KANKAKEE MARSH PINTAILS
The Magnificent Seven
By Gene & Linda Kangas
With Ron Gard

(Editor's note: Abbreviated information for the sources of quotations and special facts is given in parentheses immediately after the statements in which the quotations and/or facts appear. However, more detailed information about sources is provided in the "Acknowledgment Side Bar" that accompanies this article.)   

            In the early 1800s, the Grand Kankakee Marsh was recognized as the largest fresh water wetland in the Midwest, extending for approximately a million acres mostly through northwest Indiana (600,000 acres) and partially into Eastern Illinois. The fertile, ancient marshland provided a welcomed safe haven for migrating waterfowl. It was once a winding, thriving wetland providing lush habitats for a diverse menagerie of creatures from insects to fish, birds, and buffalo. Ducks that migrated through that area more recently are descendants of millions of transient waterfowl which once frequented the Grand Marsh. Until the mid-1800s it was home to Potawatomi natives who relied on its natural riches for their sustenance. “Kankakee” is based upon an old Bodewadmi/Potawatomi word roughly meaning “My mother's breast.” (Don Perrot) That whole area, including the wetlands, river, valleys, and marshlands, was considered "Mother's Breast" to early Native people who trekked those lands searching for food, shelter, and clothing.

            The initial influx of non-native settlers began homesteading lands surrounding the marsh in 1834. Shortly thereafter an 1850 Act of Congress gave title of the Kankakee Marsh wilderness to the State of Indiana. The next significant development was the construction of a permanent bridge crossing the Kankakee River at an important site which became known as Baum’s Bridge. Enos Baum purchased the property rights to a strategic location where several temporary bridges had once stood and operated a ferry and sawmill near there for several years before building his bridge (in 1863) which connected both sides of the river and marsh.

            As word quickly spread among the continent’s most affluent and influential sportsmen, extolling availability of extraordinary hunting, clubs began forming, with a number situated near Baum’s Bridge in northwestern Indiana. Some of the early hunt clubs and lodges that catered to a stream of wealthy visitors were: Camp Milligan – 1869; Cumberland Lodge – 1872; Valley Hunt Club/White House Hunt Club – 1878; Rockville, Terre Haute & Indianapolis Club (later became Donely Resort) – 1879; Diana Club – 1879; Fogli Hotel – 1879; Alpine Sport Club 1869/70; Louisville Club House – 1879; Pittsburgh Hunt Club – 1880s; White Oaks Shooting Club; and Grand Colliers Lodge - 1898. Five of those were built in convenient proximity to Baum’s Bridge.  “The Grand Marsh supported a local economy that was built around waterfowling and the fur trade.  With waterfowl in abundance, sportsmen came from all over the world to hunt.” (Earth-Sea)

            Some prominent notables who regularly visited Kankakee Marsh were Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Civil War General, Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur – 1880). In fact, the original name of the Valley Hunt Club was changed to the White House Hunt Club because of the frequent presidential visits by Grover Cleveland. The Studebaker Family of automobile fame, L.M. Wainwright of Diamond Chair Company, William Thompson of Louisville & Nashville Railroad, and William Short of Western Hide & Tanning Company were business “movers and shakers” (captains of industry) as well as principal owners of some of the clubs. A number of railroad executives were attracted to the marsh after branches of their lines reached the Kankakee area. They typically traveled in lush comfort in private Pullman cars stationed on side tracks for the duration of visits at their favorite hunting clubs.

