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Fish and Fowl of the Great Lakes    
by Donna Tonelli

Reviewed by Decoy Magazine

In her introduction to “Fish and Fowl Decoys of the Great Lakes,” author Donna Tonelli writes: “The Midwest has always been a major center for watefowling and spear fishing, especially in the regions surrounding ... the Great Lakes.” As a result the surrounding states - Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota - produced many wonderful decoys, both fish and fowl, for sporting and commercial pursuits.

This latest book by Tonelli, the author of two books on “Top of the Line” hunting and fishing collectibles, had been in the planning process for years. The author realized an opportunity to group together geographically a number of decoy producing states that would not otherwise warrant a book of their own, Ohio and Indiana, for instance, and showcase the finest hunting and spear fishing decoys from each in one convenient package. She also chose to limit the project to the U.S. side of the border.

The book opens with a history of decoy collecting in the Midwest, a fine departure point because without the dedicated efforts of these early pioneer collectors these artifacts would never have been preserved and their histories would never have been recorded. There are roughly 40 photographs of these collectors, many in period photos in front of shelves of decoys, representing a virtual who’s who of the Midwest decoy enthusiasts of the day. I just wish the photos could have been bigger so it would have been easier to inspect the decoys.

The main body of the book is divided among five chapters, each state having its own, except for Ohio and Indiana, which were grouped together. Each chapter begins with a short waterfowling history of the state, identifying the hotbeds of activity for duck hunting and spear fishing. The majority of each chapter is comprised of full color photographs of the finest decoys that each state produced, first the fowl, then the fish. Some of the chapters include duck calls where appropriate; others include printed paraphernalia from various commercial makers as well as some of the duck clubs. Pictures of some of the makers are scattered through the chapters as well.

Although the group of states covered is regionally similar, the decoys each produced is widely divergent, even within the states themselves. Indiana, one of the earliest waterfowling regions, has only two known makers of any importance, Paul Lipke and Bernie Ohnmacht. Some of the most important early Ohio decoys are by unknown makers, their only identity being the hunting club where they were used.

Michigan is most noted for the early factories: Peterson, Dodge and Mason, all which share a similarity. Yet it would be hard to find a greater difference than comparing a hollow lightweight decoy by Nate Quillen of Rockwood to the heavy solid lures of Detroiters Ben Schmidt and Tom Schroeder. Michigan should also be credited for producing the most realistic of all spear fishing decoys.

The Illinois River was home to some of the finest painted hollow lures produced anywhere in the country. Some of the finest crafted duck calls were made here as well. Some would argue that the Perdew carved duck and crow calls are the finest folk art produced within the state. Apparently spear fishing wasn’t practiced here, as there are no early examples included.

Wisconsin likely produced the greatest variety of decoys within its borders, from the large body lures used on the open waters of Winnebago Lake to the carefully crafted and painted hollow decoys produced by the Stoughton carvers. Spearing was practiced here, and the area is noted for having some of the smallest spear fishing decoys.

The most famous decoy maker from Minnesota is John Tax, and he might be the only early Minnesota maker whose work could be identified by the average collector. The most historically important decoys in the state are likely a group of canvasbacks that were made by a handful of little-known carvers for use at Heron Lake. But Minnesota, by far, produced more spear fishing decoys, and certainly the folkiest, than any other state.

The biggest shortcoming of this book is a lack of information about the makers who produced these great examples of American folk art. The captions with each picture give the name of the maker, where he was from, the timeframe when they were produced and an approximate value for each, which the author warns represents only a guideline, particularly since many of the examples pictured are in pristine condition. The only way to tell which of the decoys are the best and most important from each region is to count the pictures and read the prices.

The other shortcoming I find is in the way each chapter’s photos are presented - in alphabetical order. This certainly makes it easier to locate a maker’s work, but it tells you nothing about the decoys. The Wisconsin chapter could have been organized geographically, grouping the decoys as Winnebago Lake, Stoughton, Milwaukee School, etc. Or the factory birds from Michigan could have been presented in a chronological group. And it was a shame the Heron Lake decoys of Minnesota were separated in two spreads when a better design would have kept them together. Nonetheless it still serves as a wonderful identification guide for the decoys of this region.

The strength in this book was the author’s ability, with input from her husband Joe, to identify the greatest examples of each maker’s work, know where they were located, and use their long-time connections within the decoy community to gain access to those collections. When paging through this book, have no doubt that you are viewing the finest fish and fowl decoys of the Great Lake states. And seasoned collectors wouldn’t want it any other way.

Fish and Fowl Decoys of the Great Lakes by Donna Tonelli, 288 pages, over 1100 color photos, published by Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, $69.95 plus S/H.

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