PERHAPS YOU’VE HEARD THE OLD ADAGE, “Everybody collects
something.” Self-examination will more than likely prove the point.
The list of collectibles seems endless: stamps, coins, baseball cards,
photos, even automobiles and airplanes.
Dedicated waterfowlers tend to be among the most addicted of
collectors. They never seem to accumulate enough camouflage clothing,
guns, ammo, art work, decoys, boats, motors and maybe most of all, game
calls. A lanyard of calls around a hunter’s neck proves membership
in the royal fraternity of marsh men and river rats.
One of my favorite stories about stockpiles of gear occurred
several years back. A guy (who for obvious reasons will go unnamed) grew
tired of a bunch of old, unusable wooden decoys Grandpa had stored in
the shed. The old blocks were always in the way just gathering dust, and
providing a haven for spiders and bugs. Finally, the decoys were carted
to a burning pit and set ablaze. Some time after the fire, the guy
commented to a pal, “Got more room in the shed because I burned
those old wooden decoys Grandpa bought years ago from some fellow in
Certainly, Grandpa turned over in his grave, as did Charles Perdew.
The guy who burned a fortune of the most collectable of wooden decoys
didn’t have a clue. But he did have more room in the shed for junk.
FILLING A LANYARD
Being the first-born male of my generation into a family of
hardcore waterfowlers, I had little choice but to take the torch and
continue the tradition as a camo-clad warrior. After some training and
being found worthy, my reward was my grandfather’s old black hard
rubber D-2 Olt duck call. The call was to be blown sparingly and proudly
displayed as part of my hunting attire.
In 1950, the Canada goose flute call, an invention of Olt employer
Al Sonderman, took the waterfowl world by storm. On my 12th birthday, an
Olt A-50 goose call was added to the hand-woven lanyard.
Most mothers had strict rules about practice sessions when boys
tried to imitate the calls of the majestic birds. Thus, as a pre-teen,
my life as a game call collector had begun, and little did I know the
enjoyment, entertainment, friends and travel the tools of the waterfowl
trade had in store for me.
I hunted the flats, sloughs and backwaters of the Illinois and
mighty Mississippi rivers, and my passion for ‘fowling grew, as did
my accumulation of duck and goose calls. Some were gifts, but most were
purchased at the local hardware store. Most were of the common hunting
variety of the day–Lohman, Faulk’s, Herter’s and Olt. For
some strange reason, I kept the boxes in which the calls were packaged.
My collection continued to grow thanks to many of the veterans who
retired from waterfowling. Many would give me a call they’d blown
during their career stating, “This is to remind you, lad, of the
days we shared doing our thing on the river.”
Not only did I treasure their gifts, but the memories are
In 1987, a chance meeting with Illinois wildlife biologist Dave
Harper opened my eyes to the real world of game call collecting. Harper
was ingrained in the central and southern Illinois world of waterfowl,
first as the son of a duck club manager, next as a guide, and after his
college degree, as a dedicated biologist.
Harper asked me if I’d ever seen a $500 duck call.
“No, and neither have you!” I said.
Harper produced a “Carved Mallards” call and explained
that a serious collector had offered him $500 for the crown stopper
piece. I then recalled an article in an outdoor magazine featuring Gary
Rieker, an avid call collector from northern Illinois. Further research
produced Rieker’s phone number. After a lengthy conversation,
during which he suggested an even higher value for the Perdew Carved
Mallards call, we scheduled a meeting for Rieker and Harper. My friend,
Nick Siemer, and I were invited to the rendezvous with the invitation to
bring our calls for inspection and evaluation.
At the meeting, during a discussion about Perdew’s famous
“Duck’s Head,” Rieker sorted through my box of
“junk.” One call caught his attention immediately.
“Where’d you get this call? Would you like to sell
it?” he asked. My answer to selling was a simple “no.”
Rieker identified the old wooden, checkered piece as an early J.T.
Beckhart. Furthermore, he suggested the Arkansas call had substantial
My now-identified Beckhart call had been a gift from a retired
senior duck hunter who insisted I add it to my assortment. Although I
never used it, the call became very special. I also remembered the old
fellow saying he had bought the Beckhart call for $5 in the early 1900s
from the maker himself.
The remainder of the Harper/Rieker evening was a learning session
on the history of game calls, call values and the hobby of collecting.
Rieker’s knowledge of American folk art seemed endless as he shared
his passion and knowledge about the legends of the waterfowl world. My
journey as a true collector reached a new level.
The next step in the dance came from David Jackson, then the shop
manager for the P.S. Olt Game Call Company of Pekin, Ill. Jackson knew
many of the big-time collectors because of his occupation and personal
world-class collection of Olt game calls and memorabilia.
