George ‘Skippy’ Barto ( 1880- 1959) was one of hundreds of sportsmen who found immortality through their decoy carving skills. Born in Tiskilwa, Illinois located in the heart of the country’s greatest waterfowling regions, Barto loved the outdoors and grew up during an era long gone. This was a time before agricultural practiced dumped chemicals and increased siltation in to the Illinois River and the commercial barge traffic churned up the river bottoms destroying native wild rice and wild celery beds along the river. Drainage projects reverse the flow of the Chicago River bringing the city’s pollution down river. The Illinois bottom land were fertile loafing spots for the multitude of waterfowl that migrated along the Mississippi Flyway each spring and fall that were available to hunt by anyone who had the desire and a gun.
Barto started to hunt as a youngster and was carving decoys for his own use while he was still in school because he couldn’t afford to buy decoys. Since his hometown was just west of Bureau and Putnam, Barto learned to carve decoys by emulating the master carvers of the area, Robert Elliston and Charlie Perdew. His earliest decoys, patterned off Elliston’s decoys, followed the typical Illinois River style decoy: hollow two-piece body constructed in local cedar or pine finished with a hand whittled head complete with glass eyes. A three inch screw runs through the top half of the body securing the head in place. Although slightly blockier than Elliston’s classic decoy, Barto made a nice decoy and produced mallards, pintails, bluebills and canvasbacks which his painted tried to follow Catherine Elliston’s free flowing painting style. He wasn’t the artist that she was but his painting is much better than average.
Decoy carving was put on hold after Barto graduated from Princeton High School. He was an exceptional baseball player and decided to attempt to make a career in the pros. He was hired by a Kewanee semi-pro team right out of high school. While playing for the Joliet Standards, the team won the Joliet City League Title in 1914 and he earned the nickname ‘Home-run’ Barto for his batting abilities. In 1958 he was placed in the Old Timers Hall of Fame by the Will County Old Timers Association. Although he had little time for carving, Barto would return to his home town to hunt ducks each season. When he retired from baseball, Barto remained in Joliet area and made his home in Fairmont. He worked as a foreman at Illinois Steel until a hip injury forced him into retirement. This prompted him to return to decoy carving as a business. He produced, puddle ducks, divers, and geese, offering regular and oversized models. His average price was $35 per dozen, four hens and 8 drakes. The majority of his costumers were located in Illinois, but a nephew from California marketed his birds on the west coast.
There were times when Barto needed to call on his friends and hunting buddies, Arthur ‘Artie Bennett’ Behemetuik and Ed Stuark to help him fill his decoy order for the upcoming hunting season. Bennett also carved decoy on his own patterned after Barto’s which are often mistaken for Barto decoys. Barto continued to use the Elliston patterns for his diver decoys, but his puddle ducks and geese reflect the strong friendship that developed between Barto and Charlie and Edna Perdew. Barto and his wife, Josephine often visited with the Perdew’s in Henry.
Perdew also taught Barto how to made duck calls. BArto experimented with Perdew’s basic red cedar duck call design but only used a single German Silver band around the top of the call barrel. There is at least one known Barto call with a Bakelite rind incorporated midway into the call barrel. Barto was not known to have produced any fancy carved calls or crow like Perdew. Yet he did carve a line of miniature decoys. His earlier miniatures measure 3" but as his eyesight began to fail he switched to a large 6" block for his miniature decoys
Patrick Gregory, Barto’s great grandson has inherited his carving tools and patterns. Barto’s hand gouge is interesting because Barto turned the handle into the shape of his duck calls. BArto cast his own lead strip keel weights which were embossed with a single ‘B’ or ‘BBB’.
George ‘Skippy” Barto was a big man in more ways than stature. Speaking to old friends and associate, their eyes light up at the memory of his name stirred up in their minds. Art Schuman, an outdoor writer for the Joliet Herald News. That capture Skippy in his Grandview Avenue workshop, wrote several stories about Barto for his paper. One of his favorites, tells how Skippy, after returning from a hunting trip during the Great Depression. would go door-to-door distributing ducks to his neighbors so they would have meat on their dinner tables. This type of memories never fade. Today there are still hunters who take their wooden Barto decoys out to the marsh, not necessarily because they are better than plastic decoys but to remember an old friend.
Barto’s story of his decoy carving is like so many of the tales about men who lived off the Illinois and developed their own style of decoy and built cottage industries in the small river towns of Illinois. If anyone would like to learn more about decoys and the men who made them, join me at the International Antique Decoy and Sporting Collectibles show held the last weekend of every April at the Pheasant Run Resort and Mega Center. The top waterfowling and fishing collectors and dealer from across North America meet here to share their knowledge and decoys. More information about this show sponsored by the Midwest Decoy Collectors Association at their website www.midwestdecoy.org or at mine at www.edecoy.com