A Survey of Selected Transitional Michigan Fish Decoy Carvers
by Gary L. Miller © 1980-2005
First published in the December 2005 issue of the NFLCC Magazine
a preview of a book to come from Gary L. Miller
In a previous article (SEE PREVIOUS ISSUE) we discussed Vintage, that is, pre-collector era, Michigan fish decoys. Although these are my personal preference they are certainly not the only decoys that are being collected today. I am sure you are all aware of the contemporary fish decoy collectibles scene with it’s contests and competitions. I would define contemporary decoys as those created after collecting fish decoys became popular in the early 1980s. Most of them appeal principally to collectors and decorators and are not necessarily intended to be fished with although in many cases this is certainly possible. These days there are so many carvers competing for the collector’s attention that in order to stand out one has to resort to over-the-top paint jobs, hyper realism or gimmicky designs. It is not enough today to simply be effective fish attractors. But there is a another category of fish decoy being collected and that is the work of the, for lack of a better word, “transitional” fish decoy carvers. These carvers bridge the gap between “vintage” and “contemporary” makers.
The “transitional” carver is one whose work is firmly rooted in the past. He got his start carving working fish decoys for himself and others in an era when there were very few collectors. He got his start when the only criteria for judging a fish decoy was how well it performed it’s intended function. That is not to say that it could not be beautiful too. In many cases the self satisfaction that comes from creating a beautiful thing was part of the equation. For these carvers the only judges were the fish and their fellow fishermen out on the ice. The proof of a superior decoy was fish on the ice and all the better if the decoy was pleasing to look at too. No test tanks or pompous self appointed experts for these guys.
In Michigan the carving of fish decoys was a cultural tradition. It was as natural a thing to do as hunting, fishing or trapping. Many of these traditional carvers came from long lines of fish decoy makers. They learned their craft from fathers, grandfather’s and uncles. They grew up carving at their fathers’ knees. Others learned from friends or developed their own designs. Many copied the patterns of established tried and true makers such as Oscar Peterson and Bear Creek or adopted the local regional style. By the time collecting fish decoys became popular in the early ‘80s many of these traditional carvers had become inactive. Others were still carving on only an occasional basis as interest in spearing fish through the ice had also been declining. The increased availability of live decoys from bait dealers also decreased the need and consequently the market for artificial decoys. Some of these carvers had never been very prolific, having carved only a handful of decoys for their own use. But when collecting fish decoys became popular and that veritable army of collectors, dealers and pickers fanned out across the countryside scouring every nook and cranny of the state’s backwaters in search of decoys, many old time carvers were encouraged to become active again. It didn’t take much to incite them to action. Once picked, those who were still able, set to work making a new batch to replace those just sold and to be ready for the next wave of buyers. These are the people we are referring to when we say “transitional” fish decoy carvers.
Most fish decoy collectors would recognize the names of many of the carvers who fall into the “Transitional” category: George Aho, Vern Baggs, Jed Blain, Red Bruce, Mark Bruning, Chub Buchman, Jack Eddy, John Fairfield, Ray Hansen, Hans Janner, Jr., John Kalash, Dave Kober, Marvin Mason, Jr., Jim Nelson, Ernie Peterson, Harold Rickert, Tom Singleton, Miles Smith, Bud Stewart, Herman Stohr, Ervin Veihl and Jim Wregglesworth. Of course, there are many, many more that deserve mention but this space is too limited to name them all. My apologies to any I have failed to note. Many of those listed have, of course, passed on. I would like to focus this discussion on the living, specifically Floyd Bruce, John Eddy, Marvin Mason Jr., James Nelson and Ernest Peterson.
Floyd J. “Red” Bruce, Gaylord, Michigan (1934-present) Red was born, raised and lived most of his life in the Saginaw area of lower Michigan. An avid hunter, fisherman and trapper, Bruce worked in the automotive industry designing specialty cutting tools for GM and others, worked in heat treating and even designed tools for Dremel until he moved North to the Gaylord area in 1980. He has been carving for 56 years and estimates that in that time he has made approximately 2000 pieces of all types, 90% of that being fish decoys. Although his father did carve a few fish decoys Floyd considers himself self-taught. “When I was just a boy I got a new jackknife for Christmas one year and just started whittling.” During the Saginaw years he carved a lot of duck and fish decoys out of the red cedar that’s common to that area. A lot of the houses in Saginaw are set on red cedar posts. These old dried posts make excellent carving material. Red cedar doesn’t grow up north so now he uses white cedar exclusively. In addition to waterfowl and fish decoys Bruce also carves canes, walking sticks, lures, ice rods, signs and furniture such as tables and benches.