Philip S. Olt began making duck calls in the late 1800s, and in
1904, started manufacturing and selling his product to hunters in the
tradition-rich Illinois River Valley. The venture was highly successful.
The Olt Company lasted into the 21st century, nearly 100 years. During
that time, Olt products dominated the game call business, marketing many
varieties of waterfowl calls, as well as calls for owls, crows,
squirrel, pheasant and other game species. Untold thousands were sold
throughout the world, and virtually every waterfowl hunter in America
possessed a call bearing the P.S. Olt name.
Jackson suggested that my son, Todd, and I attend an event in the
spring at St. Charles, Ill., to further our knowledge of calls and
collecting. The gathering, hosted by the Callmakers and Collectors
Association of America, was a weeklong event attracting waterfowl
enthusiasts from across America. After attending the 1988 show, it was
apparent the Reid assortment of game calls was not only special to the
family, but many were highly sought by collectors.
The purchase of Brian J. McGrath’s book, Duck Calls and Other
Game Calls, began my study and advanced my appreciation of game calls in
general, duck calls in particular. The Texas author was the first to
publish a book that pictured, discussed and rated calls as to their
place in history and their rareness. Soon to follow McGrath’s work
would be master duck call maker and major collector Howard Harlan, with
his book, Duck Calls, An Enduring American Folk Art. Harlan and W. Crew
Anderson’s publication gave collectors photos, documentation and
detailed information on hundreds of calls.
Additional books that expanded knowledge for the hobby are
Christensen’s Duck Calls of Illinois, The Arkansas Duck
Hunter’s Almanac by Bowman and Wright, Russell Caldwell’s
Reelfoot Lake and Donna Tonelli’s Top of the Line Hunting
The craze of attaining waterfowl memorabilia has grown over the
last four decades to the point that never-imagined dollars are paid for
special pieces. No one in their wildest dreams would have thought that a
shotshell box would sell for $34,000, a Kinney & Harlow duck call
for $63,000, carved shorebirds and duck decoys for six figures and an
Elmer Crowell goose decoy for well over a million dollars. Most would
say, “Unbelievable.” But folks, it’s a fact.
Undoubtedly, the Callmakers and Collectors Association of America,
founded in 1987, has played a major role in the popularity and
enthusiasm for acquiring this American art form. With 370 members in 41
states, Canada and New Zealand, the organization publishes a quarterly
newsletter and a membership directory. They gather at special waterfowl
events and host their major rendezvous each year the last week of April
in St. Charles, Ill. Modern-day call makers attend the event to display
their works of art and compete for special honors in the fancy call
contest. The show, which is open to the public, focuses on buying,
swapping, trading and spreading the hobby of collecting. Without fail,
someone is always shocked as to the value of a piece of family history
that Granddad passed along to the kids.
PRIDE IN THE CRAFT
Since the beginning of my waterfowl career, the years have flown by
as rapidly as a green-winged teal. The Reid call collection numbers more
than 200. My collection doesn’t come close to the extremists of the
hobby. Many of the calls are proudly displayed in our riverside home, my
wife says, to remind me of the past and look toward the future. We have
a detailed catalog that describes each call, its origin and the date
obtained. For some calls, I even wrote a story about the friend who
passed it on to me. I take pride in possessing calls of Perdew, Hooker,
Beckhart, O’Dean, Allen, Major, Quinn and Harlan, just to name a
few. But other calls hold personal significance: Granddad’s D-2
Olt, Dad’s Lohman, calls I bought as a kid and the variety given to
me by the old timers who took the time to train a boy.
It is apparent that once an individual is hooked on collecting, the
trend is to acquire more and more. Vintage wooden calls from the early
makers seem to be the most sought-after, but modern-day craftsmen have
certainly made their mark. In this age of acrylic calls, another
generation of collectors has arrived. The attractive, bright,
multi-colored calls now dominate the commercial market and are the
choice of many hunters, as well as competition callers. Hunting catalogs
feature pages of the eye-catching pieces endorsed by pro staffers and
Many of the calls have gold- or silver-colored bands around the
barrels bearing a logo name, some with special edition numbers. The
calls of the 21st century are more numerous and attainable than those of
the ages gone by.
WE’RE ALL COLLECTORS
I could write volumes concerning the history of my collection and
calls, but I’m sure you’ve gotten the message about the
passion, pleasure and memories of the tools of the trade. The bottom
line: If you’re a waterfowler, you are a collector.
On Ernest Hemingway’s writing desk in his historic home in Key
West, Fla., sits an old wooden decoy and a small sign that reads,
“To remind me of a place I’d rather be.”
Maybe that is why I collect duck calls.
Larry Reid is host of “Outdoors With Larry Reid,” which
airs at noon every Sunday on WBGZ radio, 1570 AM in Alton, Ill.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY LARRY L. REID