Charle Grubbs: Decoy Carver, Call Maker, Duck Hunter

When I first decided to write an article about Charles Grubbs, I expected to document the work of a master duck call maker from Illinois, but as I did my research I found a much intriguing tale of a waterfowler, businessman, decoy carver and call maker. The name of Charles W. Grubbs came up often in the history of waterfowling in the Hennepin, Illinois area. He was a personal friend of George Sibley, maker of the Mr. X decoys and was actively involved in the formation of the Undercliff Sportsmen's Association which was incorporated in 1905.

Born in Clinton County, Ohio on June 25, 1848 (father, James Grubbs, Mother's maiden name, Dodd, both from Virginia), Grubbs came to the Illinois Valley as a young man. In 1872, he married Amanda Hawkins whose father, Chauncey D. Hawkins, was one of the leading citizens of Senachwine Township. The young newlyweds set up housekeeping, probably in a tent home which was a common practice, at Indians Springs on the western shore of Lake Senachwine where Charles fished commercially. Along this lake shore, there was a beautiful sand beach that was favored by locals as a summer gathering spot. In 1880, Grubbs approached George Sparling, the owner of this beach to lease the site and started the Undercliff Hotel and Summer Resort. He advertised rooms and various types of boats and fishing equipment for rent; a refreshment stand with food and tobacco as well as a dance floor and playground with gym and croquet sets in the June 24, 1880 issue of the Henry Republican newspaper. During the spring and fall waterfowl migrations, Grubbs also offered his services as a hunting guide on Lake Senachwine. He continued to fish commercially on the Lake for the market and as a fishing guide. Business was good for Grubbs, so he added more rooms to his two room home for boarders in 1881, but his success was short lived.

In 1882, Robert Challoner was camping with his family at the Undercliff Resort. Recognizing the possibilities of Grubbs' operation, he urged the land owner, Sparling, to build his own hotel at the site. Of course, Challoner would become manager of the new 22 room establishment which opened in December of 1882 There is no record of Grubbs reaction to this change, but he and Amanda were not among the guests at the new hotel's grand opening which was the highlight of the social season in the surrounding counties of Putman and Bureau. There was no mention of Grubbs in connection with the Undercliff until 1883 when he was registered as a guest from Hennepin during the hunting season. It is likely that Grubbs continued to offer guiding services to visiting hunters.

The new Undercliff Hotel was a grand three story building with deep verandas on the first and second floors. A large parlor and dining room created a fine meeting place and the Undercliff was soon the social center for the surrounding communities attracting visitors from all over the States and Europe. The Undercliff Sportsmen's Association leased hunting grounds from Sparling and part of the hotel for their clubhouse until the hotel burned down in 1914. Early records indicate that Robert and Catherine Elliston lived at the hotel in 1886 while their home was being built. This was probably where Robert, a carriage maker by trade, became interested in building boats and decoys for the duck hunters.

After Grubbs lost control of his resort, he moved to Chicago to work for Oswald Von Lengerke, the 'V.L.' in V.L.& A., probably sometime between 1883 and 1892. He also worked in the sporting goods department at the Fair which was started by E.J. Lehman in 1875. George Sibley mentioned seeing Grubbs there in a letter written to Del Woods in 1896. One could assume Grubbs was making duck calls for these stores since he was producing calls commercially during this time. According to his own hunting catalog, Grubbs made the "first commercial duck call that was ever place on the market in 1868". Yet the earliest known published mention of the Grubbs call was in an 1889-1890 Montgomery Ward catalog which illustrated a metal-banded wooden duck call. There are no known examples of this call in collections. Several different styles of duck calls are attributed to Charles Grubbs; The "Illinois River Duck Call", the "Improved Illinois River Duck Call" also called the "Perfect Duck Call", the "Kankakee Wood Duck Call" or "Kankakee Marsh Duck Call", the Sears "Wood Duck Call", the "Miller's Improved Duck Call" and the Poitevin Bros. "Singing River Duck Call". These calls were marketed by various sporting goods stores and by Grubbs himself as late as 1928. Grubbs' calls range from a simple straight barrel to an elaborately decorated barrel with deeply ridged patterns finished off with a sculpted mouth piece. All of these calls utilized at least one metal band to reinforce the wooden barrel, usually where the stopper was inserted into the barrel, and were finished with a channeled tone board, German silver reed and wooden wedge block which has often secured in place.

