Hector Whittington Illinois Master Decoy Carver
Hector Whittington’s working Canada goose decoy will be the featured on this year’s Midwest Decoy Collectors Association directory which will be available to members at the 40th annual Sporting Collectibles Show held at the Pheasant Run Resort, St Charles, Illinois, April 29 & 30. One of my earliest decoy collecting memories is sitting in Hector Whittington’s basement around 1966 watching him paint a highly detailed feather design onto a mallard hen decoy. Joe and I lived in the same small Midwest town as Whittington, Oglesby, Illinois and visited with him often. By this time most of the decoys Whittington has producing were destine to grace someone’s mantle. Rather than painting several decoys at the same time like he had done with his gunning decoys, Hector now took extra time to create his carvings especially when he was painting. By mounting a wooden brace to the bottom of the decoy, he could clamp the decoy in a vise freeing both of his hands. After laying out his painting pattern with a pencil, Hector used a fine brush to executed small strokes of oil paint to create each feather one at a time. All his decoys were painted in oil paint.

Yet these decorative birds were prepared the same way Whittington had done with his gunning decoys. Once the hollow bodies and heads were assembled, entire block was dipped in a hot linseed bath and hung to dry for several weeks. Whittington continued to prepare the decoy for painting by applying several coats of heavy white lead paint. The birds were carefully sanded after each coat of paint until the body seams, reinforced with 1/2 inch corrugated fasteners were invisible. When Whittington started the final stages of his painting, the decoy was as smooth as glass.

Born in Gloucestershire, England in 1907, Whittington emigrated to America with his parents at the age of two. He settled in Oglesby, Illinois and worked as a tool-setter at the Westclox plant in Peru most of his life. Here he was associated with several local waterfowlers, the Keohler brothers, Herman Rietgraf, Samuel Hockings, Skinny Evans and Chris Powers. All these men carved decoys and Hector’s earliest decoys reflected his friendship with these carvers. Hector made his first decoys in 1924 because he couldn’t afford manufactured decoys and he wanted to hunt ducks with his friends at Lost Lake, a backwater marsh area just northwest of Oglesby on the Illinois River. Using a coping saw, a hatchet and rasp, he made a rig of a dozen mallards and six pintails that had pencil thin necks and folksy heads resembling the birds made by Evans and Hockings.

As he gained more decoy making experience, his decoys took on the stronger more functional style typical among Illinois River decoys used on small landlocked lakes and river backwater marshes. His own style was recognizable by the 1930’s. A Whittington decoy from this period had a sturdy bill and tail. The hollow body was constructed from two pieces of seasoned white pine and sloped sharply like a v-bottomed boat below the waterline. The bottom of the decoy was planed to accommodate a long lead strip weight, which ballast the decoy to ride an inch or two under the waterline. These decoys were painted with a quickly applied wet-on-wet style common among Illinois River carvers. The vermiculation found on mallard, pintail and bluebill drakes was combed into a heavy coat of paint in a free flowing loop pattern with an English graining tool originally used to reproduce wood grain designs in cheaper lines of furniture. The feathering was denoted by applying contrasting loops directing over a wet base color resulting in a subtle blending of the colors. As his reputation as a decoy maker grew, Whittington began supplying local gunners with decoys. Whittington decoys were popular because hunters appreciated the quality workmanship of his decoys. Hunters at the West End Gun Club (Mud Lake Club), Putman County and at the Split Rock Gun Club, LaSalle County found that his high head pintails and realistically painted mallards showed up well along the weedy shorelines of their hunting holes. Whittington also hunted bluebills on the Mississippi River near Burlington Iowa. His diver decoys were well received in this area. Whittington’s production of gunning decoys continued until the late 1950’s. Producing mallards, pintails, and bluebills commercially, Whittington sold his decoys for $125 per dozen.

