Roanoke man paring down decoy collection from hobby out of control

Burton Wygant, of Rural Roanoke, holds one of the prized decoys in his collection, a male mallard carved by Dark Feather Freeman. Wygant has reduced his collection down to about 250 decoys, all displayed throughout his home.
Burton Wygant, of Rural Roanoke, holds one of the prized decoys in his collection, a male mallard carved by Dark Feather Freeman. Wygant has reduced his collection down to about 250 decoys, all displayed throughout his home. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published Jan. 4, 2018.

Inside Burton Wygant’s lovely appointed home, which sits on the Wygant family homestead just outside Roanoke, is a collection which he began as a result of going on a few duck hunts.

Everywhere one looks there are duck and bird decoys – at least 250 of them, he estimates – of all sizes, colors, species and ages. The retired high school biology teacher has made a home for them, some more than 100 years old. It’s taken him more than 40 years to acquire his collection.
“When I first started teaching school I taught at a little school in Noble County, at Wolf Lake. There are a lot of lakes up there,” he explains. “All of them, in the spring and fall, would have ducks coming in, migration flights.”

The postmaster invited him to go duck hunting, which was a new experience for Wygant. He says he didn’t know what he was getting into.

“You find out that you get in your blind by 5 o’clock in the morning, which I wondered about that,” he says.

“I went with him several times, and I decided I’d buy a couple of decoys to sit on the fireplace mantle. From there, it went to a hobby, to a hobby that got out of control.”

Wygant’s collection is actually pared down to 250 of the mostly wooden birds, after he recently “downsized” and sold some and gave many of his decoys to his children and grandchildren. He plans to sell more of them, after learning in September that he has cancer.

The decoys are tastefully displayed and tucked into curio cabinets, on bookshelves, a desktop and even a rustic pedestal decoy stand that his old college roommate in Minnesota made for him. In his basement “man cave,” one wall is finished to look like the side of a log cabin, and wall-to-wall shelves show off the bulk of his collection.

There are mallards, wood ducks, redheads, blue bills, grebes and loons. Included in the group is a Canada goose, a papier mache owl and a crow, among other species. Wygant has quite a few canvasback duck decoys as well. Along the way, he’s picked up some interesting tidbits about the decoys, historical facts tied in with them as well as those who carved the pieces.

“The canvasbacks, back in the days of market hunting that was the premier duck, because it was the largest North American duck,” he says. “The immigrants that were coming across, they could get a quarter apiece for them, so the market hunters preferred those for the money.”

Among his favorite pieces are a couple of decoys carved by Jasper Dodge in the 1890s.

“Up in Michigan, at one time there were several factories there,” he says. “There was Mason, that made duck decoys, and they were very popular. Then there was Peterson, Jasper Dodge … they actually manufactured wooden decoys and sold them to these market hunters at the time. We’re going back over a hundred years.”

Some of the decoys were made on a lathe, while others, such as more modern decoys made by Michigan Native American Dark Feather Freeman, were masterfully hand-carved.

“He’s a brilliant carver. His decoys look like they could fly, they’re so realistic,” Wygant says. “I’ve also got decoys down below in my man cave that were carved by Ed Kelly, but he went with the name of ‘One-Arm Kelly,’ because he lost his arm in an industrial accident. He carved with one arm, which I think would be tremendously hard to hold and carve at the same time.”

Wygant has only tried to carve his own bird once – a venture that he found daunting. He opted instead to buy ones others have created, finding most of the decoys in antique stores. A store in Grabill provided a good start to his collection, he says. But he adds there aren’t many decoys in Indiana, because the state doesn’t have that many lakes and duck hunting isn’t as big as it is in a state with numerous lakes, such as Michigan.

Wygant has also never used any of his decoys to hunt with. Part of the reason is because the value of the decoy increases in proportion to the condition of the bird’s original paint. But the other reason is much more personal.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s interesting. It’s like anything else. You know, some people collect guns, some people collect Matchbox cars, whatever a person gets interested in. … For some reason I got interested in these decoys. To me, it’s amazing that a person can take a block of wood and come out with something like these. It’s amazing.”