Posted on Wed, Jan. 29, 2003

CHRIS NISKANEN: Can't place a call? You can look it up
CHRIS NISKANEN
Outdoors Editor

Francis Muehlstein was a tinker and a duck hunter. During the early 1930s, while working in a brass-bed factory, the St. Paul inventor broke the mold and invented the perfect duck call with a "natural" sound.

Or so the advertising said.

Patented in 1932, the Natural Duck Call was carved from cedar and shaped like a duck's neck and head. The duck's bill was made of two pieces of aluminum and brass, and when you blew into the duck call, the two metal halves flapped open and shut like a real duck bill.

Muehlstein advertised the duck call as "natural'' because it simulated a duck's mouth, tongue and bill. He sold hundreds for $2.50 between 1932 and the 1950s, advertising them in Outdoor Life and Sports Afield magazines.

Fast forward to Monday. Doug Lodermeier of Minneapolis sat at his kitchen table with one of Muehlstein's calls pressed to his lips. When he blew into it, a tinny quack echoed through the house. The duck call's lips flapped perfectly, even after 60 years.

Lodermeier smiled.

"There isn't any other duck call like this out there, before or since,'' Lodermeier said of Muehlstein's call, which today fetches $400 to $500. "What's amazing is the expert work Muehlstein did on them. He was quite a craftsman.''

Lodermeier knows something about Minnesota duck calls. He owns about 150 and is the state's foremost authority on their makers. His new book, Minnesota Duck Calls, is 600 pages of pure duck-calling and duck-hunting lore, including profiles of 50 past and present call makers. The book, published this month, took Lodermeier three years to research and compile.

The result is a wonderful collection of stories of call makers, pictures of their products and page after page of historic duck-hunting photos. The book is a stroll through Minnesota's bygone duck-hunting history.

The public gets its first look at Lodermeier's treasure at the Minnesota Decoy Collectors Association show that runs Thursday through Saturday at the Thunderbird Hotel in Bloomington. Lodermeier will be selling copies for $75. He published 1,000 copies, of which 250 already have sold.

His book is filled with true characters duck hunters who loved the sport and often sought to profit from it. Some Minnesota calls are beautiful works of art; others, such as Muehlstein's contraption, sought to be the latest gadget.

Leo Boutin, who lived from 1902-79, was the Minneapolis inventor of the Boutin Duck Decoy, which had a built-in duck call. A small hose ran from the decoy to the hunter's boat, where a small rubber bulb was squeezed, pushing air into the decoy and making it quack. "Quite original,'' Lodermeier said.

John Hoene was a St. Paul outdoorsman who built a squeezable bulb call that emitted calls for diving ducks. Hoene, who owned a company called Lake Superior Outdoor Specialties, also invented a portable duck blind call Rollarush. He also was a benefactor of youth hockey programs; a rink in West St. Paul bears his name. Other notable old-time Twin Cities call makers were Oscar Bovey (1888-1959), Oscar Quam (1887-1969) and Donald Priebe (1910-70). All made beautiful, functional duck calls highly sought by today's collectors.

Lodermeier devotes 60 pages to George Herter (1911-94), whose duck calls sold through the famous Herter's catalog company, based in Waseca, during much of the past century.

Champion caller Ralph True (1905-80) of Hopkins probably was Minnesota's best-known duck call maker, partly through his association with outdoors writer and outdoorsman Jimmy Robinson. True sold his calls through stores such as Warner Hardware, Corrie's Sporting Goods in Minneapolis and the old Johnson-Gokey's store in St. Paul. True made about 700 calls a year, including some beautiful specimens made of bird's-eye maple and mahogany. He collaborated with Robinson on a book called "Wild Duck Calling, the Jimmy Robinson System," which included a record and instruction book that sold for $3.

Illinois and many Southern states have longer, more storied duck-calling traditions than Minnesota, perhaps because those states have longer duck-hunting traditions. Because so little had been recorded about Minnesota call makers, Lodermeier decided it was time to document that part of Minnesota's history.

"There are still a lot of Minnesota calls sitting in someone's dad's desk drawer,'' he said. "It's a piece of lost history if it doesn't get documented."

"Minnesota Duck Calls,'' $75, is available on line at www.dougandpaul.com or by phoning Doug Lodermeier at (612) 922-9674. Chris Niskanen can be reached at cniskanen@pioneerpress com