The fish decoys range in size from 2 1/2” to 24” and are painted with water based paints and topped off with varnish to waterproof them. The earliest examples have tin fins but the majority since about 1964 were made of copper or brass. Bruce felt that the flash of the metal was key to attracting fish so he left the fins unpainted. He used to scour the dumps for old teakettles, wash tubs and other throw-outs to reclaim the copper and brass for fins. If he didn’t have a part he needed he would scrap out old plugs for the eyes, hook hangers, etc. He figures he must have trashed a small fortune in valuable old lures. They just didn’t seem important to him back then as he had a fishing dock in Saginaw and his fishermen customers used to give him lots of old tackle.
Until about 15 years ago Bruce didn’t even have a band saw. He used to split out the rough billets and without using a pattern would draw out the fish on the blank, cut it out with a coping saw, finish carve it with an X-Acto knife and then hand sand it. The decoy was made to whatever size the wood was. He would spray paint them through a piece of old veil material to get that fish scale effect.
There seems to be a lot of confusion regarding the signatures and other markings on the Floyd Bruce decoys and with good reason. It’s a very complicated subject but I’ll try and clarify it as best as I can. Some of the decoys you’ll see are marked with “XXX”. Notwithstanding previous reports this does not signify a competition decoy. Bruce intended it as a mark of quality, signifying “Tested & Guaranteed”. He adapted it from the famous triple X mark used in the past on flour sacks and gunpowder kegs. The numbers on the bottoms of some of the decoys indicate the year made and the order for that year, size and species in which that particular decoy was made. For instance, a 10” Rainbow Trout marked “FJB ‘78’ 003 XXX” means that it is a tested and guaranteed decoy made by Floyd Joseph Bruce in 1978 and that it is the 3rd one of that size and species made at that time. Since each size and species would use the same series of numbers there could theoretically be an indefinite number of decoys with the exact same markings limited only by the different species and sizes he made that year.
To further complicate things, not all Bruce decoys are marked. Up until about 1968-70 Floyd did not sign or mark any of his works. People didn’t care about that stuff back then. “They just wanted a decoy that worked”. But an incident that transpired at that time changed things for Bruce. A friend of Floyd’s used to vacation every year in Michigan’s Copper Country and would stop by on the way and pick up a few fish decoys to take along. This particular time he was back the very next day and reported to Floyd that he was trading the decoys for the cabin rental bill but the owner wouldn’t accept them unless they were signed. That started Floyd’s practice of signing his decoys. At first they were simply signed “FJB” by hand in black paint. About 1975 he started burning his initials “FJB” into the bottom with a branding iron. Twenty years ago he began the practice of signing, numbering and dating them. But the signature story doesn’t end there. A great many of Bruce’s decoys have been signed and dated after the fact. After the collecting of fish decoys became popular people started bringing Floyd’s early decoys back to him and asking him to sign, date and number them. He doesn’t feel as though he can say no to a customer so he complies putting on the dates and numbers as best as he can remember them. “Of course there are a lot of # 1s”.
Bruce has been marketing his decoys to the public since about 1956. His early work was sold through bait and tackle shops in the Saginaw Bay area. He had a string of 4 or 5 shops from Bay County up around the bay into the Sebewaing area that handled his work. He also sold a lot of stuff to antique shops that liked to handle handmade things. He has been doing the Midland Gun Show, the oldest show in the state, since it’s inception in 1962, a show which Bud Stewart also did. Floyd tells of selling his fish decoys for $1.50 – $2.00 each and outselling Stewart who was only getting a buck for his.