            Local historian Richard C. Schmal’s 1991 article, "Hunting in the Kankakee Valley" (1869), vividly indicates why the hunt clubs flourished. He wrote that in October of 1869 a Mr. E.W. Irwin of Chautauqua, New York, traveled to Chicago and then continued to Grand Kankakee Marsh for anticipated fall sport shooting. In Chicago he sought the advice of gun store owner F.J. Abbey who took him to the great Chicago game market to learn about a potential hunting site. It was Abbey who recommended that Irwin contact Harrison Granger. Granger was already an old duck hunter and trapper who lived on the edge of the marsh southwest of Hebron, Indiana. Abbey said, “You go to Hebron on the Pan Handle Railroad, about 60 miles from here. There is the greatest duck and goose shooting I know of.” (Schmal - KVHS)

            The following is Irwin’s vivid account of the first day of shooting with Granger. "Next morning we started on a job of clearing a trail to a marsh. When we entered the marsh a wild scene met our eyes. A northeast gale was blowing, whipping the tree tops which surrounded an open marsh perhaps three-fourths of a mile across. Ducks and geese were constantly pouring in from all sides.

            “Mr. Granger put me on the first muskrat house he came to. He had not proceeded more than 75 yards before a large flock of brant came pouring over the tree tops directly in front of him. He gave them both barrels and I saw seven of them fall. That opened the ball and a million ducks and geese rose in the air and began to circle round the marsh thirty or forty feet high. A bunch of Canada geese came directly over me. I shot at the leader and killed him. I aimed at another when I saw the dead one falling directly toward my head. By quick work I managed to dodge him so I kept from being knocked off the rat house. In an hour's time we had three boats loaded with geese and headed back to camp.” (Schmal - KVHS)

          In circa 1935 Dr. Frank E. Ling, a lifelong resident of Kankakee Marsh, described accounts of duck hunting a half century earlier (circa 1885) as related to him by his elders. In the essay, "The Kankakee in the Old Days," he wrote, “During the migration season ducks, geese, brant and cranes were on the Kankakee area by the thousands and there were all varieties, from canvasbacks to fish ducks. Canada geese fed on the prairie in the wheat and cornfields and rested on the marsh by the thousands. The tales some of the old timers tell are almost unbeliev­able. Sandhill cranes were plentiful but not nearly as numerous as geese. Many swans were seen on the marshes. Later in the season hun­dreds of herons, blue and white, nested here. The largest town, the one we called ‘lower crane town,’ was estimated to have 1,000 cranes; and, believe me, there was some music when the young were in the nests! Thousands of jack snipe, sand snipe, plover and other shore birds lined the marsh shores and upland ponds.

          “The Kankakee was one of the greatest wood duck nesting grounds in the U. S. A. Hundreds of pairs nested yearly in its hollow trees and stumps along the river, bayous and ponds. In August when the young were able to fly, they began to congregate in certain roosting places. For about two hours before dark in certain areas that had lots of old logs, floating flag roots and pucker brush, the air was full of wood ducks, from singles to flocks of fifty coming to roost. It was not un­common to see 500 wood ducks in the air at one time, in these areas. They fed all over the swamp and sloughs, mostly on acorns, but they roost­ed in certain suitable areas as soon as the young were able to fly well. It was the rule rather than the exception for father to kill two ducks at one shot on the wing when coming in to decoys. He said that a pair or more of ducks very seldom came in to decoys without two of them crossing within gun range.” (Ling - KVHS)

            The incredible abundance of waterfowl and other wild game offered savvy nineteenth century market gunners a profitable opportunity. They could efficiently transport their fresh harvest to Chicago which was, luckily, not too far away. Nearby North Judson, Indiana was a vital railroad hub where several lines intersected (1896 – Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis R.R.; Indiana, Illinois & Iowa R.R.; and the Chicago & Erie R.R.). “There are many accounts on record of the great bounty harvested from the Marsh, with stories about barrels of frog legs and railroad cars of wild game destined for the Chicago markets.” (Earth-Sea) North Judson became a focal point of commerce for local entrepreneurs. And, that is where approximately three quarters of the twenty-one known decoys by the maker of the Kankakee Marsh pintails were discovered and given to young Scott Schillig.

