by Donna Tonelli
Born in 1890, Otto Garren spent his lifetime in Canton, Illinois, a grand waterfowling area located just southwest of Pekin near the Illinois River. Like many of the young boys of this era, he started to hunt ducks as soon as he learned to handle a shotgun. And for the rest of his days his world revolved around the cycle of a riverman’s life – fishing, trapping and waterfowling.
Each hunting season Garren would leave his wife and family and head for the duck camp, staying at a "cottage" on the Illinois River’s Banner Marsh near Liverpool for most of the season. Even when he was well into his 70s, he still spent three or four days a week there during hunting season. But in a letter to Willis Pennington, an early collector, in the 1960s, he wrote, "Don’t do much hunting anymore (can’t take it) but like to camp out with the younger boys. Cook, keep the camp clean and a warm fire when they come in, don’t think they don’t enjoy it. I give them baked duck & dressing and such." And don’t think he didn’t enjoy it as well.
Garren developed his own decoy style, drawing ideas from the local carvers of the area, such as the Wilcoxen brothers of nearby Liverpool. The sleek, hollow, elongated bodies and perky heads of his decoys are very reminiscent of their work. The heads are nicely carved, with little detailing to the bills, and the early decoys have no eyes. Garren also personalized the Wilcoxens’ paint patterns to match his limited abilities. Using dime store brushes, he dabbed on dots and flourished bold wavy lines of color, and scratched feathering loops into the wet paint with the end of his brushes.
By the late 1950s, plastic decoys were introduced to duck hunters. Many, Garren included, were retiring their wooden blocks for these lighter, more durable lures. He heard that local hunters were getting their new plastic decoys in trade for their old wooden blocks from a fellow from St. Louis, another early collector named Joe French, so Garren began to correspond with him. "The boys said you are selling those plastic decoys," he wrote, "so I’d like to know what you get for a doz of them & if you have sprig in them also. ..I may round up a few dozen more (decoys) for you. We have 3 or 4 doz at the cottage in Liverpool. So let me know, Joe, if you have spring, bluebill & mallard in plastic & also prices."
Although hunters were switching to plastic decoys, Garren found another ready market for his decoys among the early collectors. French and Pennington both bought and traded decoys directly with Garren and dispersed them among the growing numbers of new collectors. In a letter to Pennington, Garren wrote, "I just thought I would dig out my old patterns and make a few more while I was able, as there aren’t many people living today that know I could." And he expanded his output of decoys to include species that weren’t normally hunted in his area: gadwall, bufflehead, wigeon, shoveler and American, hooded and red-breasted mergansers.
By the 1960s, now retired, Garren was still producing hunting decoys for local waterfowlers and mantelpieces for this new breed of collector. The large workshop in his backyard was equipped with a wood bench cluttered with all the essential decoy making tools – a vise, drawknife, gouge, saw and wood rasp. Like most Illinois River decoy carvers, he fashioned a hollow two-piece body out of soft pine. The hand-whittled head, now finished with glass eyes, was held in place by a screw that was driven through the upper section of the body. In the middle of the workshop was a large table where he painted his decoys with oil paints using his dime store brushes. The decoys were finished with a lead keel weight.
As a young boy hunting ducks in the marsh, he could have never dreamed that his decoys would settle on some collector’s shelf. When Otto Garren died in 1968, a precious part of our waterfowling history left with him.
A special thanks to Barbara Sorenson and Joseph B. French for sharing their files and photography in assisting with this story.
For the complete story, please see the Jan./Feb. 2001 issue of Decoy Magazine.
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