The Hunt for G. K. Schmidt

Arguably one of the most famous decoy rigs within the decoy collecting world is the ‘G.K. Schmidt’ rig for several reasons. First and foremost is the condition of the Charles Perdew and Premier Mason Mallard decoys bearing this brand. These decoys were found at an estate auction during the late 1960’s and were in unused pristine condition. The ‘G K Schmidt’ brand is burnt into the bottom of the decoys and it looks as if it was done yesterday. Sometimes the condition of these birds had caused some would-be buyers to pass on them thinking they were contemporary reproductions. To date 6 mallards (1 hen sleeper), 7 pintail, 2 redhead, (1 hen sleeper), 2 canvasback (1 hen sleeper), 4 green-winged teal (1 hen sleeper), and 3 blue-winged teal (1 hen sleeper) carved by Charlie Perdew and painted by Edna Perdew and 9 Premier Mason Mallards in pristine condition with the ‘G.K. Schmidt’ brand have been found in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan and are now in various private collections. There are also examples of Robert Elliston mallards, pintail, canvasbacks and Mason Pintails found with ‘G K Schmidt” brand repainted by Edna Perdew. It should be noted that there were two different ‘G.K. Schmidt’ brands one was smaller than the other.

Decoys with the now famous G.K. Schmidt brand have fascinated collectors for decades. Gene ‘Sandy’ Schmidt ( no relation) and Bruce Miller from Rockford, Illinois were the among the first decoy collectors to learn of the G.K. Schmidt decoys. These men purchased most of the ‘G K Schmidt’ decoys from a local gun dealer during the late 1960’s. During a 1988 interview, the gun dealer explained that he had attended an estate auction in 1966 where approximately 40 decoys from the G.K. Schmidt rig was sold. The decoys were supposedly found stored in the basement of a bank and included pristine Perdews painted by Edna Perdew, a dozen Mason Mallards in original paint and various decoys by Mason and Robert Elliston repainted by Edna. All had the G.K. Schmidt brand, most of the decoys but not all were bought at the sale by the gun dealer for choice at $3.75 and then $2.50. He, in turn, sold the decoys in his gun shop and had them on his table at local gun shows for $15 each or $25 a pair.

Sandy Schmidt had 10 G.K. Schmidt Perdews including 4 pairs with sleepers and an extra pintail hen and undistinguishable hen sleeper and in his collection. In 1968 Joe Tonelli purchased the ‘extra’ Schmidt sleeper.. This decoy although beautiful was a drab grey. In fact one would be hard pressed to identify its species. At the time Tonelli thought was probably a gadwall hen. The decoy was sold to Kirt Whaley the following year. In 1974 Whaley had Tonelli sell the decoy to Dr. Richard Bick for the now modest price of $2500. When Bick consigned the decoy to Guyette & Schmidt in April 2001, it sold to Dave Galliher just above the low estimate of $18,000 When this decoy came to auction, there was a lot of discussion as to what species the decoy was meant to represent. Collectors generally came to the conclusion that it was a gadwall because its muted grey tones. This has been the accepted identification since until now. Turns out that this decoy is actually a redhead hen sleeper. This decoy will be offered by Guyette & Schmidt in their Spring Auction held at Pheasant Run Resort, St. Charles, Illinois
While writing this article on G.K. Schmidt it occurred to me that the G.K Schmidt gadwall sleeper hen that will be sold by Guyette & Schmidt this April could possibly be one of the ‘missing’ Schmidt decoys since there are no gadwalls in the original 1928. order.

But now armed with the original order made by Schmidt, we know there were no gadwall decoys ordered. Comparing this sleeper with the known Schmidt redhead drake one can see features that would confirm that the decoy is the redhead hen sleeper from this order. First . although Perdew has been known to use the wrong color eyes on is decoys, this hen has the same yellow eyes as the drake. All of the Schmidt puddle ducks have classic Illinois River style tail where the back gently slopes into a flat pointed tail feather area. This hen has the same down swept squared tail and the deep body style as the redhead drake and the known Schmidt canvasback decoys.

Lastly Edna painted this sleeper with the same back combing, feathering and feather strokes on the primary wing area that she used on the known Schmidt canvasback hen sleeper. Also noticeable are the sweeping broad white brush stroke on the speculum or wing patch that match the painting style on the known Schmidt redhead drake.