John E. “Jack” Eddy, Cheboygan, Michigan (1938-present) Jack Eddy was born in Indian River, Michigan in 1938 and was destined to become the third generation of the Eddy family to carve fish decoys. Beginning with the time of the family’s arrival in Cheboygan County in the late 19th century, his father, John C. Eddy (1913-1993), his grandfather, Charles Eddy (1870-unk), and his uncles, Harry R. (1910-1982) and Charles, Jr. (Chick) (1916-1996) all had been decoy carvers. This family tradition was not lost on young Jack and he too began to carve at a very early age. He must have teethed on a fish decoy as by 1952 he was winning ribbons at the Cheboygan County Fair 4-H Club exhibit for his fine working decoys. He grew up with Marvin Mason, Jr. and the two fished, carved and painted together, each learning from and teaching the other. Their association and friendly rivalry served to elevate both to a higher level of artistic achievement. Jack’s natural talents were further enhanced when he was able to attend art school for a time in the late ‘50s. As an adult Eddy worked as a machinist in local machine shops while continuing to hone his carving skills to the sharp edge they have today. Although his fish decoys have become more refined over time he has always remained true to his roots making genuine working decoys in the traditional “Tower” style. His modern fish decoy carvings include perch, trout (Brook, Brown & Rainbow), pike, sunfish, bluegill, black crappie and shiner with the trouts and pike being the most common. In addition to the fish decoys John also carves fish plaques and miniature examples of Michigan wildlife.
Of his vintage decoys, Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout, Brown Trout and pike are the most common. They have tin tails but wooden tails are also known. Carved gills and mouths are the norm. The eyes are carved and painted. Line-ties are usually a single wire loop but I have seen some examples with screw-eyes. Generally they have a full complement of fins appropriate to the species and are realistically painted. The leading scheme is a single oblong belly weight. As far as can be determined John has never signed his work preferring that each piece speak for itself.
Marvin J. “Mase” Mason, Jr., Tower, Michigan (1941-present)
There is probably no family in Northern Michigan more devoted to the art of fish decoy carving than the Mason family and all it’s branches. In this family it seems as though carving a fish decoy comes as naturally as walking and talking. Young Marvin, Jr. carved his first from an old orange crate when he was but 5 years old. In doing this he was following in the footsteps of his father, Marvin, Sr., his uncles, Lloyd, John, Owen and Earl Mason, and great uncles Carl, Ervin, Woodrow, Bill and Rod Veihl and Kenneth Bruning. When he was just eight or nine, “Mase” kicked it up a notch and carved his first fish plaque.
He grew up with Jack Eddy and the two of them fished “The Pond” and carved together, each one playing off the other. This friendly competition plus the strong carving traditions of both families spurred them both on to higher levels of creativity. Mason has had a measure of recognition having been featured in not one but two exhibits at Michigan State University’s Kresge Art Museum; Michigan Folk Art; It’s Beginnings to 1941 and Rainbows In The Sky, 1976 and 1978 respectively. The Cleveland Museum of Art also has had examples of his work in it’s permanent collection since the late ‘70s.
Marvin’s earliest decoys were very simple in design and painted with whatever paint was available including plain white. But he soon developed a more sophisticated style by carving from live models in an attempt to capture their essential form, coloration and movement. Mase learned from his father how to paint small colorful dots with a toothpick. He carved his decoys from pine or cedar using just a jackknife and gouges of his own manufacture, cut the fins from old Crisco cans and painted with oil paints to achieve the most realistic coloration. He later changed to copper, brass and sometimes aluminum for the fins. Occasionally examples are seen with carved wooden fins or S curved bodies. The eyes were almost always carved and painted. Frequently fish hook eyes were used as line-ties and the leading was a single rectangular belly weight.
Mason’s decoys were very popular with ice fishermen around the Tower area as they had a reputation for being real fish getters and were sold for a time out of the Onaway Sports Center for $7.00 each, a high price for a fish decoy in those days. He has carved nearly every species of fish native to Northern Michigan plus all the usual critters; newts, mice, frogs and lamprey. Although they were not signed in any obvious way, his Brook Trout were sometimes marked by camouflaging the letters M M within the vermiculation on the right side of the back near the dorsal fin. He probably had his peak production during the ‘60s and ‘70s and continued to carve into the late ‘80s but hasn’t done much recently. Nowadays he spends most of his time hunting and fishing in the Grand Marais area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
In addition to the fish decoys Mason also carved ice rods, jigging sticks, Michigan wildlife miniatures, plaques, fish models, toys, wood tools, signs and as if to prove his versatility he even made a few spears. He worked for 21 years as the head of maintenance for Cheboygan’s Community Memorial Hospital.