            In 1967 when Scott Schillig was nine years old his dad took him to help his friend, Raymond Arnold Trinosky (1901-1977), clean out his parents’ house in the town of North Judson. Ray’s German-heritage father, Herman R. Trinosky (1874-1956) a retired railroad maintenance worker, had passed away about ten years earlier. Scott related his childhood memory of helping sort out the house where he heard that Ray’s father “had accumulated quite a number of things.”  Scott said, “In a corner of the basement near the coal chute Ray pulled out a ratty burlap sack from the coal bin.  He looked inside and saw that it held his father’s decoys.  Ray didn’t hunt; and he asked my dad if it was O.K. to give them to me, if I wanted them?  Dad agreed, and I looked into that dirty, dusty, torn burlap sack as if I was looking at a new found treasure.

            “When we got back home, I took the decoys out, washed them off and played with them for a bit. And at the end of the day, I put them back in the burlap sack, storing them in the rafters of the garage. I really didn’t think about them until I was packing my belongings to move to Oceanside, California, roughly twenty years later. After moving three different times in the ten years I lived in Oceanside, I moved back to the Midwest to be closer to my family and my grandmother, who was in her late 90s.  The decoys, by this time in their third burlap sack, were stored in the hayloft of an old barn on the 1890s Indiana farmstead I now own. As I rummaged around in the barn a couple of years ago, I came across the sack with the decoys.  In the bag were two pair of pintails, two drake mallards, one hen mallard, and nine bluebills. I thought a few might look good in my living room and put a pair of pintails on my mantle.

            “Also about that time, I tried to find out who made them, where they were made, and how old they were.  In January 2007 I heard about two additional pintail hens that were auctioned at Christie’s [New York] consigned by a Minnesota antique dealer (roughly 600 miles from Indiana). My interest was sparked even more.  Shortly thereafter, I consigned [for auction] one of my pair of pintails to Sotheby's [New York]; and they sold in January 2008.  I sold my last pair of pintails and a pair of bluebills privately. In November, 2008 Guyette and Schmidt auctioned one drake pintail and two drake mallards from an estate sale on the Illinois side of the Kankakee Marsh, roughly fifty miles from where I originally got mine. That makes twenty-one.”  (Scott Schillig)

            The authors saw photos of a grouping of the Indiana pintails, mallards, and bluebills in 2006. The first time we actually encountered two of the hen pintails in person was at the January 2007 Christie’s/Guyette&Schmidt sale. Our initial impression was that they were "delicate and extreme."  The general consensus voiced at the auction agreed that they were unique and quite special. It was the twenty-first century and they were a noteworthy “new discovery.” This was their New York premiere, and opinions were being formed.  Following the sale of the superb pair at Sotheby’s in January 2008, more collectors have had the opportunity to study and appreciate their uniqueness.

  

Impressions of the Kankakee Marsh Pintails
           
            “The part that I think is so interesting is that two-and-a-half years ago none of us [in the decoy field] knew that these existed.” (Gary Guyette)
           
            “One of the most exciting and rewarding things about working in the decoy auction business is being able to experience firsthand those occasional and wonderful carvings that seem to surface completely out of the blue.  Such was the case with the now well-known high head-pintails which originated near the Kankakee Marsh.  These carvings represent the very spirit of the American bird decoy and how the ingenuity and craftsmanship of such early carvers established the bird decoy as a centerpiece of American folk art.” (Frank Schmidt)
           
            "The Kankakee Marsh pintails are among the most sculpturally distinctive decoys ever found. Their long thin profiles and high heads somehow manage to balance on the brink of over-exaggeration and yet capture the essence of the species." (Bob Shaw)
           
            “These high-neck pintail decoys are the best in American folk carving – they have all of the finest qualities of the greatest folk sculpture – beautiful, somewhat abstract form, wonderful surface and patina, and a remarkable sense of elegance and mystery.” (Nancy Druckman)

             “Ironically, the recession/depression provided a golden opportunity to buy a great decoy. To me the best part of the bird is the head and bill, which I can't stop looking at. The man who carved these birds had a great sense of proportion and what pintails actually look like in nature and on the water.” (Henri Wedell)

            “The pintails are very folky birds with strong sculptural lines that appeal to my cross-over interest in folk art. Their discovery represents one of the few great decoy finds of the last decade. It is difficult to imagine that decoys of such quality were not attributed to a 'known' artist sooner, with all the efforts to document decoy history. Their extremely thin necks make it amazing that they survived all of these years.” (Jim Wierzba)

            “I do love these decoys. With their long protruding bills, delicate thin necks, and extended tails, they would have certainly been prone to breakage in a duck boat. However, it is precisely for these design characteristics that their true rarity becomes even more apparent. Their discovery unveiled to the decoy and folk art communities a completely new form, and their recognition as great objects within these fields will surely grow.” (Stephen O'Brien, Jr.)  

            “The maker of the pintails was certainly a superb artist and craftsman.  The form is delicate, yet sturdy, as amazingly none of the seven have broken bills or tails. The warm, alligatored surface is unsurpassed, with the untouched, original paint now enhanced by many decades of aging.”  (Ron Gard)

Who made the Kankakee Marsh Pintails?

            Answering that question requires putting pieces of a new puzzle together one clue at a time. Once a sufficient number fit into place, the picture became clearer. We now conclude that Herman R. Trinosky was their creator.  Herman owned the majority of the twenty-one known decoys; and, he lived in the midst of the most dynamic era of market gunning on the Kankakee Marsh. His first home was in nearby Wanatah; and he later moved to North Judson, Indiana, a busy railroad junction.

            Railroad maintenance, Herman’s long-time occupation, required diverse skills and provided access to tools and workshops.  For example, a lengthy and thin drill bit in excess of five inches and a drill press were necessary to make the dowel rod holes that extend the length of each slim fragile neck.  Corresponding holes were drilled down into the chest.  Off-centered dowels in the necks indicate that holes were drilled into rough blanks prior to carving. Dowels proved so secure that no fastening nails were employed to attach heads to the bodies (see x-ray).  Herman’s occupation required him to constantly “fix” things. He knew that precautionary construction techniques helped reduce breakage and repair. Long dowels in the pintails’ necks performed that task admirably.

            Inside the pintails, two four-inch slot-headed screws run internally from right to left securing their solid bodies against major wood checks.  Recessed screw heads were puttied with white lead and painted over. The supportive joinery was “preventive maintenance.” To the authors, the use of reinforcing dowels and screws is a significant factor in attributing the decoys to Herman Trinosky; so also are the pintails’ atypical “swing weights” which are a distinctive, innovative feature. A summation of the decoys’ physical characteristics and historical circumstances logically leads us to that conclusion.

            If  Trinosky is proved not to be the maker, then he could have received the decoys from one of many local market gunners for various reasons; or, he might have gotten them from a generous visiting sport for services provided or to hold in storage for future use. Herman was a collector of items of personal interest. Schillig’s observation that Ray’s father “had accumulated quite a number of things” suggests that possibility.

            A combination of factors helps estimate the pintails’ conception date between circa 1895 and 1900. [1] It was a period of prolific market gunning. [2] It corresponds to Trinosky’s age when he was a young adult. [3] It was prior to drainage of the Kankakee Marsh, which began in the following decade. [4] Mallards by the same maker reflect influences from either Dodge St. Clair Flats Models or subsequent Phase II Back Yard Mason Premieres.  [5] Dr. Frank Ling mentions the presence of decoys on the marsh by circa 1885.  [6] “Slot-headed wood screws were the most universally popular screw before the 1930s (when Phillips head screws were invented) and had been popular (in various forms) since the late 1700s.” (Chris Baylor)

            The decoys’ nonconforming swing weights yield noteworthy and intriguing evidence. That type of foldable weighting system is virtually unknown in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan; yet, it was common hardware on decoys originating in Ontario from Hamilton Bay east to Gananoque. Popular Canadian adaptation (probably at a date later than 1900) likely spread via the railroad, which ran along the north shore of Lake Ontario to the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence. It is very remotely possible that a respected sportsman similarly introduced the methodology to at least one Indiana maker.

