Howard Harlan lives on the outskirts Nashville, where he grew up duck hunting and has been a hunting memorabilia collector for as long as can be remembered.  At one time, his duck call collection was world’s largest and depicted in his book, “The Legacy of the American Duck Call.”  In discussing American duck call origins, he describes where and why the duck call was likely invented, how and why it evolved, favorite call makers, how he got started and why he sold his collection. Plenty of great stories along the way to include–surprise– a few about his famous Music City neighbors! Y’all are going to love this one!

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The Legacy of Handmade Duck Calls

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, where I’m sitting just outside of Music City, Nashville, Tennessee and man has this place changed since the last time I was here. Somebody said, welcome to Nash Vegas and I wondered what they meant until I got downtown last night. But I drove a very short distance, I mean, just outside of downtown to meet today’s guest. Now look, I’m going to read the cover of the book, over two years in the making, this book was a labor of love, the writing team of Harlan and Fleming combines over 60 years experience in call collecting and researching game call history. The book represents the most complete work of its kind and detailing the history of American duck call and the men who made them. Today’s guest is Mr. Howard Harlan, author of the absolute definitive book entitled The Legacy of the American Duck Call. Mr. Harlan, how are you, sir?

Howard Harlan: Buddy, I’m doing great. I’ll be 81 my birthday and nothing has meant more to me than to be able to contribute history that would soon be lost and some of it’s already lost about the makers throughout America that were making handmade decoys and duck calls.

Ramsey Russell: It’s a very interesting history.

Howard Harlan: Yes, sir, it is. And it’s important that we don’t lose it. And that’s the thing that James Fleming and I wanted to capture, is that there was antique calls out there that gone around the creeks and valleys of Tennessee, Arkansas, Illinois and all the other states that have contributed to making handmade duck calls. And I happen to be fortunate enough to recognize the meaning of that and to try to capture the history on the American duck call, as I always have done about turkey calls, too. And I passed up a lot of turkey calls when I was looking for duck calls, because it wasn’t important to me, because turkey hunting really hadn’t even started in Tennessee until Tom Turpin, who was one of the most famous duck call makers in the nation. And he made a metal reed call and then other people that made duck calls that had an impression on the country and killed more ducks than any other call maker ever. And that’s the Olt duck call, the hard plastic duck call and the hard plastic reed. But I think that even though they probably sold more duck calls than anyone in America, the metal reed call has his place in history, too.

Ramsey Russell: I think it does. I’m going to back off just a little bit. I want to introduce you personally to the listeners. We’ve had a great visit for the last little bit, I’ve been here. Were you born and raised here outside of Nashville?

Howard Harlan: Yeah, I was born in Columbia, Tennessee. And what got me into being interested in duck hunting was Monsanto Chemical Company property was next to my mother and dad’s property and we had 600 acres down there and we were famous in that area for raising mules. And during World War I, Tennessee was recognized as one of the major contributors to army mules.

Ramsey Russell: I did not know that.

Howard Harlan: And so my father raised with Belgian mares and jacks a very large group of mules that played a big part in hauling the ammunition and everything else. Missouri was probably the leading state, but Columbia followed close behind them.

Ramsey Russell: Do you remember your first duck hunt? Had there been so many duck hunts you forgot?

Howard Harlan: Yeah, I probably remember. There were potholes all over the Monsanto Community where we were next to and those potholes were dug for phosphate, so that’s what they were getting out of that plant was phosphate. And I would climb up to the edge of the pothole and shoot my ducks while they were sitting. I know that’s not good etiquette to do that, but that’s the way I got my ducks and brought them home.

Ramsey Russell: You say that and I agree that it’s not accepted etiquette to shoot a sitting duck, but number one, you don’t have to lead them as far.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And I never will forget one time Mr. Harlan hunting with a man, he was 90, some odd years old from Mississippi and somehow or other he and I shared a duck boat together one day and man, the duck were flying left and right and he was shooting old single shot Sears and Roebuck shotgun. And I said, you better chime on in, we’re getting close to a limit. And he said, son, I hadn’t shot a flying duck in 50 years and I’m not going to start this morning, but half those ducks we shoot are mine. So times change and stuff like that. Some of the species we hunt around the world, Mr. Harlan, they don’t play by mallard rules, you’re going to shoot them sitting on the water, you ain’t going to shoot them at all. What was duck hunting like? Because when you said you grew up duck hunting in Tennessee and we were visiting, I was thinking maybe you were going out west towards Real Foot Lake or along the Mississippi River. But that’s central Tennessee you were hunting.

