Frank Mizera: Boundary Waters Carver

Frank Mizera (1898-1969) was one of the best guides in the Boundary Waters. He grew up fishing these isolated lake and looked every bit the part.

Even today much of the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota are so remote that few people live there year round. This was the land that Frank Mizera loved. He and his wife, Josephine, spent much of their time at his hunting and fishing lodge on Crooked Lake situated on the border twenty some miles north of Ely, Minnesota. This lake is still so isolated that the only contact with the outside world comes on a two way radio and with the plane that brings supplies and the sportsmen. There were no roads into Frank's Crooked Lake. It was several weeks before the Mizera's heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

One of eight children, Frank was born in Ely on December 4,1898. He grew up here living a young boy's fantasy hunting and fishing with his brother, Steve. While he was just a teenager, he went to work as a chef on the iron ore boats that sailed out of Duluth. By the time he was sixteen, he had earned enough to buy a home for his parents in Ely on Lake Shigawa. He continued to work on the iron ore ships until his parents died in a boating accident in 1925. They were returning from an afternoon of blueberry picking with another couple and their son when their rowboat, over laden with people and wash tubs filled with berries, was swamped during a sudden storm. Before help from shore could reach them, Frank's parents drown.

Close-up of the head shows the raised eyes found on most Mizera fish decoys.

Frank left his job and returned to Ely to help his sister raise their youngest sister who was only eight years old. Four years later he married Josephine. They made their home in the house he had bought for his parents. It set on the site where the Indians have launched their canoes for centuries. The Indians continued to use this landing as did many of the fishermen. People coming off the lake were always made welcome at Frank's home. Although he rarely went looking for company, Frank enjoyed visiting. Josephine was known as an excellent baker and there was always fresh coffee and treats for anyone who came into the Mizera's landing.

Frank was a loner by nature. His family and friends described him as a quiet man who rarely lost his temper or raised his voice. His nephew tells how he had a large northern on the line when he was fishing with his uncle as a child. He got excited and jerked the pole as Frank was trying to land the fish hooking Frank's finger. Frank didn't yell or curse. He just pushed the hook through his finger, clipped the barb off, pulled the hook back out and continued fishing. Frank, who never left the Boundary Waters area, was rarely seen in town. He never had a drivers license, although he drove an old Willy's jeep. He had added a steel topper and cut a hole into the floor boards so he could drive the jeep onto the ice and fish from it. Growing up on the lake, Frank was at ease in the wilderness. Looking like he could be a model for L.L.Bean with a calico bandanna around his neck, Frank was popular with the tourists who would come in from Chicago and the Twin Cities to hire him as a guide. His quiet nature made him a pleasant fishing companion, and he was always aware of the dangers that could arise in the wilderness. One season he watched in horror as another guide's boat capsized, drowning the guide and the couple that was with him. The two groups had been fishing from the same island camp. When the time arrived for their scheduled return to the home camp, threatening skies warned of an upcoming storm. The impatience fishermen pressured the guides to leave anyway. Frank refused probably saving the lives of his customers.

Mizera made his lures so they could be used as cheaters as well as casting baits. He used the same paint patterns found on his decoys. (three inches)

Frank always fished with two lines; one set deep and another with one of his homemade lures which he would cast continuously to draw fish in towards the boat for his companions to catch. His lures had a flat-bottomed, snubbed-nosed design with a tail hook and jointed double treble hooks hanging from the belly. The lures had side fins and were painted like his decoys. He also mounted the tie-line of the lure on top of the body so it could be used as a "cheater" when spearing fish during the winter. Frank marketed his lures packaged in used blasting caps boxes he got from the mines. He had a running battle with a large rock ledge on his property that Frank often dynamited to break it down and hauled the rock away. It was quite a sight when he tried using the new plastic explosives. He set a handful of the plastic and covered the area with a mattress and old tires as he always did when dynamiting. When he pushed the plunger down, there were tires flying into the lake and stuffing from the mattress snowing down the upon the whole neighborhood.

The dark bands on this decoy are burned into it. The detailing was added before the entire decoy was sealed with marine varnish. (eight inches)

Frank and Josephine made their living off the land guiding and making gill nets which were legal then and used by most fishermen in the area. He was well known for his smoked fish. His home-made smoker that held two hundred pounds of fish produced delicately seasoned fish for the tourists and the local residents for years. He only took the species of fish he liked to eat or were suitable for smoking because Frank hated to waste anything. He often cleaned his fish right in the boat, filleting them and bringing the waste out to Sea Gull Island to feed the gulls. Supplying most of the hardware and sports shops in the Boundary Waters area, Frank's income was supplemented by his decoy and lure sales. He started making his own decoys during the 1930's, and produced thousands carving up until he died on June 12, 1969. An old wooden upright phonograph cabinet which Frank fitted with several shallow slide-out shelves would hold his inventory. Frank spent most of his evening hours at Crooked Lake working on his decoys. During the mid 1960's, he was forced to move into town permanently because he had suffered heart problems. He sold the camp on his beloved Crooked Lake and went to work at the iron ore mines as a night watchman. He continued to produce his decoys and fish on Lake Shigawa. His friend, the town barber, acted as Frank's distributor, shipping his work as far as the Twin Cities.

Mizera's red and white fish were his best sellers. To the collector's dismay, Minnesota decoy users found this simple design with a red head and white body was the most successful at attracting fish. ( five and a half inches and seven and a half inches.)

When the fishing was slow, Frank would dig into his tackle box and pull out a rough cut decoy and his pocketknife. Never using any patterns, he would visit with his fishing companion as he whittled away, creating a narrow bodied fish with a slightly bent wooden tail. The eyes were always raised and rounded on a head that was flattened on each side to give it a unique form. The decoy would be tossed into his box to be finished later at home. Side fins would be added but no anal or dorsal fins. Molten lead would be poured into a cavity in the under-bellies cementing the fins in place. Frank would test each decoy in a minnow tank or off of the dock. More than once a northern pike would come up and steal a decoy that Frank was testing. His decoys range in size from two inch to ten inches.

Frank had a unique paint pattern for his decoys. The little fish he often painted on the sides of his decoys led many collectors to believe his decoys were the work of an Indian. For years it was also believed he was from International Falls. Like most Minnesota decoy makers, his most popular paint palette was red and white. He also painted fish using black, turquoise, orange and yellow enamel paint. Sometimes he would leave the decoy in a natural finish, wood burning a linear pattern on it before sealing it with the clear marine varnish. All of Mizera's paint patterns were abstract. They were very simple, often just one solid color with painted eyes, gill markings and lines on the tail and fins. At most, he utilized strips of color or added his `little fish'. The paints he used and the protective coats of marine varnish held up through heavy use. Many of his decoys have been found in near-mint condition and they are almost impossible to date even though they span 40 years. His decoys varied little during his carving career, although earlier models seem fatter and the heads are not as pointy. The Mizera decoys sold for $1.35 in most hardware stores. Frank, of course, was paid much less than that. His friend, who distributed decoys for Frank, recalled he had trouble getting $5 a dozen for his decoys for Frank's widow after Frank died in 1969. His nephew who tried unsuccessfully to finish up the decoys Frank left behind, used his unfinished decoys for kindling wood in his ice fishing stove. Certainly not a fitting end for the work of a true Minnesota folk artist.