So gadwall or redhead?.. Definitely redhead.

Tonelli heard in 1969 that Sandy was considering selling his entire decoy collection including the G K Schmidt decoys. . At the time Tonelli didn’t have the $15,000 that Sandy wanted for his collection of roughly 500 decoys including the G.K. Schmidt decoys, so he contacted Randy Root. Together they arranged to sell the collection to Walter White. Tonelli met White in Rockford and they went to see Sandy’s collection displayed on shelves built in the stalls of a horse barn on Sandy’s land. As negotiations stalled between the asking price and a $14,000 offer, White offered to ‘flip’ for the difference and asked Tonelli if he had a coin. When the nickel landed, Walter had won the flip and celebrated by taking us all out to dinner! Several years later Walter White’s decoys, including a pair of mallards, a pair of green-winged teal, 3 blue-winged teal, a canvasback drake and 3 pintail from the G.K Schmidt rig, were purchased by Randy Root and Tom Figge.

Bruce Miller had moved to California with his decoy collection and it wasn’t until 1994 that he decided to sell his decoy collection including his G.K. Schmidt birds. He consigned a green-winged teal sleeper hen, mallard pair, canvasback pair with sleeper hen, pintail pair to be sold at the R.W Oliver’s October, 1994 sale. All the decoys sold except for the canvasback sleeper which didn’t meet it reserve. That decoy was sold privately after the sale to Bill Risbee.

Since the late 1960’s, aside from the Rockford group, G.K. Schmidt decoys have been found at the Ann Arbor Flea Market, the Kane County Flea Market, an antique shop in Aurora and at an estate sale in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Few Illinois decoy collectors will remember early decoy collector, Bill Mann, Aurora, Illinois. He stumbled unto a couple of G.K. Schmidt decoys in a Aurora antique shop; a Perdew mallard hen and a Premier Mason Mallard drake. The redhead drake turned up at the Kane County Flea Market in St Charles, Illinois by a local antiquer. Harold Haertel was able to trade several of his contemporary decoys for the decoy which was sold with the rest of his old decoys at Guyette & Schmidt 1990 April Decoy Auction.

In the early 1990’s Joe Tonelli was chatting with fellow decoy collector, who had just returned from doing the Ann Arbor Flea Market. In the course of the conversation Tonelli asked if anything good had turned up at the week long event. “Nothing much, Ron Fritz had 3 Elliston decoys, a pintail and 2 mallards repainted by Edna Perdew, a mint Mason Premier mallard drake and an obvious fake Perdew green-winged teal that looked like it was made yesterday.” Casually Tonelli asked about the teal. “Someone even branded the teal and Mason like the repainted decoys to make them look legit. You can even see the fresh burn marks around the G K SCHMIDT.” As soon as he got off the phone, Tonelli called Fritz and asked if he still had the decoys. “Yeah, and I know they are right. Got them out of a cabin in northern Michigan.” Long story short, Tonelli bought all the decoys sight unseen and told Fritz about the identifying ‘G K Schmidt’ brand. Fritz’s response: “ I’m glad you got these decoys. I can’t wait to tell all the ‘blankity-blank‘ decoy collectors that were at Ann Arbor and said the teal was a fake that they were wrong!”

P>During the summer of 1993, we came across an auction ad in the Action Auction News, a Wisconsin trade paper that listed a Schmidt decoy, we didn’t pay much attention to the ad thinking the decoy was probably a Benj or Frank Schmidt decoy and quite frankly forgot about the sale. A couple of days later a good friend, Art Hanson from Wisconsin called describing a nice Perdew pintail drake branded ‘G.K. Schmidt’ that he bought at the sale ‘for a song’. He consigned the decoy to Guyette & Schmidt’s 1994 April sale: selling price $12,650.

And now ‘the rest of the story’!

