few came from the Lake Charles area. Most lived near New Orleans.
Havre de Grace, Maryland
In its youth, the Bayou Hotel played host to well-to-do sportsmen from up and down the Atlantic Flyway. The Great Depression eventually muffled the jazz musicians who trumpeted their stuff here, and the former Market Street inn has been converted to residential condominiums. Just to the north, built on the site of the hotel's former service area, lies the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum.
This is a natural connection. The city has often been called the Decoy Capital of the World, or the Cradle of Carvers. The assertions are one and the same. Historians agree that tremendous volumes of wooden birds were produced, painted, and shot over on Chesapeake Bay. Individual livelihoods, and the well-being of entire families, were once at stake. The museum lends credibility to the legends by providing an extraordinary look at representative works by some of the Upper Bay's most accomplished artisans. Decoys, tools, boats, guns, and more are all in residence. The workshop once occupied by the late R. Madison Mitchell is located behind the museum.
"The decoy museum is one of the highlight attractions for the community," says museum director Debra Pence. "It's an important aspect of visiting here."
The facility received prestigious American Association of Museum accreditation status last year. From humble beginnings, the museum has flourished, and now attracts up to 25,000 visitors each year.
"Its evolution has been amazing," Pence says. "The museum was started by a group of decoy collectors and carvers. It took an incredible amount of dedication on the part of the volunteers to get the building up, fill it with decoys and, over a 20-year span, professionalize it."
When originally established nearly 20 years ago (opened to the public in 1986), the museum's primary mission was to preserve the historical and cultural legacy of waterfowling and decoy-making on Chesapeake Bay. This has been expanded to document decoys as a uniquely American folk art, and to foster public awareness and support for the conservation and preservation of waterfowl and their natural habitats.
"It's an educational tool and we work with many age groups. I view all museums as extending well beyond collections behind glass," Pence says. "This is a blend of history and an artistic aspect of history. Really, the museum goes into investigation of a lifestyle of a group of people."
Situated at the headwaters of the revered Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in America, Havre de Grace in its heyday once helped feed a growing human population throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Many watermen who fished, clammed, and crabbed supplemented their incomes by hunting waterfowl for the market and by guiding. Because this was big, open-water hunting, huge rigs comprising hundreds of handcrafted decoys were deployed. The makers were a diverse lot, and for every Mitchell and John "Daddy" Holly, both highly respected for the quality of their work, dozens of other local carvers died in relative obscurity.
But the sporting legacy they left behind remains strong. In addition to the museum, Havre de Grace also is home to the annual Decoy, Wildlife Art and Sportsman Festival the first week of May; a Duck Fair the second weekend of September; and a Carver's Celebration, held in conjunction with a Candlelight Tour the second Sunday in December.
And why not celebrate ducks and geese? Waterfowl hunting at one time was as good here as anywhere in the world. Canvasbacks reigned as the Kings of Chesapeake Bay and made for enduring memories. They would arrive by the tens of thousands during fall migration. Sport and market gunners alike would await the magnificent flights, often in sinkboxes, which were locally favored tools. The sinkboxes would be towed out to the Susquehanna River Flats, where the birds dined on wild celery and eel grass.
Hunters still flock to Chesapeake Bay, even though the shooting is far less than what these waters once offered. Tradition, you know. In duck-centric Havre de Grace, that still means something. nNOT SO SECRET President Grover Cleveland was known to hunt ducks at the Charter Hall Gun Club near Havre de Grace. The club, it's told, had special quarters for accompanying Secret Service agents.