by Richard Cowan and Richard LaFountain
Wildfowler Decoys was to the later part of the 20th century what Mason’s Decoy Company was to the early part. Both provided quality decoys to a mass market at reasonable prices. They each advertised in major sporting publications and had a large mail order business. The volume of sales was such that large numbers or their respective products still remain in collectible condition. Wildfowler, however, differed in one significant way: the company went through five changes of ownership in its 55 years of existence. As each owner adjusted to the changing market and new competition, continuity suffered. Many collectors feel that the later decoys are not as desirable as the earlier ones, but interest in Wildfowlers remains keen.
Wildfowler Decoys, Inc. began in 1939 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The founder, Edward "Ted" Mulliken, was a friend of Joel Barber who it would appear influenced some of the designs. On page 22 of "Decoys at the Shelburne Museum," David Webster describes their collaboration and a black duck is pictured. Between 1920 and 1939, Mulliken was the promoter, or inspiration, for several Connecticut decoy companies, including Dukoy of Bridgeport and the Dauntless Decoy Company of Essex. Sperry Decoys of New Haven and Joel Barber’s own Barber Decoys of Wilton were also ventures of this period. All met with limited success. There appears to be a commonality of design among these early Connecticut factories that jelled in to the Wildfowler style.
Mulliken was an avid duck hunter and began making his own decoys in the 1920s. He lost his rig of Mason and Stevens decoys in 1920, and convinced he could make an excellent decoy himself, began to design and make his own spread. Eventually he made a few rigs for his friends. He had hunted in many of the famous waterfowling areas and was no doubt influenced by decoy designs from several well-known makers. Mulliken was quoted in the New Haven Register in 1951 as crediting Shang Wheeler with "teaching him much about decoy making.
Ted owned a game bird farm on Ingham Road in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The 1938 hurricane severely damaged his operation and he decided to make decoys as a part-time business. He advertised in Field and Stream and the ad produced over 600 orders. Based on this success, he hired help and went into production as a full time business. The first Wildfowler catalog lists a partner, J.R. Moore. Ted was president and his wife Carmen was secretary-treasurer. Family sources were unable to provide additional information about Moore. Mulliken realized that volume production and wide marketing were needed for success and looked for ways to produce decoys in quantity without sacrificing quality.
Artie Birdsall, in an unpublished manuscript by Chris Eldredge, is quoted as saying that the name of the company came from the title of Barber’s book, "Wildfowl Decoys," with the "er" added. Harry Ross, a former Wildfowler employee quoted in the same manuscript, stated that Barber was not involved in any way. However, Ross did not become an employee until after World War II. The family believes that some influence did exist.
The earliest recognized birds by Mulliken have a long brass screw eye up through the bird from the keel into the head. The heads sit on a raised shelf that is the same height as the back. For some time there has been a difference of opinion among collectors as to whether these are early Wildfowlers, or if they predate the factory. Recently, an early catalog has surfaced with a factory address of Box 87, Saybrook, Connecticut listing J.R. Moore and Mulliken as the owners. The brass screw eye style birds are clearly illustrated and described. The black ducks, mallards and pintails have a low profile with a pronounced nail on the bill. In any event the style was established: rounded sides, flat bottom, wooden keel and glass eyes.
There is a picture of the "Old Saybrook" brand on page 168 of "Connecticut Decoys" by Henry Chitwood’s. Look closely and you will see that it says "Saybrook, Conn." These are probably the earliest birds because the majority of Wildfowler decoys are either unstamped or branded "Old Saybrook." The earliest catalog gives the Saybrook name and the circular paper stamp used on decorative items continued to say "Saybrook." As late as 1951 the catalog cover shows the emblem with "Saybrook" in the outer ring.
Sometime prior to 1939 Mulliken bought a shoe last lathe and began producing decoys. This machine could carve two bodies at a time. A model was clamped between spindles in the machine and a stylus was pulled over it. A connecting arm pulled a U-shaped cutting bit over blocks of wood clamped between centers on the adjoining spindles. A single body, or two heads, would be carved on each spindle. Decoys made on this machine were carved around the body. Later decoys were carved in a largely front-to-back fashion. Since all early birds were thoroughly sanded, it would be unusual to discover evidence of the earlier method of carving. However, the raised shelf design may have been the direct result of the limits of this type of machine. The original models may have been cast iron. Several of these were still with the company when its inventory was liquidated in 1994-1995.
Production of decoys halted during World War II when the company began producing gunstocks for Garand rifles and Thompson sub-machineguns. In fact, the weathervane on the factory was made from the stock of a Thompson sub-machinegun. Production records kept by Richard Harris do evidence that decoys were still produced during the war years. These defense contracts were so large that Mulliken sub-contracted with the Wysowski Woodworking Co. of Brooklyn, New York. Joseph Wysowski and his nephew subsequently moved their operation to Westbrook, Connecticut to satisfy Wildfowler’s demand. The wooden blanks were prepared at Wildfowler and trucked to Wysowski’s for carving. The carved parts were returned to the Wildlfowler factory for sanding, assembly and painting.
