by Richard Cowan and Richard LaFountain
After several successful years of operation in Babylon, New York, the Massas decided to sell the Wildfowler Decoy Co. In November 1984 Louis Siciliano and Tom D’Vorak bought the company and continued to operate it at the Babylon location for several years. In 1987 Tom decided to return to being a cook and Lou continued on alone. Siciliano’s ownership was to span eight years and three Long Island locations, spending nearly 4-½ years at Park Ave. in Babylon before moving to Bohemia. In a last ditch effort to preserve Wildfowler, he moved to Center Moriches three years later.
Collectors have long referred to the decoys produced during the Siciliano years as “Bohemia Wildfowlers,” but as you will see, this designation is far from accurate. The identity of Wildfowler decoys by factory has always been difficult for several reasons. First, not only was the machinery moved each time, but also considerable quantities of inventory, both painted and unpainted, were included in the sale. In addition to painting unfinished decoys, new head styles were added to older style bodies at the new locations. Further complicating the identification, some unfinished decoys were branded by the former owners and the new owners branded some finished products. The Babylon-Bohemia years can be even more confusing. At the Babylon location the new ownership brought subtle changes, and even more confusing, at least seven different brands were used during these last eight years.
When the lease at 56 Park Ave. was up at the end of 1988, the landlord doubled the rent. Lou felt the increase was excessive, so the business was moved to 1371-8 Church St. in Bohemia. The entire business – the machinery, inventory and office – was moved in a day and a half. On the third day, Wildfowler reopened in its new location. It was housed in part of a strip industrial park on the corner of Knickerbocker Ave. with several other small industries. There was a potential storefront, but it was not utilized as a retail outlet. As in Babylon, decoys were displayed for sale in the office, and an entire corner was devoted to open shelf displays of Wildfowler products.
When Siciliano and D’Vorak took over Wildfowler in 1984, they continued to produce the styles developed in previous years. Existing accounts such as Ethan Allen and James Deevy of Tuckerton Bait and Tackle remained regular customers. The association with Ethan Allen lasted nearly seven years, and a total of 30,000 to 40,000 decoys and many bookends – all with the Ethan Allen seal – were produced during that time frame.
Eventually Siciliano began to introduce his own ideas. Bill Joeckel had designed a successful merganser pattern for the former owners. Lou had him make a sleeping redhead and swimming mallard to add to the line. The new owners also experimented with various antique finishes, including a crackle technique, and set the eyes more deeply in distinct eye grooves. They expanded the number of styles advertised and made full size, ¾-sized, medium size and miniature decoys in a variety of patterns and several head positions. The vast majority of the output was decorative decoys, all carved from sugar pine.
In their years at Babylon, Siciliano and D’Vorak continued to produce gunning decoys, but the total made from 1985 to 1988 did not exceed 600 birds. Neil Schlosser, a new employee at Babylon, did paint quite a few black duck decoys, and Lou recalls that the last hunting decoys produced – 12 geese and 24 black ducks – were shipped to Maine in the fall of 1988. He doesn’t recall making any gunning decoys after the move to Bohemia.
Siciliano also developed a limited edition Federal Duck Stamp Decoy series for the American Historical Foundation of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Foundation marketed these under the name Sportsman’s Club International through ads in various national sporting magazines as well as their own catalog. Approximately 400 of these were sold. In addition to the Wildfowler stamp, a solid brass medallion imprinted with the series number was inletted into the bottom. In 1988-1989, a broadbill drake was produced. Hens were available but did not sell well. The 1989-1990 edition was a canvasback drake, which contained two medallions, one listing the series number and the other advertising the Sportsman’s Club International. Wildfowler recessed the bottoms of the decoys and the Foundation set the medallions. The series lasted for only two years.
The staff in the late 1980s included Amando Gonzales and George Rigby, who worked for Amel Massa, as well as Bill Schlosser, Neil’s father. The painters were still housewives, led by Anne Madsen. Anne had learned to airbrush and now painted the new line of fish carvings, including life-sized stripped bass for wall mounting and several types of trout carvings. Eileen Cunningham ran the office and Neil Schlosser painted part time. Just before the move to Bohemia, Anne Madsen left and was replaced by Jan Murray.
