Birds of a Feather

By Kristie Hilgedick | December 1, 2019
From Missouri Conservationist: December 2019

Collectors find joy in unraveling the mysteries of Missouri’s duck decoys.

With their handsome curves and bright hues, wooden duck decoys beg to be picked up and examined more closely.

Today, few wooden decoys are used for their intended purpose. But they are prized by collectors, who appreciate their value as American folk art.

The earliest known waterfowl decoys are more than 2,400 years old and were found well preserved in a Nevada cave in 1924. Native Americans understood the value of deploying decoys — which they fashioned from reeds, clay, natural pigments, and feathers — to lure waterfowl closer to their arrows and spears. As Europeans colonized and settled the continent, they adapted these techniques to create decoys carved from wood.

By the late 1800s, the demand for decoys was growing. Roast duck was considered a great delicacy, market hunting was a big business, and waterfowl hunting was a popular recreational activity.

Many were hand carved in basements and workshops by lamplight. Even more were produced in small factories across the nation. In the Midwest, the Mason Decoy Company, based in Detroit and started by William J. Mason, manufactured many quality decoys. And some of the most collectible decoys were carved and painted by Illinois River Valley artists who transformed the merely functional into objets d’art.

Positioned prominently along the Mississippi flyway, Missouri hunters had plenty of access to habitat and plenty of need for good decoys.

Factory Made

Missouri’s duck history is primarily defined by a few factories — most in the Jefferson City area — that churned out hundreds of thousands of wooden ducks from the early 1920s through the end of World War II.

One of the first archivists to record the industry’s history was Jim Goodrich, an avid collector in his own right, but also director of the Historical Society of Missouri. Today, a group of dedicated Missouri collectors are building upon Goodrich’s work, trying to better understand where those factories were located, who worked in them, and how the decoys were crafted.

Like trying to authenticate an oil painting’s true creator or unravel the mystery of a long-buried antiquity, it’s not always clear which U.S. companies manufactured which models. Not all were labeled or stamped and many were very similar. For a variety of reasons, determining which companies manufactured which decoys is a fun and intriguing puzzle for collectors such as Greg Renner of Columbia.

In the beginning, Renner tended to pick up whatever seemed vaguely interesting. But he soon gained an appreciation for the beautiful design and delicate hand painting of the Illinois River duck decoys. As his knowledge grew, he took an interest in Missouri’s factory decoys, eventually narrowing his focus to ones manufactured by three Jefferson City-based companies.

Jefferson City’s Factory Decoy Tradition

A successful entrepreneur and enthusiastic outdoorsman, James M. Hays was the first Missouri resident to establish an assembly-line operation using duplicating lathes around 1920. Hays’ early models resembled those of Mason, an Irish immigrant who settled in Detroit where he manufactured high-end decoys. In fact, his early models are so much like Mason’s that even expert collectors struggle to differentiate between them, Renner said.

The Mason Co. mastered the application of paint, making a product not only beautiful but also durable enough to withstand the harsh conditions of waterfowl hunting.

Hays was not able to fully replicate Mason’s deftness with paint. But Jefferson City’s workers were more familiar with manufacturing wooden goods — from saddle trees to car bumpers — and they understood how to manage wood selection and grain patterns to prevent splitting.

“Many Mason decoys have splits. Jefferson City birds rarely do. They stand the test of time. They even advertised: ‘Our decoys won’t split’,” Renner said.

The Hays Wood Products company effectively had two different ownerships. In 1922, Hays was acquired by Standard Crate & Filler, a wooden egg crate supplier. The company modified the painting and degree of carving done to the decoys, but continued to use the Hays name, which has led to confusion in the decoy-collecting community, Renner said. They also launched a feature that became a hallmark of Jefferson City: the concept of scratch and comb painting. This involved an initial primer coat and a second coat, he explained. The worker then ran a comb across the wet second layer to make it look like feathers.

Unfortunately, Standard Crate & Filler’s main products never succeeded and by 1925 that company was forced to declare bankruptcy.

The Gundelfinger family purchased at least part of Hays’ machinery and inventory and continued to use the equipment to manufacture Grand Prix and Superior models under the name “Duck-Lures.” The decoys were advertised in sporting catalogues and magazines.

“Early Gundelfingers tend to have heavy paint that can look wonderful when found in mint condition,” Renner said. “Unfortunately, most are found with considerable paint chipping.” Picking up a green-winged teal, he noted it was made by Tom and Birdie Rice, a Holts Summit couple. “He worked the lathes at the Gundelfinger and Benz factories and she painted them on the farm in her spare time,” he noted. “She had very good skill with comb painting.” But once again, the company succumbed to the era’s economic pressures and was declared bankrupt in 1929.

Jefferson City resident Harry Benz bought the equipment and remaining stock at auction, and began production within days of the October stock market crash of 1929.

Benz stayed in business the longest — 15 years. (The old factory still exists as a Fraternal Order of Eagles club today.) The company didn’t close its doors until lighter-weight and less expensive paper mâché and plastic products eclipsed wood.

Solving the Puzzle

A duck with a paper or ink stamp still affixed, or a cold stamp imprinted, is considered a positive indicator of the manufacturer. Unfortunately for collectors, many paper stamps were knocked loose and ink faded with time. Most Jefferson City decoys were never marked.

A key feature of all Jefferson City made decoys is a smooth 5/8th inch neck dowel. (Renner does not recommend disassembling ducks to examine them; he does check ones that are loose.)

“The same equipment and some of the personnel went from company to company,” Renner explained. “I’ve never found a Jefferson City duck — that has a stamp on it — that doesn’t have the 5/8th inch dowel.”

