George Sibley & the Hennepin Shooting Club
During the early 1950's, Joe French one of the first Midwest decoy collectors traveled extensively along the Illinois River collecting old wooden hunting blocks. He often visited with the local sportsmen asking about the old decoy makers and gathering as much information as he could while he built his collection. One day in 1952, he bought a gunnysack full of blocks in Putman, Illinois. Among the rig was a neat little bluebill hen with a "Patent Applied for 1899" stenciled on the bottom of her wide v-bottomed body. The bill was mitered into her head and appeared to be carved of a different hardwood than the rest of the decoy. Another body by the same maker was split exposing a hollow pine cavity with a piece of strap metal lain inside the base of the decoy to make it self-righting. Since that day, French has been looking for the identity of the maker of his little bluebill hen.

In 1968, Hal Sorenson published an article by French entitled, "Mr. X, Mr.Y ; Mr. Z; in his magazine, Decoy Collector's Guide. In this piece, French introduced other collectors to favorite decoy that he still couldn't identify, but recognized as a great Illinois River decoy. Labeling the maker as Mr.X, he said: "I have run into these 'hardbills' from LaSalle down to Beardstown, scattered at regular internals on the Illinois River...and have found several on the Mississippi. Charlie Perdew did not know who made them, and neither did the countless other carvers and hunters who I have chased down on wild leads. For almost 40 years, French and various other collectors have been searching for the identity of Mr. X with no success.

My husband, Joe and I have a wonderful Mr. X widgeon in our collection, and it is one of our favorites too, so we have often wondered who made these birds. Joe Tonelli has spent as much time as anybody looking for decoys on the Illinois and has become an avid waterfowling history buff as well as a collector. He has been fortunate to come across lots of old letters, records and other printed materials about he hunting clubs in our area of the Illinois River. Not long ago, he was shuffling through some papers he found relating to the Hennepin Shooting Club which was started in 1887 and disbanded in 1914, when he spotted an old ad for a decoy company he had never heard of before, Sibley Co., Manufacturers of the Sibley Decoy". He couldn't believe what he read in that pamphlet: It is the only decoy made with a hardwood inserted bill (patent applied for)... Our decoys are weighted on the inside... having a leather loop on the bottom to attach the anchor string. This was a description of the Mr. X. decoy! This first lead led Joe from Hennepin, Illinois to Whitehall, Michigan to Chicago, to Colorado, to Texas and, finally to Tennessee. Here is the story of French's Mr. X. decoy. Sibley Co., which was owned, by father and son, James A. and George M. Sibley of Chicago, Illinois, manufactured the decoys. The Sibley family genealogy is studded with members who played notable part in American history, and is considered to be one the old guard American families that can trace its roots back to early settlers who came to the New England Colonies in 1629 in the Winthrop's Fleet. James Sibley was the patriarch of the Sibley's involved with the decoy company. He was one of the original members of the Chicago Board of Trade. His son was James A. Sibley who it appears provided the financial backing for his son's decoy making project since he was in his late sixties when Sibley Co. was in operation. It was George who was an avid waterfowler and one of the original members of the Hennepin Shooting Club and the club secretary for several years. Much of the initial information we found came from the club's records and Sibley's letters.



The Hennepin Shooting Club was established in 1887. Letters between the club's president and the landowner of the grounds the club would lease lamented the areas poor hunting conditions in 1886 caused by lack of control on the shooting area and the need for organization and a caretaker. Since the men purposing the club were all successful Chicago businessmen who loved to hunt, money was no problem. The land was leased and a large houseboat built to serve as the clubhouse. The houseboat was moored at the mouth of Brimfield Slough, which emptied into the Illinois River and lead to Hennepin Lake and its watershed. This boat was eventually moved into the town of Hennepin and made into a house that still stands with several additions. The club grounds consisted of the lands that are now known as the Hennepin Drainage District. The club was disbanded in 1914 when Hennepin Lake and its watershed were drained. The club's membership reorganized and formed the Senechwine Gun Club on the opposite side of the Illinois River, which is still in existence as one of the most prestigious duck hunting clubs on the Illinois River. Sibley's identity was so elusive because he stopped hunting in Illinois in 1901 and moved to Colorado, stopping the production of his decoys and taking his hunting rig with him.  According to his descendants, George continued to hunt waterfowl using his decoys in Colorado until his death in 1938.

George lived and worked in Chicago prior to this move. It seems that he set up the decoy factory in Whitehall, Michigan around 1899 when he applied for his patent because his cousin had a large lumber mill there. His correspondences mentions going to Whitehall, but most are from the Chicago address of his other's business, a commission merchant house, where George worked. The Sibley decoy Pamphlet described the decoy as being modeled and painted from specimens furnished us by the best taxidermist in Chicago. James Cunningham, Hennepin, the first club caretaker was a great friend of George. In fact when a new caretaker was hired to replace Cunningham, he was advised by George not to contact any of the members if the hunting got really good unless they wrote to him first. Members of the club passed a by-law forbidding this practice after Cunningham was accused of alerting George and not the others of good hunting days. Cunningham produced the Senachwine Skiff, a 16-foot punt boat made of sheet iron that was popular on the Illinois River. He also made duck calls, so, it is likely that he may have helped George design his decoys. George's son recalls watching his father repairing his decoys in the basement workshop of his Colorado home, but never actually making any decoys. We believe that the Sibley decoys were manufactured on a production line like the Mason decoys. The parts were turned on a lathe, hand-finished, assembled and painted. The Sibley Co. produced mallard, canvasback, redhead, bluebill, ringbill, pintail, widgeon, blue-winged and green-winged teal decoys which were shipped by the dozen, six drakes and six hens, for twelve dollars. Flat bell shaped anchors and strings dyed a neutral color were added for fifty cents per dozen. The finely carved heads with quality taxidermist eyes were finished off with bills that could be carved down to realistic proportions because they were made of hardwood, thus creating natural looking decoys. The two-piece bodies appear to have been hollowed out by machine because the cavity was terraced. As mentioned before a strip of strap steel was set into the body cavity. The practice and the mitered bills were the features that George tried to patent. A small leather strap was affixed to the underside of each breast for an anchor line.

The paint patterns used on all the Sibley decoys were simple with no wet blending of the paints. The back of the drakes were vermiculated and set of with bold wing patches. The hens' back were crudely feathered with the same wing patches.  All of the bottoms were coated with a heavy layer of white lead paint and "PATENT APPLIED FOR 1899" was stamped on them in ink. Some of the decoys were factory stamped with an "L" in the center of a diamond. The reason for this stamp is still unknown. So the Mr. X decoy still retains some of its mysteries.





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