Howard Harlan: Yeah, it was. And the flyway has changed big time. But what more than anything has changed is the weather. And so when the ducks are not cold, they won’t fly south, they’ll stay right in the state that they are. And this is probably ranks up in the top for we didn’t have a good season at all and this is the first season that I’ve ever had in my life that I didn’t even go duck hunting, that’s how bad it is. And it’s not going to get better until the weather changes. Now, how long is that going to take? Who knows? But I doubt that duck season is going to draw the hunters next year because we had such a terrible season this year and so it’s changed and everything else has changed. We’ve got a lot going on that’s, I think because of the amount of people coming into the country and the amount of people that don’t want to go to work anymore, they’re going to sit at home and take their government check and maybe that’s what the government wants us to do, I don’t know. But anyway, I don’t like it, there’s damn nothing I can do about it.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right, but go duck hunting. That’s my philosophy. So you started off as a little boy jump shooting phosphate ponds.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: How old were you before you started decoys and duck calls and where were you doing that? How did that evolution?

Arkansas Artistry: Locally-Made Duck Calls

And I drove down there and I bought 16 of them and I had my driver’s license permit and that’s where I started getting serious about collecting duck calls.

Howard Harlan: Well, when I was duck hunting down there next to my farm, I was about 10 years old and my father brought me a single shot, 410 and that’s what I started off with. But when I became in my early 20s, I started hunting seriously and I traveled mostly around middle Tennessee on the rivers that we have here, the Cumberland River, Old Hickory, I spent a lot of time on that lake and that was a controlled area by the state of Tennessee. And then I moved to Stuttgart, 16 years old, I drove, I didn’t move, I drove to Stuttgart and I bought a call made in the central part of Arkansas.

Ramsey Russell: Who made that call?

Howard Harlan: Well, it was done by Hambone.

Ramsey Russell: I know those name.

Howard Harlan: Yeah, Hambone call. And I drove down there and I bought 16 of them and I had my driver’s license permit and that’s where I started getting serious about collecting duck calls.

Ramsey Russell: Did you know how to blow a duck call at the time?

Howard Harlan: Yes, I did. And I patterned my call, which has won over 200 different contests throughout the nation, after the Hambone call. Howard Amaden was the maker of that call.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Howard Harlan: And so that’s what got me started collecting duck calls. And I ended up being the largest collector of duck calls. I don’t know what that does for the interest to your show, but I was impressed with it.

Ramsey Russell: Well, how many calls did you have at one time, would you guess?

Howard Harlan: Maybe 3000.

Ramsey Russell: Wow.

Howard Harlan: Now, I didn’t have 3000 of the fancy calls that you’re showing in this book. But I had that many calls and I started collecting. Anything that had anything to do with duck hunting, boats, motors and everybody’s call that I could end up buying, when I would go to the shows. And I would take my calls to the shows that me and my wife would go to and I would sell them up and down the aisles with the people that were there. So that’s what really got me off into – if I had spent the amount of time in my truck leasing business, which I still run and involved in with my son and concentrated on the truck business, I would be on my boat in Miami right now rather than being here in Nashville, Tennessee.

A History of the First Duck Calls

 Grubbs was the metal reed maker that was most well-known during that time and they claimed to be the first duck call. 

Ramsey Russell: I was in Peoria, Illinois, this year, fascinating history, decoys ducks, I’m sure you spent some time up there and someone suggested that maybe the duck call as we know it today was invented in that river bottom, probably by a commercial hunter, somebody suggested it might have been a couple of brothers that invented it. What do you know about the actual history of the duck call, as we all think the duck call today?

Howard Harlan: Grubbs was the metal reed maker that was most well-known during that time and they claimed to be the first duck call. Whether they were or not, I’ve never been able to determine.

Ramsey Russell: And you think they’re from Chicago?

Howard Harlan: They’re from Chicago.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Howard Harlan: From another company, P.S Olt.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, yeah.

Howard Harlan: Was in my opinion, sold more duck calls than Olt did. I could be wrong on that, but nobody’s going to be able to look at the economics of it and see who was. But they were more into the metal reed call and they sold them through via –

Ramsey Russell: Grubbs was metal reed, you’re saying that Olt also made a metal reed?

Howard Harlan: No.

Ramsey Russell: Okay. They made the rubber reed.

