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This is a reprint of a Bloomington/Normal, Illinois Pantagraph Article.

Decoys link family with tradition of wood carving


By Scott Richardson – Bloomington/Normal, Illinois Pantagraph Article

When Pat Gregory of Normal shapes blocks of cedar and pine into a mallard, wood duck, or a pintail, he preservers more than a link to the rich history of the carvers who fashioned duck decoys on the Illinois River before World War II.

Gregory is reaching back in time to learn more about his great grandfather, a decoy carver who died when Gregory was just a little shaver.

George "Home Run" Barto, known as "Skippy" to his family, was a contemporary of the man hailed as Central Illinois’ greatest carver, Charlie Perdew. Barto spent hours at Perdew’s house and his wife, Edna, the queen of the decoy painters.

Barto later taught the craft to Art Behmetuik of Lockport. Though Barto wasn’t there to teach his great grandson, Behmetuik was.

Today, Gregory is a chip off the old block.

"I think I have the same defective gene great grandpa had, " laughed Gregory, whose decoys will be displayed at the 32nd annual Henry Decoy Show on Feb.13 "I have waterfowling in my blood."

Gregory has hunted and fished since his teens. But he wasn’t lured to carving until his sister, Joyce, began doing a family genealogy. The more they learned about Barto, the more they were drawn to find out more.

Barto grew up near the Illinois River before moving to Joliet. He starred as a semi-professional baseball player who made the Old-timers Hall of Fame. They know he worked as a foreman in a steel plant until he was injured. After that, he worked at several jobs, from barber to bartender, to earn money.

But it was Barto’s carving that intrigued Gregory, a State Farm Insurance Cos. Corporate trainer who studied commercial art in college. He realized it was up to him to preserve the family tradition. Encouraged by his wife, Nancy, Gregory decided to try it. He began with tutoring from Behmetuik and some of his great grandfather’s original patterns and tools, which Behmetuik had saved.

Gregory also was able to find and study some of the actual decoys his great grandfather made. Among others, he got one at a Midwest decoy show from a man who brought it from the state of New York. While having dinner at a friend’s house in the Twin Cities just a couple of weeks ago, Gregory noticed a decoy being used as a decoration. He immediately recognized it a s his great grandfather’s work, which always bore a tell-tale lead weight stamped with the letter "B" on the bottom. His friend told him he found it as a boy exploring the bank of the Des Plaines River. Value today? About $500.

Prices for original decoys carved in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s can bring far more than that is in food conditions. Perdew decoys which once sold to hunters for a $1, can bring $20,000, $30,000 and even more. Don Clark, who organized the Henry Decoy Show, paid $70 for a rare Canadian goose Perdew carved. Its current value is about $50,000 in a market fueled by both antique and art collectors.

"Decoy carving is one of the few American folk arts," Gregory said, "It is one that is truly indigenous to the United States."

Gregory carves about 150 decoys a year. A self-described "purest", he uses some to hunt rather than the plastic imitations which dominated the market after World War II. He sells other. But he always carves some for his son, Aaron, and his daughter Sarah. They are their legacy, he said.

Aaron, 10, has begun carving, too. His first work was a fish decoy, which won a blue ribbon at a junior contest. Shaped like a small fish, they are still used to lure bigger game fish to a hole in the ice so they can be speared.

Aaron will carve his first duck this year. Father and son will use it at one of the Department of Natural Resources-sponsored youth waterfowl hunts in fall. Gregory said that will be the time when the next generation will learn the highest praise a carver receives doesn’t come from judges at competitions. For Gregory, it comes on the water at sunrise on frosty autumn mornings as he waits in his skiff looking skyward, shotgun in hand, alone with his retriever Callie.

"The biggest compliment a carver can get is to have ducks come into decoys you made," said Gregory, who is often mesmerized by the beauty of the scene. "Sometimes, I don’t even shoot."

Decoy Notes

The Henry Decoy Show is from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 13 at the Henry Senachwine High School on Illinois 29. The show will feature antique decoys, contemporary carvers, wildlife art, outdoor books and magazines, collectible duck stamps, game calls and hunting-related items. Take Interstate 39 to Henry. While there, take a shot side trip to see the Perdew home. Just after crossing the bridge, turn left and go five blocks. Though in serious disrepair, the village has obtained state grants and loans of about $200,000 to restore it as a museum. Plans are being drawn.

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Revised: September 28, 2012.