Monday, February 22, 2010

The Show Must Go On!

I just received word that I will be participating in the 16th Annual Decoy Show in Santa Rosa, California. I am very pleased with this development alone, but to add to the good news, my dad will be able to come out this year to share my table. This show will be the first decoy show my father and I have attended together since I was a child, and I now have the blessing to bring him and my family too. As my kids get older, I find myself doing a lot of the same activities with my them that my parents did with me. I find my parenting habits tend to follow what I am familiar with from my upbringing , especially the things that worked pretty well when my folks did them.

So early Saturday morning we will all load up and head out to the show. I am sure my kids will have the same affinity towards the endless rows of old birds that I had, which was very little, but I am also sure the excitement of the event enjoyed as a family will linger. I can recall decoys floating in shiny galvanized tubs, a kids decoy carving booth, and the treats we got after the show if we were good. I can also remember not wanting to go anymore as I got into my teens, then off to college and gone. As a grown man, that makes me a little sad, which is why this upcoming show is an important event for me. I get to share the fun and excitement of the show once again with my dad, with my own family and with a whole new appreciation. Decoys for me and the old man, the hot dogs and treats for the kids, and the circle is unbroken. I think that circle of life hints at what the decoys and the shows are to me: symbolic but tangible representations of my history, my family's history and the history of the communities in which we have lived...brought together and retold, year of after year. I am looking forward to sharing my decoys with everyone in the community and learning from the stories that will be told about all the decoys, about all the different carvers, and about the people who kept and passed on the birds and the places they have lived. And this year and at this show, one of those people, telling one of those stories will be my dad and that makes me very happy.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dump Ducks

My son turned one earlier this month and to celebrate the occasion, my parents and my in-laws came to Healdsburg. Not surprisingly, all the guests and festivities generated more recycling than my bin could hold. I decided to take a load  to the dump and asked my father to ride along. On the way, my father received a phone call from a decoy friend of his in New Jersey. They exchanged pleasantries, and my father facetiously announced that he was on the way to the dump to look for decoys. "The dump in New Gretna?" was his friend's inquiry (New Gretna being my fathers local dump in new jersey). "No," my father said, "We are heading to the dump in Sonoma County." "Oh, there aren't any decoys there," came the friend's reply, fully appreciating my father's jest. "Perhaps not," dad said. They finished their conversation just as we pulled into the opening gate. As we headed down to the recycling station, we passed an area of the dump where items are salvaged and resold. We haphazardly scanned through the random offerings as we drove by. Then at the same time, we both came out of our seats. Incredibly, casually thrown on a table, was an old army duffle bag filled with a gaggle of geese...their little heads sticking out of the zipper. "Decoys!" we exclaimed. Pulling up to the table, we found several paper mache goose bodies with metal stakes, as well as some very rough Mallard decoys. We bought the best of the geese for 5 dollars and bought the Mallards for the same amount. We could not believe it! It did not matter to us that the decoys were junk; it was the fact that they were there, beyond all expectations, just waiting for us. Dad's little joke had turned into a full blown decoy tale. We took our booty home and proudly displayed the geese and mallards in my side yard. We brought the "prize" decoy into the house to be placed on the mantle to serve as an impetus for conversation and a reminder that surprises can lurk around every corner - all you have to do is keep your eyes and mind open to them! 