All of the decoys produced in Babylon – under both ownerships – were signed by the painter and have one of several brands, all enclosed in a double circle: Wildfowler Decoys® - Amel Massa (pre Dec. 1984); Wildfowler Decoys, Est. 1939 – Amel Massa; Wildfowler Decoys, Babylon, N.Y. – Siciliano/D’Vorak (1984 to 1989); Wildfowler Decoys, Babylon, N.Y.® Since 1939 (Used by Siciliano as the 50th anniversary approached); and Wildfowler Decoys, Inc. – Lou Siciliano (1988 to 1991). The last listing includes the Babylon years, but birds made in Bohemia are marked Bohemia. The stamp was usually burned, but a few were rubber stamped when the electric stamp was down. In addition to those stamps, quite a few birds made in Bohemia are marked, Wildfowler Decoys, Inc. Bohemia, N.Y.® The small registered trademark was outside the circular brand in both the Massa and Siciliano years.
The production at Bohemia never reached the level of the Babylon location. There were four full time workers in Bohemia, including Lou and a secretary, who ran the office. Following the Babylon model, painting was done on a piecework basis by local homemakers. The heavily textured birds that had been produced in Babylon since 1981 continued to be a large part of the line. Gunning birds were no longer made. The decorative lines were the main products, followed by a large number of unfinished decoys, both sanded and un-sanded, that were sold primarily at shows. Many small accounts were serviced at wildlife and craft shows in order to save shipping costs.
Unlike the Babylon days under Amel Massa, a significant inventory was never maintained at Bohemia. Production was on an “as needed” basis. George Rigby, who was also employed in Babylon, recalls, “If an order for six brant was received, six brant would be made,” even if the spindles could accommodate more.
A variety of new brochures were printed. The broadsheet format, begun at Babylon, was continued. This format enabled Wildfowler to make a proposal to new customers in a convenient folder. It also allowed for additions to the line, or other changes, without having to reprint the entire brochure. The “Decorative Decoy Carvings” consisted of two color broadsheets and illustrated more than a dozen species. Loons and wood ducks were available in three sizes. Mergansers and mallards were made in two sizes and could be ordered with turned heads. All could be purchased unfinished or painted in an antique or regular style. “Swans. Geese and Brant” were pictured on a separate sheet in five types and sizes.
Puffins and terns were offered after having been developed for conservation groups attempting to re-establish the traditional nesting sites for both species. In 1977 Stephen Kress first used decoys in the restoration of puffin nesting sites on Eastern Little Egg Rock near Vinalhaven Island off the coast of Maine. Lou produced decoys for Kress. Beginning in 1987, he produced tern decoys for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to encourage nesting of lesser terns in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Competition from Taiwan and China cut heavily into the decorative business by the late 1980s. Even before moving to Bohemia, Lou made most of his living by doing wildlife and craft shows. He filled a large trailer with the items he thought most saleable and hit the road. The demand for unfinished birds was high, and he often sold out before the show opened. During set-up times his customers were usually other dealers. “If I brought 24 Mitchell swans to one show, I brought 36 to the next and still didn’t have enough,” he recalls. Mallards in all sizes and sleeping redheads were also big sellers.
Maybe the most significant change in the Bohemia years was a move away from waterfowl decoys and bird carvings to a diversified decorator line. The “Special Carvings” broadsheet included several varieties of fish, herons, egrets, turned head curlews, eagle plaques and mammals. A broadsheet of “Housewares and Giftware” showed salt and peppershakers, cutting boards, planters, nut bowls, wooden spoon holders and aprons. Another sheet advertised rabbit, sheep and cow lawn ornaments made of plush polyester. The lawn and garden items proved to be a fad and were soon dropped. An historical objects outlet in Virginia bought huge numbers of carved wooden spoons and painted wooden guns.
In preparation for Wildfowler’s 50th anniversary in 1989, Lou hired a New York advertising firm to help redesign the sales approach. The new campaign included a short history of the Wildfowler Company published that year. Fred Dombo, an advertising executive, decoy collector and author of the Long Island chapter of “The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys,” was the account manager. Soon after the company moved to Bohemia, Dombo retired and became a partner in Wildfowler. Fred brought an infusion of new capital and ideas, one of which was to produce a collector series of decoys commemorating the first 50 years. In 1990, the first of the series, a coot, was issued. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, Dombo died before the series could be fully developed, and only 50 or 60 of these coots were sold. The final partnership papers had not even been signed.
Soon after, the business began to decline. The machines, which had served so well in Quogue, Pt. Pleasant and Babylon, began to wear out. Parts were no longer available and had to be special ordered from local machine shops. And the decorative market had declined to the point that Lou could not survive on shows alone.
In 1991, to cut overhead, he moved to a cheaper facility in a defunct lumberyard at 54 Clinton St. in Center Moriches. Declining sales, increasing debt and a protracted legal battle with Fred’s widow, Sheila, led to bankruptcy. Siciliano was forced to look elsewhere for work to support his family. With the help of his brother-in-law Mike Fernando, and volunteers like George Rigby and Joe Buttonow of Sag Harbor, production continued for another year. All of the birds made in this period were unpainted and not stamped.