Renner’s end goal is to be able to pick up a decoy and definitively say which company manufactured it. By closely comparing labels, stamps, dowels, paint style, and other physical evidence, he’s settling some of the controversy surrounding which manufacturers made which decoys. He’s also made strides in clarifying the subtle differences among the Jefferson City-made decoys.

In 2018 and 2019, he presented his findings at the annual spring shows of the Midwest Decoy Collectors Association (MDCA). The first year, he focused on Hays’ decoys. The next, he showed the evolution from Gundelfinger to Benz.

Other Missouri Factories

Wooden decoys were manufactured in other Missouri locations, too.

St. Louisan William Levy submitted a patent in 1919 for a two-dimensional wooden silhouette, with hinged floatboards. It is thought Levy continued to sell his folding decoys through the early 1920s.

The American Cartridge Company in Kansas City only made wood decoys for a year. But the ones the company did make have a unique feature: the duck heads folded into the body to prevent breakage, Renner explained.

Wood wasn’t the only material used. Other Missouri decoy factories produced models made of wire-and-painted canvas, rubber, plastic, Styrofoam, and papier mâché.

Crafted by Hand

A small number of talented Missouri artisans created handmade decoys.

St. Louisan Ben Yeargan hunted near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. “He stands out as Missouri’s most-accomplished individual historic decoy-maker,” said Renner.

In 1932, Yeargan completed a rig of 20 canvasbacks and 24 mallards. An avid outdoorsman, his decoys have self-righting cast-iron keels — a trick he may have learned as a member of the St. Louis Model Yacht Club. A few years later, he carved a second rig of mallards and Canada geese.

St. Louisan Paul Haudrich has collected about 100 decoys, including one of Yeargan’s drakes. Haudrich said Yeargan was originally a Texan who worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and hunted in the Portage Des Sioux area.

“Ninety percent of the people who made their own decoys in the 1920s did it for economics. It was a way to fill the family larder,” Haudrich said. “Yeargan was a self-taught guy. He was able to paint the correct colors because he kept mallards in his yard.”

On the opposite side of the state in St. Joseph, Felix Ziolkowski carved decoys for his own personal use and for sale in local stores. “When he died, his three teenage daughters continued to make decoys, and they made hundreds of them,” said Renner.

Harold “Pete” Chowins and Everett “Brownie” Brown, employees of the Kansas City Water and Light Company, carved decoys together in their spare time and made their own unique mallard, pintail, and teal decoys. They also made geese designed with legs that could be set into the ground or ice, Renner noted.

“There are also a few individuals who have continued the tradition of wooden decoy-making in modern times,” noted Renner. “Woodson Roddy of Clinton was a fine arts teacher who continued many early traditions to make his own rifles, boats, and decoys.”

Collectors’ Obsession

Randy Crawford’s love of waterfowl started in southeast Iowa in the late 1950s. As a boy, he listened to his grandfather’s and father’s hunting exploits.

“I have a distant memory of my sister and I sitting in a Lake Odessa duck blind in a marshy backwater of the Mississippi River. My dad admonished us: ‘Sit in the bottom of the boat and be still!’ My sister never went duck hunting again, but I was hooked,” he said.

Fascinated with duck hunting from an early age, Crawford purchased his first wooden decoy — a bluebill — at an antique store. The bluebill has long been sold, but that decoy was first inkling of what grew into a satisfying hobby for Crawford.

He added to his collection with six decoys his dad rescued from a pile of junk at an Iowa farm auction. “My dad didn’t see anything interesting in the auction, so he walked around behind the barn and noticed a wagon filled with wooden decoys. He asked the guy: ‘Can I have some of them?’ The guy said: ‘Take all you want, because we’re going to set them on fire.’ He got what he could carry in one trip. I always asked him: ‘Dad! Why didn’t you make several trips?’”

Worthless in the 1960s, those decoys became collectible with time.

Born and raised in Iowa, Crawford moved to Missouri, attended Northeast Missouri State University, and eventually settled in the Jefferson City area, where he retired as water quality monitoring chief at the Missouri State Environmental Laboratory.

With his interest piqued, he started to research and collect Jefferson City’s decoys, building on his collection of Iowa ducks. Like Renner, he loves uncovering those little bits of history, such as stories about Burlington, Iowa, lumberyard workers who made decoys in the off-season.

“A lot of duck hunters were carpenters,” he noted. “They worked in the warm season. In the autumn, when it was too cold and rainy to work, they were out hunting anyway.”

For every collector at some point, casual appreciation crosses over to true curiosity. They begin to ask themselves: What makes this one special? How are they different? What have I got here? Is it worth anything?

When asked when it became a passion to learn about decoys, Crawford joked, “You mean a problem?”

He noted it’s the artistry and functionality that attracts him. “Me? I hardly can sharpen a stick. And so, I collect,” he said.

Renner agreed. “Most collectors will be quick to say they feel a very rich sense of art and history in old wooden decoys.”

Haudrich views decoy collecting as a wonderful way to celebrate the United States’ history, geography, folklore, and cultural heritage. “They are Americana… folk art,” he explained. “When collectors see something older and nice, they want to preserve it.”

To expand their knowledge base, the Missouri Decoy Collectors Group meets annually at Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City. Additionally, Renner, Crawford, and Haudrich have formed a special Jefferson City Decoy Study Group, within the structure of the MDCA.

“The next time you see a wooden duck decoy, consider that a lot of time and effort went into its manufacture, and a considerable history might be quietly told,” Renner said.

Also In This Issue

Brad Jacob
"The truth is that everyone has obsessions. Most people manage them. Birders, however, indulge them.” —Mark Obmascik in The Big Year

This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler