The story of how Art Ladehoff and, "Big Foot, the Decoy", established the industry standard for field model full body goose decoys.
I grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River in Clinton, Iowa. Not far upriver, lock and dam number13 spans the river forming a connection from Iowa to Illinois. Navigational pool #13 formed above the dam is a large wind swept, sometimes treacherous body of water. Technically, lock and dam #13 directly affects the river for about 36 miles upstream to lock and dam #12. In local duck hunters lingo an area extending to about five miles above the dam was known simply as ”the pool”. Hunting “the pool”, using a scull boat, was the domain of only those considered the best and hardiest of local water fowl hunters. It was a spot several miles above “the pool” near the island town of Sabula, Iowa that my dad and his cousins had a hunting cabin. In fact, they were hunting near a river island below Sabula, when the great Armistice Day storm of 1940 struck. I remember the hunting stories, some good, some tragic, that were born of the events of that day and the next. Growing up amid scull boats, blinds, duck camps, and daily hunting reports, it is no wonder that I was attracted to duck hunting at an early age. I cannot remember a time when I was not fascinated with all manner of duck hunting paraphernalia, especially decoys. When most 6 year olds were drawing pictures of thanksgiving turkeys, I was in the basement with my dad, most likely begging to paint the iridescent, blue wing patch, on his mallard decoys.
The College Situation
High school graduation came in 1954. For me, it was summer work as usual in the family construction business, then off to the first year of college. That first fall away from the river, I came home every weekend during the duck season. This was not the smartest thing to do if you want to remain in college. Overall my college efforts were dismal at best. However, during that time a number of significant events were to take place that would eventually lead me into the business of making decoys. Summer work, in the family construction business gave me the opportunity to learn a trade. Given my lack of enthusiasm for academics the opportunity to learn a trade seemed like a good idea. During the next several summers, I served an apprenticeship as a bricklayer. I did enjoy that type of work; I believe a good brick mason needs an artistic touch, so that was sort of a fit for me.
Easing Into The Decoy Business (part time that is)
Along our stretch of the Mississippi, the most popular method of hunting was by sculling. Hundreds of scull boats used along our stretch of river were crafted by just a few local area hunters who built boats when they couldn’t be hunting... Most sculling took place on big water and required large decoy spreads; several hundred decoys or more was common. The decoys were put out early and left out for the entire season. Success or failure of that type of hunting had everything to do with location and the effectiveness of the decoy spread. The ducks or geese actually had to set into the decoys before a sculling attempt could be made. Calling was irrelevant since the hunter anchored a long way from the decoys. During my early sculling days, few of the commercial decoys available were durable enough to stand many weeks of wind, waves, and ice. Many decoy spreads were lost due to these harsh conditions. Sadly, on occasion, even lives were lost in an attempt to pick up and save all your decoys before they were lost in the nasty conditions that usually preceded a general freeze up.
The Decoy Makers
Store bought decoys or even the material to make so many decoys was not cheap. These factors almost always motivated serious river hunters to make their own decoys. Homemade decoys were fashioned from almost any thing that would float. For large spreads at low cost it was common practice to use sealed up oil cans for decoys. Painted black, with a white stripe around them they worked extremely well for all species, including the occasional goose that might come along.
One such serious river hunter was the Clinton High School swimming coach. Howard Judd was a great coach and a prolific decoy maker. Mr. Judd made hundreds of wooden decoys in the high school manual training shops. Immediately following our high school days the original Herter’s company, in Waseca, Minnesota had developed a line of very good, unsinkable decoys, using expandable polystyrene. The old coach borrowed the idea, made some heavy cast iron molds, and worked up a system of making by baking decoys in the kitchen oven. This process represented a huge improvement over the old method of shaping half round cedar posts with hand axe and rasp.
The coach began selling the expandable plastic and loaning his molds to local hunters. I was excited with the prospect of making my own decoys by this method. I could have borrowed a mold from the coach, but thought I could make a better looking decoy than his models. Actually, I think I was wrong about that, but firm in that belief, I began to carve a decoy model. Eventually, I picked up some basics about making patterns for castings. It wasn’t long after that with some help from a friend we had our first cast aluminum decoy mold. The process was changed to boiling instead of the oven baking method, and we began making decoys for our own use. What a great feeling it was, every time to open that mold and turn out a nice decoy, I never tired of it.
DECOYS UNLIMITED, Box 69, Clinton, Iowa 52732 (former mailing address) From this beginning, a couple of friends and myself started a business, called it Decoys Unlimited, and began selling the expandable plastic, and aluminum decoy making molds. To begin with we actually cast the aluminum ourselves in our garage. In 1963 one of the partners moved away and the other tired of the deal, and I was on my own. I expanded the numbers of models, and for the next 30 plus years I sold Decoys Unlimited decoy making supplies to perhaps thousands of do it yourself decoy makers. Looking back, I would say that it was a great experience, meeting and talking to duck and goose hunters from all across North America. For many years there were few weekends, that our family did not have hunters from all around the mid west, in the garage picking up materials to make decoys. All of this laid the foundation for my eventual departure from the construction business with a shift to the Big Foot.
The family construction business, founded by my grandfather, had been the sole support of our family since 1926. During the Decoys Unlimited years I continued to work in the family business. I know my dad could never understand why I seemed to find more enjoyment in a part time, decoy business, than working at the Clinton Engineering Co. From my perspective, a construction project on a snowy winter morning could be a pretty depressing situation.
Earlier Times, The Goose Hunting Situation
In the 1940’s Canada goose populations were extremely low. I remember what a big event it was when my dad and his cousins killed 4 Canada’s out of a scull boat, on the river north of Clinton. In those days a successful Canada goose hunt was very big news in the hunting community. For many years to come a Canada goose would remain a rare and highly prized trophy.
During the 1960’s goose populations began expanding. At the same time, the limit on mallards was about as low as it could get. It seemed to make more sense that if we were going to spend time hunting, with so few ducks and such slim duck limits, we may as well be hunting geese. That change in hunting strategy motivated me to add a couple of goose decoy molds to the Decoys Unlimited line. We began making expandable foam goose decoys, and we started to hunt geese on “the pool.” It soon became clear, that others around the country must have been changing their hunting habits; we were selling as many or more goose decoy molds as we were mallard molds. By the mid 1970’s I made a casual and rather grim prediction to my hunting partner, “That we might see the day when it would be easier to kill a Canada goose in Clinton County than a drake mallard.” As yet we have not quite got to the point but sadly it seems we are getting closer.
At that time there were only a few decoy companies that made some sort of full body goose decoy. Canada goose hunting was still most intensive around the principal goose refuges in the USA, in the provinces of Canada, and around Chesapeake Bay. Eastern Iowa was never much good for hunting Canada’s, but it seemed obvious that nation wide goose populations were about to experience a dramatic increase.
The Irvin Faur Contribution, A Most Unforgettable Character
About 1958, the beginning of our Decoys Unlimited years, I was introduced to a legendary old river rat named Irvin Faur. Irvin was a colorful character from Princeton, Iowa, a small river town, downstream from Clinton. Irvin very successfully, fished commercially for catfish, buffalo, carp, etc. on the Mississippi. He trapped and hunted everything. To facilitate his winter fox hunting he built and flew his own aircraft. After meeting him, I discovered from others, when it was about catchin and killin, Irvin had few equals.
Twenty years later, well into his sixties Irvin began traveling to Wisconsin where he took up, “sport,” salmon fishing on Lake Michigan. He soon became well known for his raggedy looking equipment and his ability to catch big salmon. I always wondered if possibly, some of those “sport caught,” salmon may have ended up in Faur’s Fish Market back in Iowa
It was about this same time, that once the Iowa season closed, Irvin began going to the Swan Lake area in Missouri to goose hunt. He quickly gained a reputation as the old guy from Iowa that usually got his limit. Interestingly, Irvin never was much on a goose or duck call, which I guess may prove that you don’t have to be. Nor was he into the trinket display thing like having a rope of bird bands wrapped around his neck at all times. With him, all that mattered was results.
More On Irvin, Just A Few Very Good Decoys
In 1980, while hunting some tough late season geese near Chillicothe, Mo. we were lugging all manner of shells, silhouettes and other junk across the muddy fields and Irvin said, ”You know we would be better off with a smaller number real nice decoys to hunt with.” I have always felt that Irvin’s comment to me, that day, was instrumental in getting me started on the Big Foot project.
The Big Foot Situation
As always, my initial motivation in doing a decoy project was to make decoys to enhance my own hunting situation. The commercial aspects always seemed to come to the surface later on. Before any actual thought began on planning for a few very good decoys, it seemed the smart thing to do was to conduct a search for someone that was already making a real good looking decoy that we could purchase. Since we were not after a large number of decoys we were not all that concerned about the cost, provided we found something we liked. As it turned out there just wasn’t anything available for us to buy. It was at that point that my thoughts first turned to the possibilities of doing a commercially produced, plastic decoy that would meet our needs, and perhaps the needs of others. After all, if we were willing to pay a relatively high price for a number of decoys that would work for us, maybe other hunters would do the same.
Thankfully, I was forced to do my own thing, since there was not any existing product available to copy. The only reference opportunity was to find live birds, take lots of pictures, make patterns, and begin carving models. It was a fortunate situation in developing the Big Foot, because the eventual concept was the result of a lone goose hunter planning to enhance his personal hunting situation, and deciding what was needed in a decoy design to make an excellent hunting product. Contrast that with decoys that have been introduced since the Big Foot. No manufacturer has offered any significant improvement in decoy design, instead designers look to the Big Foot for ideas, and their main motivation has been to get a slice of the pie.
Big Foot, the decoy was first made available in 1984, it was priced slightly higher than some others, not outrageous, but not cheap. Right from the start there was little doubt that Big Foot offered the goose hunter everything he could desire in a hunting decoy. I never imagined that Big Foot would become so popular and continue to set the standard for full body decoys for thirty or more years. As it turned out, Big Foot was, and still is dollar for dollar your best buy.
Even with extra hard use, Big Foot is good for the long haul. It is possible that all the decoys sold in those first years are still in use today.
The Goose Outlook
Professional management can take much credit for the dramatic increase in the numbers of Canada geese available to hunt. Management must also take responsibility for maintaining wildness in the birds. One way or another food, water, and security must be provided in suitable areas, away from the cities, or a great game bird, the Canada goose, may end having the same nuisance status as the snow goose.