            However, hinged/hanging weights only appeared there on the seven known high-necked pintails. The mallards and bluebills feature more conventional lead ballast. Since the pintails’ extra-tall erect necks presented a naturalistic floatation/balance conundrum, the configuration of a custom engineered swing weight might have been an on-the-spot innovation to significantly lower the center of gravity, much like a sailboat keel. Stylistically, those weights differ from other known North American examples. Perhaps their unique “v” shaped wire and cylindrical lead form resulted from an act of spontaneous, independent ingenuity. The practical challenge that faced Herman Trinosky could have inspired him to invent a new weighting design.

            Each decoy was hand sculpted. A pattern may have provided the basic profile, but it did not deter the introduction of subtle variations. Heads and bodies fluctuate somewhat in attitude and size from bird to bird. For example, the four hen pintails vary between seventeen and seventeen and one-half inches long and between nine and nine and one-half inches tall from the base to the top of the head. Their body widths range from four and three-quarters to five and one-eighth inches. The drakes are larger as might be expected. They measure approximately twenty inches long and have slightly taller necks. Necks, at their narrowest, are only five-eighths of an inch across!

            Over the years a proliferation of devastating floods and powerful tornados swept through northwestern Indiana. Added to those destructive events, the systematic drainage of the marsh, circa 1901-1915, contributed to the eventual demise of this phenomenal waterfowl habitat. A glorious national treasure was lost. Subsequently, history was erased and artifacts disappeared. Things change. “Where the duck hunters once anchored their boats, the fine old hunting paradise has been replaced with fields of corn and wheat, as well as a sod farm.” (Schmal - KVHS)  Fortunately, Herman R. Trinosky’s magnificent seven high-necked pintails survived.

(Editor's note: Gene and Linda Kangas may be contacted by email at: Kangas@CreeksideArtGallery.com)

Acknowledgement Side Bar

            Discovering information on this historic marsh and its wonderful decoys has been a most rewarding group effort. The authors sincerely thank all of those individuals who helped in one way or another. Ronald J. Gard, Sotheby’s New York Senior Consulting Folk Art Specialist, has followed these decoys with great interest since they first appeared at Christie’s in 2007. Ron gathered information and contacted key people to document an emerging history.
            Especially helpful in that regard was John P. Hodson, Director of the Kankakee Valley Historical Society (http://www.kankakeevalleyhistoricalsociety.org). The museum website has a volume of great information on the Indiana marsh posted up online. That is where complete articles by Richard C. Schmal and Dr. Frank E. Ling are available for further reading.
            Marc Buhrmester, Greg Jancosek, and Tom Kepshire provided vintage photographs. Darlene Rigg, Reference Librarian at the Lowell, Indiana Public Library assisted in researching regional hunt clubs.
            Scott Schillig provided an important narrative of the decoys’ discovery and helped locate other relevant material. Jeff Moore (http://jeffmooreimages.com) graciously loaned professional decoy photographs as did Sotheby’s and Guyette & Schmidt. Donald Perrot, Chairman and founder of NICS – Neshnabé Institute for Cultural Studies (http://www.neaseno.org) translated the Native meaning for “Kankakee.” Earth-Sea.com listed an article on the Kankakee Marsh.

            The following individuals provided either analytical thoughts and/or comments: Chris Baylor - Guide to Woodworking  (woodworking.about.com); Nancy Druckman of Sotheby’s New York, Senior Vice President & Director of American Folk Art; Bernie Gates, co-author of Nichol Decoys; Gary Guyette and Frank Schmidt of Guyette & Schmidt; Steven O’Brien, Jr. of Copley Fine Art Auctions; Bob Shaw, author and former curator at the Shelburne Museum; Ron Sharp, co-author of the new Detroit Decoy Dynasty; and collectors Henri Wedell and Jim Wierzba.

 

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