Book on the history of Minnesota decoy-carving is the real deal of the state's decoy-carving craft back to the 1880s, is the real deal

By Chris Niskanen Pioneer Press

Doug Lodermeier was bursting with stories about Minnesota duck-decoy carvers. We were in Lodermeier's basement office last week, thumbing through a computer copy of his new book, "Minnesota Duck Decoys yesterday's and today's folk artists," which is to be published in a week or so. At more than 700 pages, "Minnesota Duck Decoys" is the exhaustive text on nearly every maker who ever put a rasp to wood in Minnesota. Lodermeier, who lives in Edina, spent 20 years tracking down the histories of carvers such as Wilfred "Jack" Tauer (1907-92), who made decoys in his South St. Paul home. When a family member showed Lodermeier one of Tauer's works, Lodermeier delivered bad news. "Your grandpa didn't make that," said Lodermeier, a board member of the Minnesota Decoy Collectors Association. "That's a Herter's decoy." The stunned relative didn't believe it and pulled more decoys out of a bag. The next ones were hand-carved beauties that are collectors items today. "Tauer had actually made the rest, but he bought a pair of Herter's for his model," Lodermeier said. "He actually developed his own style later, and his final works are Jack Tauer originals. "There are a million stories like that about these carvers." Until now, Minnesota's rich decoy-carving history never had been fully compiled. Most decoy books focus on Maryland, Illinois and Louisiana states with more extensive histories of decoy carving. So Lodermeier decided to pull together magazine articles and other sources, and add them to his meticulous sleuthing to document Minnesota's decoy history, which traces to the 1880s. "With a book like this, the unknown decoys become known," said Dick Brust of Roseville, a founder of the Minnesota Decoy Collectors Association. "We've been talking about a book like this for 40 years." Lodermeier pre-sold 600 copies of the 1,000-copy first edition, and he is taking orders for delivery before Christmas. He also is author of "Minnesota Duck Calls," published in 2003. "There's been a huge appetite for a Minnesota decoy book," said Lodermeier, a partner in a Minneapolis design agency. "But I didn't do alone. I had a lot of help." It would be unfair to call "Minnesota Duck Decoys" a collectors book. It's really a history book that documents carvers of the market-hunting era, those around famed Heron Lake and Lake Christina, and the giants of the factory industry, such as Herter's of Waseca and the lesser-known Tuveson Manufacturing Co. (1910-42) in St. James. Some of the old decoys sell for $20 or $30, but others, such as those made by famed carver John F. Tax of Osakis (1894-1967), sell for tens of thousands of dollars. "Tax is probably our most famous and salable carver," Lodermeier said. He checked old newspaper articles, death certificates and historical societies to find and often correct information about the lives and times of decoy carvers. There is Abe Nelson (1872-1932), called the father of the Heron Lake decoy, who carved elegant canvasbacks that were widely admired and copied. Today, they sell for thousands of dollars. Although there were many Heron Lake carvers, attributing the folk-art birds to their makers is difficult because not all of them signed their names. "The history was lost when the decoys got picked, moved away and traded," Lodermeier said. Lodermeier was given access to hundreds of decoy collections across the United States, and he photographed thousands of birds and learned the histories of many lesser-known carvers. He stumbled across a virtually unknown carver named Tom "Ole" Gunderson of Ashby, Minn., whose rare birds are held in a single private collection. "Gunderson is an interesting story," Lodermeier said. "He disappeared one day, fearing he was going to be put into an insane asylum. He shows up a few days later near Gull Lake under an assumed name." St. Paul has its own quirky history of decoy makers. The Horne & Danz Co. (1881-1915) made decoys that attached to a floating board. Each side of the board had a different cutout of a duck. If the top decoy flipped over, the one on the bottom appeared. "The idea is they were portable," Lodermeier said. The "Minnesota Duck Chair," made in St. Paul in the 1940s, wasn't a decoy but a wire mechanism that fit around a dead duck and held it up in the water. "You'd shoot a duck, put it in the Duck Chair and you had a decoy," Lodermeier said. Then there are the Novotny brothers of St. Paul. Emil owned a sporting goods store at 324 Jackson St., and his brother Joe (1884-1924) was a gunsmith who carved duck decoys. Very few of Novotny's cedar and pine decoys exist, but Lodermeier has their story in the book. The book solves many mysteries and debunks myths about carvers. "There are a lot of people who will be able to identify what's on their shelves now," Lodermeier said. He deliberately did not include prices because a decoy's value fluctuates based on its rarity, condition and supply. Lodermeier, a collector himself, self-published the book, knowing no publisher would embrace a huge book with so many pictures. He said he won't recover the cost of researching and writing the book. "It's not a money-making venture," he said. "It's giving something back to a hobby I love."

Outdoors editor Chris Niskanen can be reached at cniskanen@pioneerpress.com.

"Minnesota Duck Decoys yesterday's and today's folk artists" ($85) is not available in bookstores. It will be published in the next few weeks, and author Doug Lodermeier is taking pre-Christmas orders. He already has sold 600 of the first edition of 1,000 copies.

To order: Call Lodermeier at 612-922-9674, or print an order form at dougandpaul.com. Major credit cards are accepted.