Concentrated in south central Wisconsin’s Madison area were several great waterfowling lakes; Lake Mendota, Lake Kegonsa, Lake Waubesa, and Lake Koshkonong. As early as 1870, sportsmen organized into prestigious shooting clubs with names like Blackhawk Club and Carcajou Club that were frequented by such notables as General Phil Sherman, former US Vice President Tom Marshall and Wisconsinites like August Pabst, Governor George Peck, Charles Pfister and the Baraboo Ringlings brothers. The area’s reputation for excellent shooting even drew members from New York and California.More than one group of wealthy Chicago sportsmen formed their own clubs here. The watershed that contains these lakes also had an abundance of marsh that still affords natural feed and loafing areas for migrating waterfowl. Last summer Joe and I were fortunate to receive a guided tour of Lake Koshkonong . Our host pointed out the historic Bingham’s Point named for Ira Bingham, a local market hunter who designed a modified double-bowed flatboat intended for rowing nicknamed “the Monitor” after the Civil War warship because the long narrow double-bowed boat rode low on the water and had canvas extensions that could be raised to protect the hunter in rough weather. According to local lore, Duane Starin, a local blacksmith and markethunter although slightly hamper by the loss of his legs, was a master at maneuvering his “monitor” out into the marsh with short oars held in simple oar locks of short projecting gas pipe sections that prevented catches on the weeds. Once positioned, the decoys and the lapping water conceal the hunter completely. It is no wonder that old club records recount staggering bags of game, especially canvasbacks..
Our host’s grandfather, Dr. A.T. Shearer had shot canvasbacks and geese on this point over Homme decoys in the historic Carcajou Club’s Point Blind. The Carcajou Club was incorporated in 1896 by a group of Janesville men including H.L. Skavlem, C.L. Valentine and Alex McNaughton. Lake Koshkonong still attracts a few canvasbacks but in its heyday the lake was known from its mighty rafts of cans feeding on the wild celery beds. When we returned our host’s cabin that was part of the original club structures, he showed us the decoys Dr. Shearer had bought from Mandt Homme; spectacular Canada geese, canvasbacks, blackducks, and mallards. Homme had entered one pair of these geese in the 1938 Milwaukee Decoy Carving Contest where they place first. Over his wife, Julia s objections, Mandt gave Dr. Shearer the winning geese in exchange for the Doctor’s prize fox hound and delivered the decoys to him in time for hunting season. During a recent interview, Julia Homme told me “By the time Mandt had completed one of his decoys, I would loathe to part with it.” Each of his decoys was a labor of love. This was particularly true of these geese. They are among the finest working goose decoys made in the Midwest. Each has a pleasing sculptural form with an S neck. The eyes are carved and fine detail carving denotes raised primaries and back feathering and tail feathers. Painted with muted oil colors in a subtle feathering pattern these geese are exceptional.
Born in Stoughton, Wisconsin, Mandt Homme (1905-1964) was one of nine children born to T. O. Homme and his wife, Della Mandt. Mandt lived in Madison with his wife Julia after their marriage in 1929 until they moved to their home on Lake Kegonsa in McFarland, Wisconsin in 1947. Mandt was a talented craftsman who earned the respect of his coworkers at the State Capitol building in Madison where he mended and restore the stately fixtures and furniture of the Capitol building to their original elegance. Mandt love hunting. He often ran fox with his favorite dogs and stalked prey with a bow and arrows he made himself. Yet, Mandt’s first love was waterfowling. Since Madison wasn’t far from Stoughton, Mandt still hunted with his friends from his hometown on a stretch of the Yahara River locals called the Big Marsh located half way between Lake Koshkonong and Lake Kegonsa. Enoch Reindahl was often a dinner guest at Mandt and Julia’s home. Julia reminisced how after the men helped her clear the table and did the dishes, they would sketch out decoy patterns on the kitchen table and talk about decoys and hunting. Enoch also joined Mandt downstairs in his workshop where they would turn their woodworking talents towards decoy carving creating lifelike renditions of mallards, blackducks, canvasbacks, buffleheads, and Canada geese. Like Reindahl, Mandt carved his decoys as a hobby, but he was happy to oblige when local hunters like Dr. Shearer approached him to make decoys for them. Mandt probably carved fewer than 100 decoys using the same care and attention to detail that he used on the fine furniture he restored.
During the winter months Mandt hand carved his hollow sugar pine blocks forming each decoy into its own natural pose. Heads were tucked and turned. Wing tips were usually raised and the primary feathers carved in individually. Special care was taken to recreate the finer details on the bills. Then Mandt waited until spring to paint them, so he could study the live ducks on the lake and use them as models. Mixing his own oil colors, he painted in a highly realistic paint style. One particular rig of mallards and pintail carved for Tom Alberti has mallard hens painted with a heavily feathered pattern, not just loops but attempts to recreate each feather. Vermiculation on the drakes was reproduced with a fine graining comb of Mandt’s own design. When the paint was almost dry, Mandt would touch it lightly with a stiff bristled brush to break up the uniformity of the combing, giving the surface a soft texture. Mandt also created a rig of mammoth canvasback decoys that were used on Lake Mendota. Although these retain the classic Homme style, they are less detailed simply because of their size.
