Defining the Decoy as Folk Art

The Maine based decoy Auction Company, Guyette & Schmidt recently posted the results of their November auction held in conjunction with the Easton Maryland Waterfowl Festival and old time collectors are shaking their heads as they read the prices realized. The sale was the fourth largest gross of any decoy auction to date grossing $2,335,800, 28% over estimate. These sales results were not the caused only by a few high-powered egos with deep pockets battling over a few great decoys but also across the board strong bidding. For example the Mason Factory Decoy produced in Detroit Michigan from 1896 to 1924, which is the best example of a decoy used in all waterfowling regions. The Mason decoys sold within or over, sometimes double, their estimates. Guyette & Schmidt are predicting that their next sale held at the Midwest Decoy Collector Show in St Charles, Illinois April 22 & 23 may gross over $3,000,000. Granted the collectors love their decoys and are responsible for a majority of the major sales but who else is paying these soaring prices? This isn’t the 1990’s. Our economy is struggling and yet values continue to surpass all expectations.
John Hyatt, Pekin, Illinois made this great grey owl for the Owl Travern in Neenha, Wisconsin, circa 1940.

The answer may lie in the fact that the decoy is being seriously recognized as a functioning folk art form by other art collecting groups. Some decoy dealers have been throwing this term around for years but what does it really mean? The craft of decoy making can be traced back to the Native American who bundled tule grass to form a body, decorated the body with duck feathers and added a branch or root that looked somewhat like a bird head. As the new European settlers started to hunt waterfowl, they assimilated their wood crafting skills to create a wooden decoy that could be used year after year. The decoys they made were actually multi-medium sculptures. The form was usually shaped in wood, glass or tack even shoe buttons were added as eyes and the decoy was completed with stylized painting that could capture the essence of the species it represented.
Black bellied plover carved by Elmer Crowell, East Harwich, Mass for Doctor John Phillips. Nicknamed the Dust Jacket Birds because a plover from this rig was used on the dust jacket of Delph's New England Decoys.

Yet the men who became decoy carvers were rarely trained as artists. These were men who crafted a working tool, the decoy, which could be tossed into the water to attracted waterfowl within shooting range of the hunter. This in itself adds a new dimension to the decoy. It was not made to set on a mantle but to float and take on the natural motion of a live duck. It needed to be balanced often with extra weigh added to compensate for the decoy’s head. Add to this that more than one decoy would be used to lure a flock of waterfowl. The decoy carver was attempting to create the illusion of a flock of birds on the water. He would paint some decoys as hens, others as drakes. Some of the master carvers even included immature birds with mottled feathering. Changing the posture of the decoy’s head also added to the realism of a decoy rig. Head would be turned to different angles, and sometime into preening, swimming and sleeping positions.
Mandt Homme, Stoughton,Wisconsin executed strikingly natural poses on many of his decoys like this canvasback drake.

Not only did the decoy need to give off the illusion of a live bird it needed to function as a tool. The carver had to build a decoy that would stand up to the rigor of hunting. There could be no delicate parts that would break or chip easily. Since the decoy would often be carried into the marsh they needed to be lightweight. Extra weigh was usually shaved from the decoy by hollowing out the cavity of the body creating another problem to be dealt with, leakage. Once the body was hollowed out the body joint had to be watertight so the body wouldn’t pop apart. The wood was usually treated with linseed oil to seal it even more before the decoy was painted.

Enoch Reinhadl, Soughton, Wosconsin was an intriquing character whose decoys were so realistic that even the bottom of this mallard hen is painted as fine as the rest of the decoy.

The art of the decoy is found in the carver’s ability to capture the essence of the waterfowl. His decoys become his interpretation of what he sees when he watches a flock of waterfowl in their natural habitat. His ability to translate his interpretation into a visual art form is what separates him from an average decoy maker and makes his decoys more desirable to the collector. Like an oil painting one should stand back and try to imagine it in a natural environment to view a decoy to truly appreciate its presence. Most viewers would be impressed by the striking form on the standing goose decoys carved by Charles Schoenheider Sr. (1854-1944), a market hunter from Peoria, Illinois, but picture this: Watching from a distance you see a flock of geese feeding in a cornfield. Suddenly more geese begin to approach the field. Most of the geese in the field will stop feeding and rise up with out stretched necks to look at the incoming birds. This is the illusion a rig of standing Schoenheider goose decoys creates.
The last Schoenheider goose decoys sold at the Guyette & Schmidt Decoy Company auction of the noted folk art collector, Adele Earnest’s collection in April 1993 for $99,000 and $93,500.

Held April 23 – 24, 2004 at the Pheasant Run Resort and Mega Center, St Charles, Illinois the Midwest Decoy Collectors Association show presents anyone with a rare opportunity to see some of the finest examples of the ultimate in decoy making art. Guyette & Schmidt Decoy Company will present for sale a standing life-size hissing Canada goose with outstretched wings and a pair of ‘dust-jacket’ plover with turned and cocked heads by Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), master carver from East Harwich Massachusetts. Crowell was a self-taught artisan. He hunted for the market and run hunting stand on the ocean shoreline. Although he preferred to use live decoys, by 1900 he was working at Dr John Phillips’ Wenham Camp and “used to decorate Wenham Camp with all sorts of mythical looking birds, whittled out and suspended from the ceiling…” (Dr Phillips, A Sportsman’s’ Scrapbook) Over the years his fame grew and he supplemented his income as a cranberry farmer with decoy and decorative carving sales.

This life-sized standing hissing Canada goose carved by Elmer Crowell for Doctor John Phillips will be sold as part of the late John Delph Collection by Guyette & Schmidt Inc. April 22 &23, 2004.

In addition the MDCA Board of Directors will present an exhibition of superb Wisconsin decoys from their personal collections that will include examples by the master Wisconsin carvers such as Enoch Reindahl (1904-2000), Mandt Homme (1905-1964).both from the Stoughton, Wisconsin Carving School, circa 1930-1940. Reindahl is known for his amazingly realistic hunting decoys,. Homme decoys are exquisite with free flowing expressive forms. The Evans Decoy Company will also be featured as well as decoy made by the noted wildlife artist Owen Gromme for his personal use.

Wlater Evans, Ladysmith, Wisconsin produced his line of decoy under the name of the Evans Decoy Company. This exceptally rare pair of green winged teal is part of the James & Diane Cook collection.

Anyone seeking over information about the Guyette & Schmidt Decoy auction or the Midwest Decoy Collectors show may contact any of the following parties:

Donna Tonelli (815)664-4580 ,,

Herb Desch, (312)337-7957,,

Frank Schmidt (207)625-8055,,