Carved With Line and Grace: Decoys by Harold Haertel
Continuing a series of exhibits devoted to individual Illinois decoy carvers, Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences is featuring a display of duck decoys and related carvings by Harold Haertel (1904-1995). Over the course of his long lifetime Haertel carved many species of waterfowl seen along Illinois flyways as well as shorebirds common to the Dakotas. In addition, he judged many of the early decoy carving competitions and built up a highly respected collection of decoys carved by other men. The exhibit will be on view through February 20, 2005.
Although Haertel lived his entire life alongside the Fox River in East and West Dundee, Illinois, he is recognized well beyond the Fox River Valley region as a superb and versatile carver of gunning and decorative decoys. An article on waterfowl in a 1915 issue of National Geographic sparked a life-long interest in ducks. As a boy, he studied their nesting grounds and wintering areas, and copied published illustrations to learn to draw them. As a teenager, Haertel fashioned his own decoys for hunting along the river. Always searching for accuracy in his carving and painting, he studied photographs and sometimes used tethered live birds.

For 24 years, Haertel worked in the family monument business, specializing in the carving the floral designs. His fatherís admonition to ďput more lifeĒ into his stone carving carried over into his use of wood. The line and grace of Haertelís bird carving, along with his ability to vary the head and body position, lent an essence of the living birds to his carvings.

A versatile carver and hunter, Haertelís early decoys are solid-bodied with weights for use on the rivers, hollow-bodied ones without weights for use on prairie sloughs, some flat bottom boards decoys and a few black ducks of cork or a mixture of cork and wood. He favored white cedar and pine for the majority of his decoys.

In 1946 Haertelís father sold the monument business. Harold and he brother, Walter, and their brother-in-law Hard Pearson formed a partnership to purchase and managed a combined Firestone dealership and gas station. Harold spent nearly every free moment carving, concentrating on his accuracy. He learned taxidermy and preserved examples of over fifty specimens for his detailed recreations of plumage patterns and coloring. It was during this period, too, that he contacted William Mackey, the well-known East Coast decoy collector and author. Initially suspicious of the younger manís intentions in his first visit, Mackey quickly recognized Haertelís genuine interest in learning as much as possible about the best American decoy carvers and their work. The two became steadfast friends for life, with Mackey praising Haertelís skill in his book, American Bird Decoys: ďHis perfection to detail and adherence to species conformation and plumage patters are second to none, and his present work is incomparable.Ē

With Mackeyís encouragement, Haertel entered one of his gunning decoys, a Gadwell drake, into an East Coast carving competition. The head turned slightly and the wings were carved in high relief, the plumage highly detailed; the decoy won second place in the hunting class. After just a few years of submitting his decoys to such competitions, Haertel began serving as a judging in Iowa, Michigan, California and Maryland. Along with Hal Sorenson and Ralph Loeff, he judged the first annual Mississippi Valley Fair Decoy Show in Davenport, Iowa. This show marked the first acceptance in competition of realism in working decoys. Haertel enjoyed judging shows because of the many gifted carvers he met in the process.

Haertel made his own patterns. He roughed out the basic shape on a lathe in his basement workshop, then lovingly finished the carving with hand tools. A favorite place to paint was seated by a window on the back porch overlooking the Fox River. He once hurriedly repainted one of his Canada goose decoys as a Blue goose when a flock of migrating Blue and Snow geese stopped in a nearby corn field.

The extraordinary detail of some of Haertelís decoys place them into the category of decorative decoys. But even these are hollow and constructed in the manner of traditional decoys. He made a number of miniature carvings and the occasional odd piece such as Go Fish game for his two sons. Haertel is perhaps best know for his dove decoys; he produced hundreds of these delicate carvings which bring very respectable prices at auction today. Unusual are his two pairs of passenger pigeons placed as if sitting on a piece of driftwood. Haertel became quite interested in shorebird decoys when one son began banding various species near Brookings, South Dakota as part of a research program. The father carved more than a dozen species of shorebird decoys. He and both sons arranged decoys by species in the mudflats to lure birds into large mist nets. Even as Haertelís eyesight dimmed and he approached his 90th year, he was busy carving decoys of native Illinois birds for his own pleasure. The majority of the works in the Lakeview Museum exhibit are on loan from his surviving son who shares his late fatherís love of waterfowl and the carving of traditional style decoys.
View more Haertel decoys from our collection here