After World War II the demand for decoys was high and the multiple spindle machines at Wysowski’s were kept busy. To meet the demand Mulliken purchased two 12-spindle copy lathes of his own. A family member recalls only one machine at Old Saybrook and believes the other was housed at the Wysowski facility. Mulliken began to produce furniture parts for the Simmons Mattress and Furniture Company, who became a major account, and the association continued throughout the Old Saybrook years.
Many of the birds produced just after World War II were constructed of hollow-carved white pine bodies. It is not clear when the first hollow birds were produced, but they are listed in the 1944 catalog. The bottom was inletted and a fitted board was inserted. This proved to be too time consuming, as well as difficult to waterproof, so they eventually decided to cover the entire bottom with a ½ or ¾-inch board. This provided a more waterproof joint and added height to the completed decoy. These birds contrasted with the pre-war designs which were solid and had a lower profile.
An article in the winter 1978 issue of North American Decoys indicates that Milliken changed to balsa wood as soon as it became available after World War II. It would be better to say resume the use of balsa wood. Balsa wood decoys had been produced by Wildfowler prior to the war. Balsa had also been used by the Sperry Decoy Company in the 1920s.
In his private correspondence Mulliken indicated that he had met an importer of balsa in 1920 and was influential in convincing him that decoy makers were a potential market for his product. Since he himself was making a new rig at that time to replace his stolen birds, it is tempting to assume that he may have experimented with balsa. He certainly did use balsa when the factory opened. In a letter from Mr. William Taylor of Winfield, Kansas to Chris Eldredge, Mr. Taylor stated that he was given a set of six brand new balsa pintails by Wildfowler as a gift from his father in the fall of 1939. They had pine heads (according to the catalog, the heads would have been white hardwood) held in place by a long brass screw eye and sold for $15 per half dozen. Balsa goldeneyes, broadbills and canvasbacks from this period exist in major collections. There are also some balsa birds made in 1944 and 1945 and signed by Richard Harris.
Wildfowler heads were made of hardwoods. Black birch was first used, but it proved to crack after brief usage outdoors. White birch and maple were tried next, and the white birch proved to be an excellent choice. It took carved detail and held paint well. Heads on the earliest birds are on a raised shelf and fastened with a long brass screw eye as mentioned before. They have fine carved lines to mark the mandibles and the line where the bill meets the face.
At some point in the early production, the heads were attached with a ½-inch dowel. In some cases the dowel goes through the top of the head. Others have the dowel entirely within the head. Even before World War II some birds had inletted heads that were fastened with wooden dowels. A router bit was mounted in a drill press and the inletted shelf was cut. This assured a uniform level surface for mounting and gluing the head. The dowel passed through the decoy’s body and far enough into the head to prevent neck breakage. The keel covered the exposed dowel on the bottom of the decoy.
Painting was done in a second floor paint shop separate from the woodworking area. It was under the supervision of Marion Harris from 1945 until the factory was sold in 1957. She designed and executed many of the patterns associated with Wildfowler, and she taught and guided other painters, such as those pictured in the aforementioned North American Decoys article. She is also pictured, along with Ted Mulliken, in chapter 7 of "Duck Decoys and How to Rig Them" by Ralf Coykendahl. Marion was one of several women employed full time as painters. In addition, seasonal painters were hired every summer to meet the demand.
Richard Harris, Marion’s husband, went to work for Mulliken in 1942 and worked at Wildfowler until the fire of 1957. He was foreman of the "Finishing Department" and worked in all phases of the operation. He maintained a series of small notebooks in which he recorded each day’s production. According to Harris, when the Wysowskis expanded their business after World War II, Mulliken decided to buy two multiple spindle carving lathes of his own. Similar machines were later used at Quoque, where the company was first moved. It is unclear if these are the same machines, or whether the Saybrook ones were destroyed in the fire. According to the North American Decoys article, "They (firemen) did manage to save a lumber shed which stood close by," implying that everything else was lost. But other evidence suggests that the machines and patterns survived. Perhaps they were also housed separately. Artie Birdsall believes that the machines his uncle, Charlie Birdsall, purchased from Quoque in 1961 are those original machines.
Richard and Marion Harris began their own decoy business while they still worked at Wildfowler. In 1955 they purchased a 12-spindle carving machine from Joseph Wysowski for $500 and began to produce decorative items. They issued a small catalog showing decoy lamps, flying birds, gun racks and small decorative carvings. They also made a few gunning decoys for local hunters. After the fire at Wildfowler and the move to Long Island, they produced more gunning decoys but didn’t advertise them. Apparently their entire production of gunning birds was locally sold.
