Otto Garren (1890-1968)

Born in 1890, Garren lived in Canton located south west of Pekin near Illinois River. Like many of the young boys of this grand waterfowling area, he learned to hunt ducks almost as soon as he could handle a shotgun. All his life he lived the life of a riverman, fishing, trapping and waterfowling. Each hunting season he would leave his wife and family and headed out for the duck camp staying at the ‘cottage’ on the Illinois River’s Banner Marsh near Liverpool for most of the season. Even when he was well into his seventies, Otto would spend three or four days a week there during hunting season. But, as he wrote to Willis Pennington, early decoy collector of the 1960’s, “Don’t do much hunting anymore.(Can’t take it) but like to camp out with the younger boys. Cook, keep the camp clean and a warm fire when they come in, don’t think they don’t enjoy it. I give them baked duck & dressing and such.”

One of the older men that he hunted with as teenager was a carpenter who carved his own decoys. It was this hunting companion who sparked Otto’s interest in decoy carving. According to correspondence between Garren and Pennington, Otto started to carve his own decoys when he was 16. Otto declared “Couldn’t keep from whittling the bill down like crows so they looked like crows, but I soon improved that.” Garren developed his own decoy style drawing ideas from other local carvers like the Wilcoxen brothers of Liverpool. His decoys have the same hollow elongated sleek bodies and perky heads as Wilcoxens. The heads were nicely carved with little detailing on the bills. Early decoys had no eyes. He also personalized the Wilcoxen’s paint pattern to his limited painting abilities. Using dimestore brushes he dabbed on dots, bold wavy lines, and scratched feathering loops into wet paint with the end of his brushes. Although Garren was employed full time, he continued to carve decoys as a hobby producing hundreds of hunting blocks for local hunters; supplying mallards, pintail, canvasbacks, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, Canada geese, bluebills and wooducks. Garren was one of few Illinois River decoy carvers who made regularly Canada geese and wooduck working decoys. According to Garren correspondence “I have made them ( wooducks & geese) all before in my time but not too many as they wasn’t needed much because they would decoy to other makes.”

By the late 1950’s, the plastic hunting decoys were introduced. Hunters including Garren were retiring their wood blocks for these lighter, more durable decoys. When Garren heard other hunters had gotten new plastic decoys for their old blocks a fellow from St. Louis, another early decoy collector, Joe French. Garren began to correspond with French. “The boys said you are selling those plastic decoys”, he wrote. “...So I’d like to know what you get a doz for them & if you have sprig in them also....I may round up a few dozen more for you. We have 3 or 4 doz at the cottage in Liverpool. So let me know, Joe, if you have sprig, bluebill & mallard in plastic & also prices.”

Although hunters were switching to plastic decoys, Garren still had a ready market for his decoys among the early decoy collectors. French and Willis Pennington both bought and traded decoys directly with Garren and dispersed them among the growing numbers of new collectors. In a letter to Pennington, Garren stated “I just thought I would dig out my old patterns and make a few more while I was able, as there aren’t many people living today that know I could.” He expanded his output of decoys to include species that weren’t normally hunted in his area like, bufflehead, gadwall, widgeon, shoveler, as well as American, hooded & red breasted mergansers.

By the 1960’s Garren was retired and was still producing hunting decoys for local hunters and this new bred, decoy collectors. His decoys are wonderful pieces of folk art with flamboyant flare and style all their own. He had a large workshop in his back yard equipped with a woodbench, cluttered with all his essential decoy making tools, a vise, drawknife, wood rasp, saw, gouge and a rasp. Like most Illinois decoy carvers, he fashioned a hollow two-piece body out of soft pine. The hand whittled head with glass eyes was held in place by a screw that came through the upper body section. In the middle of the workshop was a large table were he painted his decoys using oil paints and dimestore brushes. His painting skills were limited, but his use of bold colors and scratch painting created a charming effect especially on his wood duck decoy. Garren developed a wildly colored wood duck drake with exaggerated crest. His decoys were finished off with a lead keel weight. Along his workshop wall, Garren displayed the decoys he had ready for sale on shelves. Aside from hunting decoys, he produced a line of decorative pieces like miniatures, decoy lamps and half bodied duck bookends up. His miniature decoys were replicias of his working decoys and ranged in size from 3” to 8”. His decoy lamps had walnut bases with a burlap shade. When Garren died in 1968, a precious part of our waterfowling history ended.

I would like to give a special thanks to Barbara Sorenson and Joseph B. French for their part in documenting this bit of Americana by sharing their files and photography

View more Garren decoys from our collection here