Despite the efforts to survive, by early 1993 Lou could no longer hold on and operations ceased. Most of the models, drawings, photographs –even the company records – were sold to interested parties. The carving machines are presently in storage in East Moriches, the property of North Fork Bank president, John Kanas.
About the time D’Vorak left Wildfowler in 1987, a new face appeared on the scene. Chris Eldredge of Pt. Pleasant, New Jersey visited Lou and showed an interest in making decoys. Chris had fond memories of buying oversized black ducks in Charlie Birdsall’s shop for gunning the Jersey meadows. An agreement was struck. Eldredge would be given copies of models for some Wildfowler gunning decoys and would make and distribute them under his company name, acknowledging that he had permission from Wildfowler.
As early as the spring of 1990 Eldredge began making decoys based on the traditional Wildfowler patterns under the name Sinkbox Decoys. They are rubber-stamped on the bottom: “Sinkbox Decoys, PO Box 10, Paris, IL 61934.”
As Siciliano’s operations began to wind down, he gave Eldredge the rights to use additional patterns, consisting of several Superior and Atlantic Coast models.
Chris, a teacher in Alaska at this time, spent the summer months in Paris, Illinois, his wife’s hometown, and made decoys. Eldredge had approached Siciliano about obtaining the rights to the Wildfowler trademark, but it was still owned by Massa and could not be transferred until the outstanding debts were satisfied. Never able to accomplish this, Eldredge continued to produce decoy under the Sinkbox Decoys name. By 1992 he had an oval stamp made to burn the bottoms of his decoys.
Remembering the wonderful black ducks purchased from Birdsall, Chris longed to see such birds produced again. He used cork, balsa wood and latex paint to make gunning decoys from the Wildfowler patterns. A few special orders were made of cedar or basswood and painted in oils. The balsa birds closely resemble the Superior and Atlantic Coast models produced by Birdsall at Pt. Pleasant. By 1994 he was offering a wide range of birds: nine species of puddle ducks, seven divers, three sea ducks, five species of geese, a seagull and a swan. They came with high or low heads as well as a tucked head sleeper. He also made a turned head preener, headless feeders and flip tail feeders (duck butts).
Eldredge didn’t produce a sales brochure but did offer a $10 video that showed him holding various decoys. The video also showed birds floating in a local pond. Chris worked only from orders, preferring to make a rig of six or more birds with varied sexes and head positions – his choice unless the customer specified otherwise. The heads were removable if requested.
The cork decoys have a thicker tail than the balsa ones, with a dowel added for strength. He used modern high-density cork and marine epoxies and sealers. The heads and keels were made from basswood and fastened to the bodies with stainless steel bolts and epoxy. A threaded brass insert in the head allowed for a removable head or extra holding power. All of the birds, except the feeders, were made with glass eyes. Oversized decoys were sometimes made with a ¾-inch bottom board when 5-inch cork was not available.
The decoys were painted with exterior latex finishes to reduce fading. The paint patterns tend to be bold, lacking the fine lines associated with earlier Wildfowlers. Chris adopted Birdsall’s trait of painting a right angle slash across the base of the primary feathers, but these lack Birdsall’s talented stroke.
Eldredge made special-order hollow decoys of white cedar and basswood that were painted in oils, including a pine-barrens black duck designed by David Hagerbaumer. Jamie Reason designed an old squaw, but none are known to have been made. Production figures weren’t kept, but it’s estimated that 50 to 100 birds a year were made over a six-year period. It’s doubtful that total output exceeded 500 birds.
In the mid 1990s Chris attempted to buy the Wildfowler name once again, but was unsuccessful.
The untimely death of Chris Eldredge in 1998 brought an end to the final chapter in the Wildfowler story. He had hoped to publish a book about Wildfowler and began a newsletter for collectors, although only one issue was published. He envisioned the newsletter would serve as a vehicle for Wildfowler collectors to pool their knowledge and information. He would be pleased to know that the Wildfowler story has finally been told.
What a sad ending for such a proud name and enduring legacy. It is hoped that one day the Wildfowler name will be reclaimed, perhaps beginning a new chapter of the longest running decoy company of all time, 1939 to 1993.
This is part five of a five-part series. Thanks to Fred Reaver, George Rigby, Lou Siciliano, Jamie Reason and Joe Buttonow for their assistance.
For the complete story, please see the Nov./Dec. 2001 issue of Decoy Magazine.
Read Part One | Read Part Two | Read Part Three | Read Part Four
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