Harris decoys are similar to Wildfowlers and are often confused with them. There are several significant differences. First the heads are made of pine and are clunkier than Wildfowlers. A black line has been painted around the bill and face area and there is an absence of bill carving. Harris birds have a ¾ by 1-inch keel applied on the flat bottom. Some collectors have long felt these were Wildfowlers painted by Richard Harris, but they are not. All were painted by Marion. Richard did not paint any birds, neither his own nor Wildfowlers.
The drake mallard pictured on the top of page 69 in "Connecticut Decoys" is a Harris decoy. The two black ducks at the bottom of page 169 are also by Harris. Note the higher chest, black bill outlining and the heavier tail design.
Harry Ross Sr., another long-time employee, was an excellent carver and painter. He won prizes in a number of the early decoy making competitions. In personal correspondence with Chris Eldredge he indicates that he carved all the postwar patterns for the Superior models and decoratives. He also states that no primer was used. At least on those made after 1945. The oil based lead paints must have penetrated the wood and sealed it. Good quality paint was used as evidenced by the large number of Old Saybrook birds, even balsa ones, found in excellent condition. Waterproof resorcinol glue was used in the assembly process.
Ross came to work in 1945 and was shop superintendent for many years. The work force was between 10 and 12 people. One man worked in the mark-up area, one at the band saw, two men on the carving machines, three in the sanding and assembly area and four to five women in the paint room. He estimates a total production of 45-60,000 birds for the 10-year period he was employed. He recalled one order of 2760 birds being filled for Abercrombie & Fitch in New York City.
There also seem to have been a large number of special orders. Apparently the factory was willing to meet any request if time permitted. These requests ranged from variations on the current designs to the reproduction of models provided by the customer. Since heads were a regular catalog item, many hunters must have purchased them, adding the body and paint. Wildfowler also offered kits that could be assembled and painted by hunters themselves. These facts help to account for the number of variations that collectors find today.
Old Saybrook decoys often have carved head detail. This was achieved by changing the spindle bits to a smaller size in order to add nostrils and bill delineation. Some very early birds also show carved mandible separation. The base of the inletted head had flattened sides to improve the glue joint so most heads are set straight ahead. But without inletting the head, the head positions could more easily be varied. A number of style variations were offered. Heads could be placed high, medium or low. Turned head sleepers were available in the Superior grades and are illustrated in the catalogs. Tip-up feeders and reaching feeders were also produced in the Superior grade.
Nearly every species of waterfowl in North America was available as a decoy, although to date no gadwall,wood duck, ruddy duck or old squaw have been located. There were three basic models: Atlantic Coast Model, Superior Model and Superior Oversize Model. The Atlantic Coast Model had a blunt tail and was built for rugged use. These were available in cork with ¾-inch bottom boards or in balsa. An oversized version of this model was also produced. A Battery Oversize Model was made, but unlike other models, these birds were rounded with a small, flattened bottom area.
Two grades of finish were offered and differed in the amount of sanding. The #2 rough, or feather finish, cost 24 cents less per bird than the #1 smooth finish. There is disagreement among collectors concerning the finish. In his book, "American Factory Decoys," Henry Fleckenstein states that the #2 finish was spray-painted. Others believe it was hand-applied.
Various catalogs listed a number of decorative items, including lamps, jewelry boxes, bookends and gun racks. Decoy line, decoy carriers and weights were also available. Frequently, Old Saybrook decoys are found with a screw-on, teardrop ballast weight marked "D.C. Sanford Co. Bridgeport, Connecticut." This can be a helpful means of identification. H-shaped, over-the-head decoy anchor weights by Sanford were also available through the catalog. Occasionally one finds a decoy with a strip lead weight embossed "WILDFOWLER DECOY SAYBROOK CT.’
On the night of February 3, 1957 a fire broke out at the factory and all was apparently lost. The North American Decoys article indicates that a lumber shed was saved. It also states that the furniture business and the decoy business were sold separately. Richard Harris provided most of the information for the article. It’s not clear just exactly what survived the fire and was sold, but the decoy business went to Quogue, Long Island and was in production by 1958, the very next year.
The authors wish to acknowledge the help of Richard Baker, Anthony Buzzanco, David Heiney, Edward Heiney, Robert Harris and David Ward in the preparation of this article. The next issue will feature the second article in the series on Wildfowler Decoys, the factory’s few short years in Quogue, Long Island, New York.
For the complete story, please see the Jan./Feb. 2001 issue of Decoy Magazine.
Read Part Two | Read Part Three | Read Part Four | Read Part Five
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