A Quack in Time
A small block of walnut, with a walnut stopper and a thin reed of brass or silver. That's what a fine old duck call is. It is also a link to people from the past, to past attitudes and activities.
I looked at a duck call in my hand as I sat in Barry McFarland's office in Hornersville. McFarland is a contemporary duck call carver, a collector of fine calls and an expert on their history. McFarland said the style of duck call invented by J. T. Beckhart was not the most effective in the world. It is a good woods call in the hands of a good caller, but when you hold one of the old calls you feel the link to the past.
West of the Mississippi in 1811-12, there were few English-speaking people, so the great New Madrid earthquake's creation of Big Lake isn't very well known. It is a sunkland area along Little River, north of where Little River flows into the St. Francois River in Arkansas.
Nothing you would call a road today crossed this region then. Although it was but 30 miles or so west of the Mississippi, settlement came out of Arkansas, up the St. Francois and up the fork called Little River. The settlement at what would be called Hornersville began about 1840.
Large paddle wheelers plied the St. Francois as far as Marked Tree, Arkansas, where the river's channels divided - another legacy of the great quakes. And smaller steamers came on up. Hornersville today is a town of 600 or so, but at the turn of the century, it had several thousand people.
It was as far north as the steamers could navigate reliably, and at that time was as far south as railroads had penetrated. The economy was cotton and timber and wildlife. Hornersville was a major hub.
Beckhart, his wife and daughter came west from Pennsylvania to St. Louis and settled at Osceola, Ark., near the Mississippi River, before the beginning of this century. In time, they moved inland, eventually settling on a houseboat on Little River, downstream of Hornersville at a place called Buckspoint.
Beckhart made his living as a commercial hunter and fisherman and by building boats. In time, he became a guide to people he called "sports," who came by train from St. Louis and Chicago. They could get as far as Hornersville, then would be taken by boat to the hunting camp, which often centered on his houseboat. In time, the houseboat was landed and put on stilts and rooms were added. Beckhart's wife cooked for his guests.
The season back then was September through March, or as long as ducks were south. If the hunters were tired of shooting ducks, there were also turkeys and deer to kill, as well as black bears. Fishermen came in the summer.
It is thought that Beckhart carved his first duck call in 1890. McFarland points out that although waterfowl were the primary draw for hunters, back in those days duck calls were not necessary. They used live decoys, and ducks were so abundant it wasn't necessary to try to call them.
Beckhart's calls were more a memento, a novelty that sounded like a duck. And they were a work of art worth keeping in a special place once the hunter got back home. It would remind him of the great hunts in the swampy wilderness of southeast Missouri.
His health failing, Beckhart was unable to continue to accompany his guests on hunting and fishing excursions. So he turned to full-time call making about 1915. In Hornersville, hunters could pick up a call for $3 before they boarded the train to go home. This was at a time when skilled people were earning 50 cents a day, and Beckhart could turn out several calls each week. He died in 1922, about 30 years after making his first call.
Claude Stone, who was already making his own version of what was becoming known as the Big Lake call, or St. Francois River call, purchased Beckhart's call-making tools from the widow and he too turned out high quality calls based on the same raised check patterns.
Stone came from Tennessee and he and his family lived in a tent on the banks of Little River. Stone and his brothers seined fish and killed game and furbearers as a way to make money. Like many, they worked some in the timber industry, but that was part-time or seasonal work, and wildlife rounded out their employment.
Stone would take a small boat into the swamps and shoot ducks until the boat would hold no more, then return to Hornersville. The ducks were shipped by rail, iced down in barrels, to markets at far away St. Louis, Chicago and New York.
A jack-of-all trades, Stone was noted as a craftsman at woodworking, gunsmithing and blacksmithing. He applied these talents to call-making. At one point he even supplied calls to a mail-order sporting goods company.
But times were changing. In the 1910-20 period, a local drainage district dug the Diversion Channel along the Ozark escarpment, cutting off Castor River, Whitewater River, Crooked Creek and many smaller streams that had flowed through the Missouri Bootheel, eventually forming Little River.
This channel - an engineering wonder - made it possible to drain the swampy lowlands of the Bootheel. The last wetlands began to disappear. Forests were cut, land was cleared and crops were planted on an unheard of scale.
Other changes were taking place. Even as wintering grounds here were shrinking, so were northern breeding grounds. No longer did the fall flights darken the sky.
There were still good times, to be sure. Market hunting gave way to sport hunting, and in the 1950s duck numbers climbed again. At that time, corn was the main crop around Hornersville and, although there was less water for ducks to rest on, they sure liked those corn fields.
Stone's son, Claude, Jr., says they'd rise in waves as you went through a corn field back then.
But then farmers switched back to cotton, and duck numbers began slipping downward again.
The fate of ducks and their habitat has changed, but there is a strong thread of continuity to Beckhart's Big Lake duck calls. McFarland is part of it. He's younger - 40 - but hunted with another of Claude Stone's sons, Joe (now deceased).
As McFarland was growing up, what was left of the great swamps near Hornersville could be reached by a teenager walking the railroad tracks. He admits he missed a lot of school, sometimes hunting and learning with Joe Stone as his teacher.
Joe Stone kept alive a lot of the skills of his father, among them the art of making the call Beckhart invented. When Joe Stone got to the point that he couldn't see well enough to do the checkering, he taught McFarland how.
So McFarland learned not only how to hunt, but developed a taste for history, including the history of the duck calls that had been pioneered here, and by then were in demand among collectors.
A few years ago, McFarland began carving duck calls as a hobby, following the Big Lake style. He entered one of his calls in the national competition of the Callmakers and Collectors Association at Chicago. It won first place in the fancy calls division.
A collector himself now, he has several hundred calls and knows the history of each. The mind spins as he tells how this one or that one came to be developed. Small details in the construction translate into major differences in styles and sounds.
The Big Lake style call, for example, was developed for wade and shoot hunting in the woods, and Beckhart made his calls with metal reeds so they'd make a soft call, effective in flooded woodlands. Louder calls were designed for open water.
In recent years, the Conservation Department has acquired most of the swamp remaining at Hornersville. The Conservation Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the drainage district are looking at ways to manage the area for ducks in light of today's realities.
Typically, Conservation Department areas are engineered to manage the water levels. But here, Hornersville Swamp is part of the Bootheel's flood management plans. It is expected to absorb floodwaters when nature sends them, not necessarily when the Conservation Department wants water. And Missouri plans must be coordinated with what Arkansas is doing in the Big Lake area just south of the Missouri border.
Things will be worked out and the area will be made more attractive to ducks once again. McFarland says farmers are growing more corn and rice nowadays, and perhaps the loss of breeding habitat up north is slowing. The future of duck hunting for the next generation of Hornersville duck hunters isn't all bleak.
The calls? They're part of the tradition. Listen to McFarland and you learn that he isn't taking credit for winning the national competition by himself. He credits Hornersville duck hunters of the past, men such as Beckhart and Stone.
McFarland sees himself and the Big Lake style call as simply the latest expression of this rich tradition.
The fact that he won first place in a prestigious national contest with his first entry is pretty clear proof that the art, the tradition, is being successfully passed along.
Thanks to Design for Conservation, some of the wild lowlands on which the traditions are based will also be preserved.