by Ronald Koch
With the probable exception of Walter Evans of Ladysmith, who made thousands of decoys with a lathe, Gust Karl Nelow, who was born in Oshkosh and later resided in Omro, likely made more handmade decoys than anyone in the state of Wisconsin. With a carving career that blossomed at the age of 18 in 1892, and flourished until the time of his death in 1961, it is entirely plausible that he made more than 10,000 decoys. Doing a little quick arithmetic, it is easy to realize that he would only had to have averaged 150 decoys a year to reach that mark. Since he spent his entire lifetime employing decoy making and boat building as his sole means of support, it is more plausible that Gus Nelow made even more.
Nelow, who was born in Germany on November 19, 1874, came to this country in 1880 with his parents Karl and Marie. His 12-year-old brother Adolph and sisters Emma and Anne age eight and five, accompanied them. Adolph took sick on the boat trip across the Atlantic, and shortly after the family arrived in Oshkosh passed away. Another sister, Nina, was born in 1890.
The family settled in Oshkosh on Hazel Street, between Irving and New York Streets, near the shore of Miller's Bay on Lake Winnebago. As a youth, Nelow attended Trinity Lutheran School but spent his free time on the lake - fishing, hunting and trapping. The lake and nearby marshes constantly beckoned the youngster, and his school work and social life suffered. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he became interested in ice boating and eventually emerged as one of the top racers on the lake. The affluent Buckstaff family of Oshkosh, who had a fleet of boats that competed in many of the annual races, was a regular sponsor.
Gus was a tall, lean youth, and without a doubt the girls had their eyes on him. One young lass, who lived a few blocks away on Evans Street, caught his fancy. Nelow made a date with the girl to attend the biggest dance of the year at the downtown Atherne Hotel. Unfortunately, it also happened to be the day of the biggest ice boat race of the year. And in one of the last heats of the day, the weather turned and a strong westerly wind blew the hapless ice boaters across Lake Winnebago to the distant eastern shore.
As this was before the turn of the century, returning to Oshkosh was no easy task - it was at least 25 miles around the lake. Gus never made it back to town until the following morning, and with the young lady's father telling her that she shouldn't be wasting her time on a ne'er-do-well like Nelow, the romance died. According to Nelow's niece, Jessie Schindelholz, this untimely misfortune soured his outlook on the opposite sex, and turning all his energy to outdoors sports, he remained single his entire life.
For the complete story, please see the Jan./Feb. 2000 issue of Decoy Magazine.
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