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.
"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.
DU decoys a program staple for years
Decoys have been a part of duck hunting for ages. Tens of thousands of old, wooden blocks have since found their way onto mantles, and shelves, private collections, and museums. Those decoys now retired from careers on the water are considered folk art. They are accent pieces these days, or investments, or both, depending on the bird's pedigree.
Contemporary carvings have also established a niche. Not built to hunt over, these wooden sculptures have been used to decorate homes, lodges, cabins, offices, and just about anywhere else a waterfowl hunter or nature lover hangs his or her hat. And Ducks Unlimited played a role in promoting an appreciation of this wildlife art form.
Introduced at DU membership banquets 20 years ago, decoys have become a staple at events from coast to coast. They have taken many forms-from reproductions, or antique-looking works, to highly-detailed designs.
Many of those offered today are resin casts of extraordinarily realistic waterfowl carvings. Shorebirds, herons, egrets, loons and more have also been made available over the years.
Any number of talented artisans have contributed to the success of the Ducks Unlimited decoy program, which is offered as a component of the national event merchandise package. Included among the pioneer carvers whose creations were featured at DU events were Hershey Kyle, Jr., of California; T.J. Hooker of Illinois; Tom Taber of Montana; William Veasey of Maryland; Randy Tull of Minnesota; and Valerie Bundy of Indiana. Their respective works are a credit to their outstanding skills as craftsmen. Ducks Unlimited salutes their contributions to waterfowl and wetland habitat conservation. nSelect Vocations
1. Hailed by the Chiefs
Lem and Steve Ward carved decoys together for 65 years in the same Crisfield, Maryland, shop. Notable among the brothers' many accolades: Presidents Harry S. Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson at one time or another shot ducks over Ward decoys. For all of their artistic talents, the Wards made their livings as barbers for four decades.
2. Busy Hands
Decoy historians have estimated that Captain Ellis Parker of Beach Haven, New Jersey, carved between 30,000 and 40,000 decoys during his career. Parker managed the Middle Sedge Gun Club on Long Beach Island and is credited with passing on his carving knowledge to a nephew, Nathan Rowley Horner, who became an accomplished artisan in his own right.
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.