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Mysterious Suisun Pintail

A couple of weeks ago I took my daughter up to Lake Tahoe for her first ski trip. The journey to the mountains brought me unexpectedly through some gorgeous landscapes, rich in decoy history. To get to Tahoe from Healdsburg, I had to take Highway 37 across the northern portion of San Pablo Bay. This route takes me over the Richard "Fresh Air" Janson Bridge, dedicated as such by Congressman Mike Thompson, a civic worker and decoy collector. After driving through the hallowed Janson territory, I cruised up to Interstate 80 and passed the Suisun Marsh to the east.
 The Suisun Marsh is the largest contiguous estuarine marsh in the United States. It is named after the native people who lived there year round in large domed houses and harvested the bounty of the marsh and surrounding hills. They lived this way undisturbed until 1776. During that historic year, the Colonists declared their independence and Captain Juan Bautista de Anza arrived on what is now known as the San Francisco peninsula with a group of spanish settlers who were charged by the viceroy of New Spain to colonize the area. Early contact with the Suisun was peaceful and trades were made for food and glass beads. Later, as the peninsula's deep harbor became more valuable to several interests, including Spanish, Russian and American, pressure mounted to control the area, and the Suisun peoples, lacking the armaments of the Europeans, were squeezed out. Ultimately, U.S. settlers won with the "bear flag" revolt and the whole area of present day California was sold to the U.S. government by the Spanish for 15 million dollars. 
While other marshland areas around the growing city of San Francisco were developed, farmed, and inhabited the Suisun Marsh remained relatively undisturbed. This is attributed to the high salinity of the soil, which unlike the San Pablo bay area to the East,  made farming the reclaimed marshland difficult.  As the "west was being won" railroad tracks were laid across the marsh and provided day trip access for market hunters and wealthy sportsman coming from the city.  When James "Bud" Altenbern arrived in the area after marrying in 1938 and starting a new job at the Basalt Steel Mill, the marsh was still holding a large number of migrating birds, and with the federal government opening the Grizzly Island Game Management Area in 1948, the marsh became a permanent wildlife refuge and protected hunting area that exists to this day. It is on the banks of Grizzly Island that this decoy, pictured above, was used by Bud and his wife "Skip," his favorite hunting partner. Mr. Altenbern carved this fine pintail hen body from solid redwood and used sugar pine for the head. It still bears the scuffs of green paint from rubbing the sides of Altenbern's homemade Tule Splitter, a small double-ended flat bottom boat used to "split" the tule reeds. This decoy was originally bought from Mr. Altenbern by Bill Mori, whom I interviewed below. It came into my possession after being purchased at the auction of the Somers Headley collection. This pintail is unique and mysterious as it has glass eyes which appear black, until side lighting reveals a red iris. "We have not seen this type of eye on any other West Coast decoy and have not learned their origin." (Wildfowl Decoys, Miller & Hanson, 1989, p.169)  

It is fitting to me that this decoy has mysterious eyes for it comes from a mysterious place. As I sped passed the marsh, which was just shrugging off the last of the morning fog, I searched my mind for an explanation. I imagined some small glass beads held in the hand of a young Suisun Indian just after a trade to some Spaniards in need of sturgeon meat. I imagined the beads lost to time then rediscovered in the marsh by a young Bud Altenbern and made into the unknown eyes of my mysterious Suisun pintail decoy.  

Monday, March 30, 2009

Tomales Bay Brant?

I spent the past weekend in a small cement block cabin nestled in the dunes of Dillon Beach. The dunes there are tall and formidable as the area is the convergence of several ecological zones: Coastal Bluffs to the north, Point Reyes peninsula to the south, the San Andreas fault to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The whole area is geologically turbulent, and Tomales Bay was born out of it. The bay is a rift valley created by the San Andreas fault, which runs underneath and along the east side of the bay. As it opened to the ocean, the valley filled in with sea-water sometime during the Miocene era. The bay is long, narrow, and shallow. It begins at Dillon Beach to the north and snakes southward towards Pt. Reyes Station, where it is fed by Papermill Creek.
The shallow bay and wetlands create an ideal environment for all types of coastal plants and wildlife. The Miwok indians, one of California's largest tribes, lived for thousands of years in this area and dried their catch in the very dunes where I comfortably camped. Another long time inhabitant of this bay is the Pacific Black Brant. Brant have historically come to this area in the thousands to gorge on the abundant beds of Eelgrass.  After heavy hunting depleted the population in the early twentieth century, a season was declared in 1915 and the population began to increase.  Today, there are about 125,000 Brant in the Pacific Flyway, 60% of which stage or stop over to feed in California during the spring migration from Mexico.  About 500 Brant are taken in California each year, but this small number has nowhere near the effect on the Brant population as the statewide depletion of eelgrass beds, which limits their staging areas. 
The decoy above is a traditional Pacific Black Brant decoy. The carver is unknown, but it is carved from solid redwood and has the simple paint indicative of Brant decoys from the Pacific Coast. It is unique in the inletted style of the joint connecting the neck to the body with six small nails. A dowel joint connects the stylish bill to the head. One clue to its origin is the repainting of the white areas of the bird. Often market hunters in the Northwest would repaint "snow geese as Brant and vice versa, depending on which species was most sought after at the time." (Wildfowl Decoys of the Pacific Coast, Miller & Hanson, p.19)   
Although I may never determine the exact origin or carver of this decoy, I was content to imagine, as I was sitting amongst the dunes of Dillon Beach looking out towards Tomales Bay, this decoy floating among its mates in the eelgrass and beckoning the large flocks to the blinds of the waiting hunters.  


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Finally... a trade!