Bob Christensen's book on Illinois River duck calls has a detailed study of the various Grubbs calls and I recommend it highly for anyone who is interested in duck calls. Probably the best example of his call making skills is a pair of special order calls made for his friend George Sibley, maker of the Sibley, A.K.A. Mr. X, decoys shown in the photo above on the far right
Grubbs continued to hunt waterfowl in the Hennepin Illinois area. Although he was not a member of the Hennepin Shooting Club, there were two sites named after Grubbs on the club's grounds; 'Grubbs Blind' at the northwest tip of Lake Senachwine and 'Grubbs Hole' at the southeast shore of Lake Hennepin. Grubbs was a good friend with several members and probably guided as a pusher at the Hennepin Shooting Club. Minutes from the first annual meeting of this club on December 10 1887 recorded a letter from Charles Grubbs was read to the membership. Unfortunately, there was no details as to the content of this letter. Could he have been offering his services?

Grubbs was actively involve in the formation of the Undercliff Sportsmen's Association which was chartered in 1902 and was among the charter membership. The Undercliff Sportsmen's Association leased extensive bottom lands on the west side of the Illinois River around Lake Senachwine and had a gentleman's agreement with the Hennepin Shooting Club for reciprocal hunting rights on there west marsh that boarded the Undercliff's grounds. The Undercliff Club was the forerunner of the present-day Senachwine Hunting Club. Knowing this one can narrow down the time frame when Grubbs left the state and set up his call making operation in Pascagoula, Mississippi since the club changed its name and offered new memberships in 1916. Grubbs' name was never among the membership under the newly named Senachwine Club.

Grubbs made his move to Jackson County Mississippi prior to the 1920 census which listed him as the head of the household including his single daughter, Alice who owned a restaurant in Pascagoula. The town of Pascagoula was the site of at least five different duck decoy manufacturing operations because of the area's natural abundance of tupelo gum and pop ash; two wood that are extremely buoyant and light-weight. What will interest collectors is that it was Charles Grubbs who initiated the Pascagoula decoy productions that would continue into the 1950's. An article in the Chronicle-Star, Pascagoula ( 12-22-1922) has credited "C.W. Grubbs has developed an important industry on the coast". This article describes how Grubbs started a decoy duck and duck call business with a pocket knife and three or four hand tools. At the time, he was operating a plant equipped with labor saving woodworking machinery under the name of the Grubbs Manufacturing Company. One could assume that Grubbs learned about the duplicating lathe from his friend George Sibley whose family was in the woodworking and lumber business. Grubbs and Sibley were closely associated when Sibley had set up a machine run operate to produce his decoys, Mr. X.'s around 1900 in Whitehall Michigan. Sometime between 1924 and 1928, Grubbs announced he had joined forces with the Poitevin brothers, Elwood and Eugene, who had a boat building and repair shop in Pascagoula and would be producing a new lightweight decoy. It is very likely Grubbs did this because of his advanced age. He would have been in his mid-seventies. The small magazine clipping that ran the announcement described Grubbs' as "a sportsman of many years of experience who knows ducks from bill to web. His new booklet on duck calls and other accessories for duck shooting is a result of a life-long study". The Poitevins had learned the boat building trade at the local shipyard as young men. In 1905, they built a their own boat and went into the towing business with a fair amount of success. During World War I, the Poitevin Bros were called upon to aid in the manufacturing of war ships, but both brothers returned to Pascagoula to set up an establishment that would specialize in various types of woodworking and repairs around 1916. The Jackson County Business Review (7\9\1931) recounts how Charles W. Grubbs who "had for years been whittling these wooden ducks by hand and was exceptionally talented in the art" had joined the Poitevin Brothers Company and "subsequently increased the scope of the Poitevin plant". The report was very vague as to when and why Grubbs relinquished his association with the brothers except to mention that "blinds, hunting suits and other products were introduced". The Poitevin's "Singing River Decoys" were appeared to have been turned using Grubbs patterns. A Poitevin ad in the same Jackson County Review also pictured a duck call obviously designed by Grubbs.