In an interview conducted by Hal Sorenson for Decoy Collectors Guide, Whittington reminisced; “I’ve been real lucky to have corresponded over many years with such great decoy men as Joel Barber, ‘Shang’ Wheeler ...I especially remember how ‘Shang’ Wheeler wrote to me all during World War II while I was overseas.” A pair of bluebill decoys that Shang Wheeler gave Whittington and a first edition copy of Wild Fowl Decoys autographed to him by author Joel Barber were among Hector’s most prized possessions. Their ongoing long distance friendships greatly influenced Whittington’s work. During this period, Hector made an impressive hunting rig of oversized mallards, pintails, bluebills and Canada geese for use his personal use. He took extra care in their production. Even naming each decoy with a biblical title and ending his signature and the date. Unlike his typical decoys, these birds have wide, shallower bodies and naturally positioned heads including “S-neck” sleepers. The long lead keel weight was replaced with a large teardrop weight. Whittington also adapted several East Coast painting techniques. He used a finer graining comb to create the vermiculation. Rather than a quick application of a large looping pattern, a tighter wavy design was used. The most obvious change was the use of scratch-painting to textured and detail the heads of his hen decoys. These decoys represent to apex of Whittington’s work. The Canada Geese are probably the finest working geese decoys produced in the Illinois River Valley.
After he returned from his work service tour as a World war II conscious-objector overseas, Whittington became more involved in decoy carving and started to enter the early decoy carving contests held on the East Coast. His first ribbons including a First with a bluebill drake in 1948 and a Third with a turned head pintail hen in 1949 at the Anti-Dusking Society’s Long Island Competition were patterned after Shang Wheeler’s decoys, yet Whittington’s style can be recognized. From this point, on he began to simulate influence of his friends’ work with his own style and the demands of Illinois River hunting conditions. Whittington is recognized as one of the major Illinois River decoy makers. Even though he incorporated the carving and painting techniques and patterns of other carvers, he still retained a strong personal style and always maintained a high standard for his work. Whittington measured his carvings at every stage of completion with calipers. If these measurements varied from his patterns, the decoy was not finished. There was always a basket on his basement floor filled with discarded decoy parts to attest to his determination to create a perfect decoy. These discards were always destroyed by Whittington.

Although he rarely taught his tricks of the trade, Hector did enjoy demonstrating his skills and would let visitors watch him carve and painting. During the 1960’s when hunters were abandoning the wooden decoy for lighter, cheaper, plastic and composition blocks, Hector continued to sell his decoys. Now his customers bought one or two birds to decorate their homes. He began to sell individual birds for $50-$75 each. Even though he was much older than the emerging class of competitive decoy carvers, I can remember Whittington saying; “we have to support these carving shows by entering the contest whether we win or not.” He was a regular contestant at the International Decoy carving contest held in Davenport, Iowa in conjunction with the Greater Mississippi Valley Fair. Even as the younger competitors began to drift away from the stylized hunting decoy style and surpass Whittington’s carving and painting techniques, Whittington, then in his 60’s, experimented with the newer decorative techniques. Whittington decoys from this period often had wood insets incorporated with his classic gunning bird design, which formed raised wing tips. He added metal curlicue tail feathers to his mallard drakes and long spike tails on his pintails. His exposure to other contemporary carvers inspired Whittington to carve a broader range of species. He began to create blue-winged, green-winged, and teal cinnamon, old squaw and swans. His miniature swan decoys were very popular with the ladies. Whittington had made at least two pairs of full size flying mallards during his earlier carving period. Whittington continued to carve decoys until his death in 1981. He was a proud man. Many folks were put off by his contention that he made the best decoy. I used to say Hector needed both arms in a sling from patting himself on the back, yet decoy carving was his life. A man with very strong religious conviction, he and his wife, Marie lived without radio or television and certainly would never consider a night on the town. Long before it was popular, a NO SMOKING sign greeted guest in his home. I will always remember Hector Whittington fondly as proud man who made great Illinois hunting decoys and loved the well-deserved attention his decoys brought him in his later life.