Probably the most impressive hunting decoy Mandt created was a life-sized Great Horned Owl. Mandt originally made the decoy for crow hunting. In fact the family still has some wonderful photographs taken by Enoch Reinhadl, Stoughton, Wisconsin capturing Mandt, Reindahl and their other hunting companions resting after a crow shoot with this owl decoy. Like Mandt’s duck decoys, the life-sized owl was carved in sugar pine in a striking head turned pose with large yellow glass eyes. Its realism was increased by extensive feather carving on the owls wings and tail and its carve talons. Mandt used the same brushing texture that soften his vermiculations giving the owl a dusty appearance. During a 1964 interview conducted by Lenore Benedict for Madison’s Capitol Times newspaper Mandt said: “There was a time when he (the owl) had a perch in the Capitol. I took him there, thinking to discourage the pigeons from roosting in the columns. His being there helped for a while, but then the pigeons got wise.” This wonderful owl decoy has been retired to Julia Homme’s home where he remains perched on a birch log in front of her fireplace.
During the 1950’s, Mandt experimented with carving decorative standing waterfowl which he gave to his two children, Joanne and James. A pair of canvasbacks pose gracefully on a lamp base. The hen is carved fully in the round and sitting on the base and her drake with natural looking metal feet is standing close-by. As one would expect after seeing Mandt’s working decoy these decorative pieces are extremely realistic. As is another standing canvasback drake with his head nestled into his breast. Mandt also made a pair of buffleheads loafing on a piece of driftwood. Both birds are carved fully round with their feet exposed beneath them on the driftwood.
Mandt was not the only one of the five Homme boys to carve decoys. His older brother, Ferdinand, known to his friends as Ferd, was also an avid waterfowler and decoy carver. Ferd, (1900-1963) lived all his life in their hometown, Stoughton where he served as secretary for the Stoughton Sportsmen’s Club for many years. Ferd came to be known as the ‘town historian’. In 1947 Ferd was hired by the Stoughton Historical Society to write a history of Stoughton for the town’s centennial celebration. Oak Openings includes the family history of the T.O. Homme and T. G. Mandt pioneering fathers of Stoughton and grandfathers of Ferd and Mandt Homme. T.G. Mandt manufactured the noted Mandt Wagons of Stoughton, Wisconsin. Ferd worked for the Wisconsin Power and Lights for 40 years before he retired. Ferd also enjoyed Big Marsh hunting and fishing with his own friends, but according to Mandt’s wife he did hunt occasionally with Mandt. It is obvious that the two brothers also discussed their decoy carving techniques and patterns because their decoys are difficult to distinguish from each others. According to Enoch Reindahl it was Ferd who taught him some of the tricks of decoy making. For example, Ferd would use a heavy piece of paper glued between the two pieces of pine that would form the body of his decoys. This way he could shape his decoy body and then break the seal easily, allowing him to hollow out the carved body.
Ferd seems to have out produced Mandt. There have been more Homme decoys found that are signed “Ferd Homme” in careful block lettering on their bottoms. Mandt signed very few of his decoys which is surprising because one of his tasks at the capitol building was to letter names on various office doors. Example of mallards, canvasbacks, blackduck, wooduck, goldeneyes, and pintail signed by Ferd have been found to date. To add to this confusion, another of the Homme’s brothers, Raymond, a shop teacher at the local high school, enlisted his brothers to help him with an annual father & son fall decoy making project for his students for years. Understandably many of the decoys made in these workshops show strong resemblance to Homme decoys, but most of these ‘shop’ decoys were solid or balsa decoys instead of hollow sugar pine blocks like those made by the Homme brothers. Mandt and Enoch Reindahl also helped their hunting companion Russell “Raspberry” Barry to build a rig of mallard hunting blocks that Enoch painted. Some collectors have mistakenly suggested that these Barry decoys are early Homme or Reindahl decoys. True Homme decoys, be they Mandt’s or Ferd’s, have a special charm that is captured in the endless variety of natural poses the brothers recreated in their hunting decoys. Both brothers made an unusually large proportion of sleeper decoys with exquisite naturally nestled heads in their rigs. I found it unusual that there are no known examples of Homme bluebill decoys. Perhaps Enoch Reinhadl explain this when I last visited him. He was talking about a small rig of bluebill decoys he had made early in his carving career for his personal use and sold shortly afterwards for $1 each when he said; “ ....I don’t know why I ever made those bluebills. I didn’t want to shoot bluebills or eat them; so why hunt over bluebill decoys!”
The Homme brothers, Mandt and Ferdinand are an important part of a strong carving school of Wisconsin hunters like Gromme, Reinhadl, LaBotta, Pelzer and Dettman who captured waterfowl in highly realistic style with natural poses, raised primaries, fine detail carving and realistic paint patterns that is comparable to the contemporary floating sculptures of today. These carvers produced decoys in limited numbers so it is only during the last decade that many of them have gained the recognition they deserve. There seems to have been ongoing interaction among these early Wisconsin carvers that fueled friendly competition and one-upmanship resulting one HOMME of a decoy for the collector to enjoy.