Grubbs moved to Huston Texas after he left the Poitevin Bros., probably taking an inventory of decoys and hunting products with him. Grubbs mailed a new sporting catalog from 608 Gray Avenue in 1928. In the C.W. Grubbs Catalog of Sporting Goods, Grubbs made a point of stating "We are in NO WAY connected with any company making decoys. WE ARE MAKING OUR PRIZE-WINNING DECOYS, CALLS,AND GRASS BLINDS in the above named city (Houston)" which leads one to assume Grubbs may have been a victim of another take-over coup. His catalog offered Blue wing teal, blue bill, mallard and pintail decoys in two grades; No. 1 Perfection- made of corkwood, treated with linseed oil and given two coats of high grade paint, with glass eyes; $15.00 per dozen. No. 2 Perfection decoys were identical "but of a heavier wood at $12.00 per dozen. There are lathe-marked, machine-made decoys in several collections with "Grubbs" clearly stamped into their bottoms including diving ducks which were not mentioned in the Texas 1928 catalog. Grubbs also offered decoy repair services, sanding and repainting; one coat, $2.00- two coats, $3.00 per dozen. Pretty impressive for a man who was eighty years old in 1928!

Five calls were offered in Grubbs catalog: "No.1 Perfection- Made of red cedar or mahogany, gold mounted, silver reed, beautifully finished with book; postpaid...$5.00 No.2- Black walnut, German silver reed, silver plate with book; postpaid...%2.50 No.3 Call- White birch, German silver mounted, German silver reed; postpaid with book...$1.25 Goose Call- postpaid with book...$2.00 Our new call is a combination call--three-in-one-- a perfect duck call, a perfect goose call, and a hawk call; all made on the same call without changing the reed. Postpaid with book...$5.00" Grubbs used a photograph of a pair of miniature mallards, a Grubbs' 'Perfection duck call' and a pair of mallard decoys with award ribbons from the 1924 Wild Fowl Decoy Exhibition, New York for his catalog and stationery logo. In his catalog, he claimed his decoys winners over 16 competitors. The catalog from this competition held by the Howell's Point Anti-duskers Society, Bellport, Long Island listed Grubbs Manufacturing Company, Pascagoula, Mississippi #153 in the machine made classification with fourteen other makers including a mistaken entry, Chas Perdew. In a correspondence with a customer dated 11/16/28, Grubbs again refers to being "the winners over all competitors". Among his other products, Grubbs illustrated hunting blinds made of tough grasses from the salt marshes of the Gulf Coast that was woven with heavy cord and sold by the foot in three and five foot sections. He also fashioned grass suits with loops for ones arms that allowed the top half of the grass "blind" to fall away when one was ready to shoot.

Much of Grubbs personal life is still shrouded in mystery and none of his descendants have been identified as of this printing. I do know that he had at least one wife beside Amanda Hawkins, Estelle who was listed on his death records. When Grubbs died in on August 18, 1933, a C.D. Grubbs provided information for the county coroner. Who C.D. was or his relationship to Charles is unknown, yet his address was the same as Charles', 608 Gray Ave, Huston. Charles W. Grubbs will always be remembered for the part he played in the history of waterfowling in the Illinois Valley and his calls will treasured as testimonials to a fine craftsman. Although his decoys did not have the quality that would set them apart from other carvers they established the Pascagoula Decoy, an entire line of inexpensive hunting blocks that would supply hunters with workable wooden decoys into the age of plastic decoys.