The second alluring feature of the ‘G K Schmidt’ decoys is the mysteries that surrounds them: Who was G.K. Schmidt ? For awhile it was speculated that Schmidt was owner of Schmitt distilled water, but the name spelling didn’t match. Why were these decoys, sold by auction house in 1966 found in the basement of a bank and why was there such a variety of species made by Perdew for one hunting rig? It was suggested that G.K. Schmidt had ordered pairs of decoys to decorated his office at the bank where he worked. Yet all the decoys were branded and rigged for hunting. There are also 6 known mallards, 7 pintail, 3 blue-winged teal and 4 green-winged G K Schmidt rig decoys. I was able to answer some of these questions because Dave Galliher had generously shared with me some of the Charles Perdew records that he purchased during the Guyette & Schmidt Perdew estate sales.

Joe and I have just begun to explore these records looking for any allusive clues that may lead to a better understanding of decoy history. While paging through an old ledger, we stumbled onto one of these clues. The first part of the ledger contains a record of Perdew’s monthly payments followed by the addresses of various businesses that he presumably received merchandise from in payment for his decoys and calls. Things like golf clubs and balls, tennis rackets, thermal ware jars, and fishing tackle. The rest of the ledger was devoted to customer orders dating from Nov.,1927 to the final decoy order from C. H Barkhausen on Feb 25, 1941. The entry that excited us the most was dated Nov 12, 1928 from Geo K. Schmidt. This was the original order for the famous G.K. Schmidt Perdew rig! The entry documents in Perdew original flowing script handwriting an order for “6 canvasbacks ( 3 hens) 1 female sleeper, 6 redheads (3 hens) 1 female sleeper, 1 dozen pintails (6 hens), 1 female sleeper, 1 dozen teal ( 6 green ) (6 blue ) 1 sleeper hen each, 1 dozen mallards ( 6 hens with 1 sleeper to be female, 1 drake sleeper gratis).” More importantly Perdew recorded the order as being placed by Geo K. Schmidt, 758 W North Ave, Chicago, Illinois. Because the decoys were found in a bank and sold in Rockford, collectors assumed Schmidt was associated with a Rockford bank. WRONG!

Armed with a full name, address and date, I first searched the 1930 US census I found a George K Schmidt who lived in Chicago and listed his occupation as a bank cashier, but when I searched the 1920 US Census I found another George K. Schmidt, father of 1930 census George K. He listed his occupation as bank president. Now the history of the G.K Schmidt rig was becoming clearer. I found the 758 W North Ave address listed on Schmidt’s order in Perdew’s order book in the 1928 Polk criss-cross directory as the location of the Prudential State Savings Bank further confirming I had found the rightful owner of the G.K. Schmidt decoys. This building, named the Yondorf Block & Hall still stands in Chicago and is an important landmark for several generations of Chicagoans of German descent, housing cultural events and meetings of civic groups and visually anchoring one end of North Avenue when it was Chicago's premiere shopping street for German-Americans. It was designated as a Chicago Landmark in 2001.

In my quest for more information on Schmidt, I searched the online records of the Chicago Historical Society. Here I found a photo of a George K. Schmidt taken by a Chicago Daily News photographer in 1929. The caption described Schmidt as president of the Prudential State Savings Bank. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any article with the photo. According to the Historical Society the photo was part of a collection of glass plate negatives donated to them by the Chicago Daily News. They had no way of knowing if the photo was ever used in the newspaper. This could explain why the decoys were stored in the basement of a bank and presumably in this bank and not one in Rockford. But how come they remain at the bank until the 1960’s. Did he quit hunting? And the decoys were simply forgotten? We may never know.

My first inclination was to assume that since the elder Schmidt was not listed in 1930 census, he may have died some time soon after he picked up the decoys he ordered from Perdew in November of 1929 and this is why the decoys were never used. I found was not the case.

Apparently Schmidt had been involved in the Chicago politics since the turn of the century. He was a member of the Chicago Board of Assessors and served as vice-president of the Chicago Board of Local Improvements. In 1928, he was appointed the City Controller of Chicago. As city controller he probably would have been deeply entrenched in Chicago Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson scandals. Chicago in the twenties was ruled by gangsters - first Johnny Torrio, and then his successor Al Capone. Mayor Thompson was suspected of being on Torrio and Capone's payrolls. During Big Bill's reign as mayor, the police were ineffective in combating organized crime. Bribery and corruption were rampant.. In 1931 Schmidt resigned his position in the Thompson administration and announced that he would run for the mayoral seat on the republican slate. At the time many assumed that Thompson would step aside and back Schmidt, but at the last moment ’Big Bill’ decided to run as the incumbent mayor. I was able to confirm this was the same G.K. Schmidt by matching photo which ran in several Midwest newspapers announcing his plans to run for the Republican slate to the one in the Chicago Historical Society’s collection naming Schmidt as president of the Prudential State Savings Bank .

