Book brings decoy history to life
GRAND FORKS—Andy Schoneich isn't a duck hunter, but he loves wildlife and does the occasional woodcarving when he gets the time.
Developing a passion for the old wooden decoys that duck hunters used before the days of molded plastic was a natural progression.
"There's a large number of collectors of the old wooden hunting decoys," Schoneich said. "Some of these decoys have exceeded $1 million and sit in some pretty prestigious collections."
Schoneich, of suburban Chicago, and friend Terry Smart of Memphis, Tenn., in April released a book about Walter Evans, a Wisconsin woodworker and craftsman who produced wooden decoys in a small factory in Ladysmith, Wis., during a five- to six-year period from the late 1920s into the 1930s.
"Evans Duck Decoy Factory: A Collectors Comprehensive Pictorial Reference Guide," features more than 350 photos of Evans' works, along with short writeups about the decoys and the history of the Evans Duck Decoy Factory.
"We have identified every known example of his carvings," Schoneich said.
The co-authors have a special interest in Wisconsin and Minnesota wooden decoys and are longtime members of The Evans Society, a group dedicated to the woodworker's decoys and their history.
Smart is president of the society and has one of the largest Evans decoy collections, Schoneich said. In the world of wooden decoy collecting, Evans' work is significant.
"A lot of these were actually tools of the trade and ended up in a woodpile," Schoneich said. "So, finding nice, clean examples in either original paint or what we call a 'working repaint' is kind of difficult—especially for a decoy only produced for a small period of time."
Erik Fritzell, a Grand Forks waterfowl hunting enthusiast and historian, has a pair of Evans canvasback decoys. The company was one of several to spring up in the 1920s and '30s after the Mason Decoy Factory—a longtime leader in the field—closed up shop, Fritzell says.
Evans decoys were machine-carved but hand-finished, he said.
"There were a lot of regional companies that started making decoys with varying degrees of success, but he had a particularly good quality, and his painting was outstanding," Fritzell said of Evans. "They became quite popular—especially in the Great Lakes states.
"Oftentimes in the decoys of, say, post-1930, the quality of the paint is just terrible; in a year, the paint would be falling off, but Evans was an exception to that."
Fritzell, who grew up in a duck hunting family, recalls his parents bought a dozen Evans mallard decoys in the 1950s, and the family hunted over them near Tuttle, N.D., where they became good friends with a local farmer.
They left the decoys with the farmer, but then drought hit in the late '50s, and the family never hunted there again, Fritzell said.
"I remember my mother even in the 1960s wondering whatever happened to those Evans decoys and wanted to go back and see if they could find them," he said.
His brother did go back, Fritzell said, but the farm since had changed hands, and the decoys were nowhere to be found.
"(It's) the story of having them and losing them and regretting it," said Fritzell, who also has a collection of more than 20 decoy books, including Schoneich's and Smart's Walter Evans book.
"They've done a real good job," he said. "I'm not sure I've read the whole thing, but I've certainly gone through it. This is the only one that really gives you the depth of the Evans decoys."
Miles of research
Gathering photos and information for the book required several long car trips to northern Wisconsin and the Twin Cities—where many of Evans' surviving decoys are found—as well as other places across the country, Schoneich said.
The co-authors spent about two years researching the book, he said.
"Just trying to collect good photographs and examples was a challenge in itself," Schoneich said. "(Evans) did a wonderful job marketing, and we write about the history of what we know. There's a lot of speculation because this is just an individual who had a couple of employees, and he was carving decoys. We avoided speculation in the book, and we tried to only include the factual information for the collector."
Despite living in Chicago and Memphis, Schoneich and Smart are members of the Minnesota Decoy Collectors Association that meets every January in the Twin Cities, and they attend similar events later in the winter in Oshkosh, Wis., and Chicago, which hosts the largest decoy collector's show in the country, Schoneich says.
The Evans Society meets during each of those shows.
"We do this as a hobby," said Schoneich, who works for a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of medical devices. "We hope that this book not only captures the short history of the Evans Decoy Factory but also is an educational guide for collectors of Evans decoys across the country."
It is not uncommon to find Evans decoys that have been repaired and repainted, in some cases several times, he said.
"If you could imagine, these were banged up in gunny sacks in the back of pickups, they were thrown in boats, and over time they show that wear," Schoneich said. "So to find an example that maybe somebody bought and threw on a mantel or put in a basement and never used is fairly difficult."
Just like the decoys they collect, every collector is different, Schoneich says. Some are in it to make money, others enjoy hunting over wooden decoys, while others are looking to add to the wealth of their collections.
"I always tell new collectors, 'Collect what you like. If tomorrow the value of the collection is worth nothing but it makes you happy and you enjoy having it, then it's a worthwhile collection,'" Schoneich said. "There are some collectors that only focus on the real high-end decoys, and spending $100,000 to $300,000 at a show is not a big deal for them. Some collectors just want to add a little something so they're very happy spending $5, $10 or $15 and adding a couple of little things to their collection."
So far, response to the book has been good, Schoneich said. Preorders during the winter decoy shows were strong, and people from every state have ordered the book since its release, he said.
"Evans Duck Decoy Factory: A Collectors Comprehensive Reference Guide," costs $75 plus $6 shipping for the first book and $2 shipping for each additional book in the continental U.S. For more information, go to decoyrelics.com or call (708) 448-3061.
About the book
• Title: "Evans Duck Decoy Factory: A Collectors Comprehensive Pictorial Reference Guide."
• Authors: Andy Schoneich and Terry Smart; L&M Press; 237 pages.
• Price: $75, plus $6 for shipping and handling for first book; $2 shipping and handling for each additional book in the continental U.S.
• To order: decoyrelics.com or (708) 448-3061.