James “Jim” Nelson, Cadillac, Michigan (1926-present) As was typical of many who grew up in Northern Michigan during the Great Depression, Jim carved his first decoy in 1939 when he was just a boy of 12 years old. Cadillac and it’s Lake Mitchell were at the time a hotbed of spearing activity. It must have seemed as though there was a fish decoy carver around every corner, not the least of whom were Oscar Peterson and Jess Ramey. And young Jim had connections to both. Ramey was married to his mother’s sister and his father, Louis, was one of Peterson’s hunting, fishing and drinking buddies. The Peterson brothers, Oscar and George, had a landscaping business that specialized in laying sod. They often hired Nelson’s dad who had a dump truck to haul the sod and help out with the laying. Sometimes Jim helped out too. Although he was able to observe Oscar’s decoy making technique it would be a mistake to say that Peterson taught Nelson to carve. Oscar wasn’t the mentoring sort. Jim learned what he could from observing both Peterson and Ramey and used it to develop his own unique personal style.
Between 1946 and 1951 Jim estimates that he made perhaps 200-300 fish decoys and by 1978 had completed 300-400. During this period he worked at Cadillac Plywood, Cadillac Marine Boat and Kysor Industrial Corp. The bulk of this early production was sold through White’s Hardware in Cadillac for prices ranging from $1.00 to $1.25. Others were sold directly to co-workers on the job. These early decoys were between 5” and 9” long with most being 7” and were made of white pine and painted with enamels. The fins were galvanized metal and the eyes were normally upholstery tacks although Jim did occasionally use glass eyes in the ‘50s. All had curved wooden tails in the Cadillac style and sometimes they exhibited deeply undercut gills. In this period he carved Brown and Brook Trout, suckers, walleye, perch, pike and frog finish decoys. All of these were unsigned.
When Jim, in response to collector interest, began to carve again in the mid ‘80s he pretty much picked up where he left off but soon changed over to glass eyes and aluminum fins. The first of this production was also unsigned but he soon began to sign these new pieces with a simple “James Nelson” written in script on the bottom. Some dealers, however, in an attempt to hide their origin, removed the signatures by sanding them off or by the use of solvents. The market, however, soon evolved to the point where this practice stopped as they realized that they were worth more in their original signed state. Today Nelson signs and dates all of his work taking the guesswork out of determining age. He estimates that to date he has carved over 6,000 fish decoys.
Ernest A. “Ernie” Peterson, McMillan, Michigan (1935-present) Ernie’s a retired pulpwood cutter in the Newberry area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who has been carving fish decoys since about 1950. He and his brother, both bachelors, are hardy industrious self-sufficient folk as is typical of the region. They hunt and fish, raise their own beef, grow all their own vegetables and preserve the excess for those long cold U.P. winters. He made a few fish decoys during the ‘50s and another couple dozen in 1961 and then stopped until 1981 when he met local dealer, Al Larsen, who encouraged him to start carving again. Since then he has been quite active, carving on average 50 or so decoys each winter when he has his seasonal layoff. The money he earns from the decoy carving is reserved for “going to town on Saturday night for some fun”.
His earliest (pre 1956) decoys are very simple streamlined shapes with metal tails, screw eye line ties, and simple spotted paint patterns. In 1956, when Ernie graduated from high school, he received 5 fish decoys made by his uncle, Ed Muringer, the noted Glennie, Michigan carver, as a graduation gift. These seem to have influenced his style as those made after this date exhibit very similar qualities; curved wooden, slightly cupped tails, more detailed carving, more elaborate paint jobs, better formed fins, etc. The 25 he made in 1961 have these improvements.
When he began carving again in 1981 his first fish followed this same pattern, but when a collector gave him a set of fish posters published by Windsor Publications he soon changed to a more realistic style in both form and paint. He also changed to a twisted wire line-tie and began filling around the belly lead for a smoother more finished appearance. He prefers white pine but does occasionally use cedar and basswood. Fins are aluminum, paints are enamels, and current production have glass eyes in contrast to the earlier no eye or painted on eye. The earliest pieces of this new production were unsigned but in the late 1980s he began initialing them under the chin with “EP”. About 1998 he changed the location of the initials to the underside of the fin and also added the year. Mr. Peterson is a shy and very private man who doesn’t take well to visitors. He does business exclusively through a small group of dealers who market his work.
Site Master’s Note: This is another fine article from Gary Miller that sheds light on a great subject. In the short time that I have conversed with Gary: he is one of those people that digs for the truth and his search capability to find those truth is excellent. Gary is completing a book on Michigan carvers of bygone years and he has accomplished in depth studies in finding the truth over the past 30 years. I wish Gary the best success possible with this book.