It was confusing that I was unable to find an obituary for Schmidt in the early 1930 Chicago newspapers. What I did find was an obituary for G.K Schmidt, former Chicago City Controller who died in Logansport, Indiana that ran in the New York Times on Jan 2, 1939 This led me to believe that after his failed attempt to become a candidate for the mayoral election Schmidt left Chicago. This it turned out was not entirely true.

Since obituary listed Schmidt as a resident of Logansport, Indiana. I contacted the Logansport Historical Society and was able to get a copy of the local newspaper’s obituary for Schmidt. It verified that while Schmidt did lived in Logansport, he also maintains he residence in Chicago. The Schmidt family had owned the K G Brewery in Chicago which was started during the late 1880’s. In the 1891’s this brewery was merged with several other Midwest brewery. Newspaper reports of the merger mentioned that ‘K.G. Schmidt had already dabbled in exporting their ‘Budweiser’ brand“…interesting. This would explain why Schmidt maintained his residence in Chicago at 4228 Sheridan Road (The address listed on the 1920 census.) while he was in Logansport. In 1962 the Schmidt Chicago home was sold to neighboring St Mary Church and bulldozed into a church parking lot.

Born December 18,1869 in Chicago to Kasper and Barbara Schmidt, both natives of Germany, The obituary mentions that Schmidt was in the banking business at various times. Apparently he had remained politically active in Logansport as the county assessor and a member of the city council.

During the Prohibition Days, Schmidt was able to purchase a closed Logansport brewery and the real estate it occupied. During the 18 months prior to the repel of prohibition, Schmidt went to Logansport and supervises the reconditioning of the brewery and the addition of modern equipment. As a young man Schmidt graduated as a Brew Master from Brewers Academy at Worms, Germany in 1890 and then served as an apprentice as his father’s K.G Schmidt brewery. Considering his connections with the “Big Bill’ Thompson administration it is likely the he was involved with bootlegging. In 1933 soon after Congress repelled the Prohibition Act, The K.G. Schmidt Brewery was legally operational with G.K as president, his son George K. Jr. as secretary/treasurer and his brother, Ernst as vice president. Although George K. Schmidt was stricken with a heart attack and died January 1, 1939 the K G Schmidt Brewery remained in operation until 1951. When Schmidt died his remains were waked in Logansport and the final services were held at the family home in Chicago. He is buried in Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

This brings us back to one of the initial questions: why was the original decoy order so large? During the height of the Depression, Schmidt ordered 4 dozen Perdew decoys paying a $50 deposit and a balance of $95 on delivery a year later. The Logansport obituary mentions that Schmidt was “a true sportsman and during duck hunting season spent many days in the field. His collection of hunting guns was one of the best. This he proudly displayed to his many friends.” This apparently was a man who appreciated fine quality and would have Perdew, Elliston and Premier Mason decoys. Could it be that his newly purchase decoys were simply lost track of and forgotten in the turmoil of his exit from Chicago Politics, revamping and starting up of the brewery in Logansport? This too may never be known.

Guess the rest of the story is that not all of the original order has been found YET. According to my calculations there are 6 mallards, possibly 7 if the ‘gratis’ drake sleeper was in addition to the dozen ordered, 5 pintail, 3 blue-winged teal, 2 green-winged teal, 4 canvasback and 4 redhead ‘G.K. Schmidt’ decoys from this 1928 order still unaccounted for and presumably 3 ‘G.K. Schmidt’ Mason mallards since they were sold by the dozen. So Good Luck: The Hunt for the G.K. Schmidt brand isn’t over!

Author’s Note: A special thanks to Dave Galliher, Thelma Conrad, Cass County Historical Society, Logansport, Indiana, the Chicago Historical Society, and Barbara White, Frank Mautino Library, Spring Valley, Illinois for making my research successful. I find it intriguing that a man who was so important during his lifetime is relatively unknown today and yet now will always be remember by collectors for his relationship to the humble duck decoy.