The collection: waterfowl calls are valued as American folk art.

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

Henry, Ill.”

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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

priceless.

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

value.

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

GATHERING KNOWLEDGE

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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

Collectibles.

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

world champions.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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

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