The Santa Rosa Decoy Show was last weekend.  This marked the third year I have attended this event. As expected, the coffee was hot and the homemade tuna salad sandwiches were delicious. The gentleman working the door was ready with a smile and a quick joke, "don't buy too many of those wooden ducks, now." I tried to heed his advice as I viewed the long table of shiny birds in perfect formation down the center aisle of the old vets' hall. Moving down the row, I stopped to admire and longingly hold a mint pair of Janson pintails nestled among their high priced brothers and sisters. It was then I realized two things: I wanted a pair of my own and that the only way I was going to get them was to make some sort of play that would  get me into this decoy game. For the past two years I had attended the shows, but I was truly a spectator, no decoy card, nothing to trade. But I was prepared this year - a nice glossy business card proclaiming my status as a collector, and under my arm, a box which contained, what I hoped to be an irresistible lure to land my first trade: three unique decoys. If I had learned anything growing up with a decoy-collecting father, it was that mom liked the decoys a whole lot better when they were traded for, as opposed to, paid for. Knowing my wife would feel the same, I came to the end of the aisle where a well-known collector from Stockton had his display. We had met at the last two shows, and he always had some neat decoys. "What's in the box?" he asked. I tried to be cool, "some traders," I replied. I pull out a real straight Jack Leach Pintail, and a miniature Winterbottom preening Snow Goose made for the Manhattan Eddie Bauer store. I could tell he wasn't interested but he was nice and held the pintail, remarking how it reminded him of an Ed Snyder. He then proceeded to introduce me to Ed Snyder, a real bayman and living legend! A great thrill, of course,  but alas, no offers of a trade. I had one last decoy to show, a David Rhodes yellowlegs. I did not hold much hope for this bird. Although it's beautiful and well-documented, it is geographically-challenged, as there is very little shorebird collecting on the west coast. But as I placed it on the table, with its blue ribbon around its neck, I felt new inspiration. "Well, no one around here collects shorebirds," he said, "but I have a friend who might like this, how much?" I couldnt believe was going down! "$300," I blurted out, hoping not to mess it up. "You see anything here you like?" He gestured towards the bargain side of his table. I had noticed a hen pintail that was real nice. "Would you trade this?" "Sure," came the casual reply. And that was it, the trade was done. I was very pleased with the trade for two reasons: one - I now own a great pair of Joseph "Jake" Ferreira pintails (pictured above),  Mr. Ferreira was regarded as one of the most stylish and innovative carvers in the San Francisco Bay , and two - I was pleased with myself for pulling it off, as I felt I had truly been initiated into the decoy world. This trade signaled to me that I was gaining knowledge and experience in this  decoy game. And maybe with a bit of time and luck, a pair of Jansons may someday join the Ferreiras to roost.    

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Miles Traveled...

Here is an interview with Robert V. Bryan, carver of the Pacific Brant decoy above. I did this interview at his home in Walnut Creek in 2007 after speaking to Mr. Bryan a couple of times on the phone. He was born in Arcata, California in 1920; his grandparents were among the town's first inhabitants. His decoy found its way to my collection after traveling across the U.S. at least twice. According to Mr. Bryan, the brant was one of about two dozen that he carved prior to leaving for military service in Korea around 1946. While he was abroad, the rig was used by a close friend Lewis "Lewey" Raice. Lewey Raice was the nephew of Lyle Lancaster of Arcata, whose decoys can be seen Here.  Mr. Bryan used Lyle's decoys to fashion his own rig, and the similarities are evident. After Mr. Bryan returned from the War, he and Lewey used the rig while stake blind gunning in South Humbolt Bay until sometime in the 1950's when Mr. Bryan  lost track of the decoys after relinquishing possession to Lewey. The decoy pictured above surfaced sometime there after in the collection of August Sebastiani, son of  Samuele Sebastiani, founder of Sebastiani Winery in Sonoma, California, where it stayed until the mid-1980's when August's collection went to auction. From there, it found its way across the United States to the Guyette & Schmidt auction house in Maryland, where it was again purchased and sent to my collection where it currently resides. It isn't the prettiest decoy in the collection and it is one of the simplest, but in its simplicity it has a practical beauty.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My first Decoy

My first decoy was given to me by my father upon graduation from high school in 1989. It is a Wildfowler Bluebill hen. It was made in Old Saybrook Connecticut, the site of the original Wildfowler factory owned by Ted Mulliken. I believe this decoy to be an "Atlantic Coast" model, with a #2 quality feather finish. It was most likely produced in the late 1940's to early 1950's. The bottom has been painted with the initials G.H. in red, assumed to be the owners initials. I am not sure why my Dad chose this decoy, but it has inspired my current Wildfowler collection, and infected me with the decoy collecting bug. I find old wood decoys to be unique examples of American Folk art, as well as, tangible clues to our collective past. I have often heard collectors comment, "if this bird could talk , the stories it could tell." I enjoy researching the stories behind the decoy, the carver, the places, and attempting to give "the bird" a voice.
I am gearing up for the Santa Rosa Decoy show this weekend. Pictures and potential new additions will be coming soon. In the immortal words of the great collector, Delbert Winkelreid, "Keep the dust off 'em".