Howard Harlan: They made a hard rubber reed. And they had a lot of problems during the World War I because hard rubber was hard to come by and it cut their sales, I’m sure, quite a bit. And then Grubb was a metal reed call, which is like the calls that were made on Real Foot Lake. But I would have to say that Olt killed more mallards than anybody. It was a very inexpensive call $0.10, it was hard rubber and it still blows fabulously.

Ramsey Russell: I know people that still blow that call today. And they cut it down and it’s got to be just right, they won’t blow nothing else.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: What do you know about the – put me on a timeline. Like, when would Grubbs have invented what may have been the first incarnation of a modern duck call? And when did Olt come along?

Howard Harlan: They were right together. And they were probably the leading call sales of that era. World War I, Grubbs made calls we can verify prior to 1900, they were metal reeds. And that Illinois River area that you were just talking about, there was a lot of duck hunters there, all the way down the Mississippi River.

Ramsey Russell: Unbelievable.

Howard Harlan: And they would kill those ducks, the professional duck hunters would kill those ducks and pack them in ice, in big 50 gallon barrels and send them to Memphis, send them to St. Louis, Kansas City, New York, by rail packed. Now, whether they were picked, I think they were already picked, it was just the meat part of it being shipped to the restaurants. And many times I had a menu from St. Louis, from a famous restaurant over there and they were advertising a pair of canvasback and the price on the menu was $5.

Ramsey Russell: That’s a lot of money back in the 1800.

Howard Harlan: Now, you think about that and I tried to include that and I may have said something in my book there about it, I don’t know, I can’t remember now. But anyway, it was interesting that it was a food source that most people and a pair of canvasbacks buddy cooked right, is delicious. I bet a steak was half that price. But the commercial hunters, buddy, recognized that and they had a big impact on what ended up being, they had to do away with the commercial hunters because they were killing too many because it was big money to them.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, it was a full blown industry.

Howard Harlan: From the railroads that hauled all these sports down from Chicago and Kansas City and all with their fancy duck calls that were checkered, well, they got that from the shotguns that they were buying, but they were checkered and so why not checker a duck call? And that is what spurned the people’s interest in something that looked classy rather than an old call, which was a great piece of interest and music for the ducks. Most of those sports that would buy those big fancy beckharts and those big fancy Tom Turpins, all of that, they were more interested in the recognition that they would get on that lanyard around their neck.

Ramsey Russell: It was prestigious because they were sports. Because when you talk about that era, there was an overlap. Like back in the 1800s when Grubbs and those boys were making those calls to go out and kill ducks to feed the market, it was an industry, it was a business, it was market hunters, outgoes market hunting incomes, the era of the sport hunting.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And that’s a big distinction, I bet, we saw guns and calls and decoys and everything begin to evolve.

Howard Harlan: Oh, sure.

Ramsey Russell: When you started looking in your collection, I’m sure you had some of those Grubbs calls, did you see that they were just plain and nondescript, just like a hammer?

Howard Harlan: Yeah, sure. But they played such an important part of the hunter’s handiwork that when I was looking for duck calls, I passed up lots of turkey calls because Tennessee didn’t have any turkey hunting back then much, except for what Tom Turpin was able to do on the Mississippi River out of Memphis, that’s where he was from. And he contributed a tremendous amount to the turkey hunting business, but we’re not talking about –

The Duckiest Sounding Calls

And it is as ducky sounding a call as I’ve ever heard.

Ramsey Russell: It’s interesting, we talk about the metal reed call. My earliest memory, introduction to a duck call proper, I was a knee high and my grandfather had owned two duck calls and one was a Earl Denison.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And wasn’t a fancy call and I’ve still got that call. And to get it to make a noise, I understand I need to soak that call in water, I won’t do it, so it makes zero sound, because I’m not going to drop it in a tub of water, although I might one day. And then he had a cane call out of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Now, to that day, that’s as duckiest sounding call that I’ve ever heard and it still got the little nylon string he carried it on, I won’t carry the woods for fear I’m going to lose it or break it.

Howard Harlan: You got it now?

Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir.

Howard Harlan: Okay. And it is a duck call?

Ramsey Russell: Oh, it’s a duck call.

Howard Harlan: And it’s made out of cane?

Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir. What’s the company out of Lake Charles that’s been around forever, they’re still around.

Howard Harlan: Pascagoula?

Ramsey Russell: No, sir. I can’t believe I can’t remember these boys names, we’ve interviewed them before.

Howard Harlan: I know who you’re talking about.

Ramsey Russell: The guy that’s been working there for 50 years is still turning those calls and it’s just a commercial made cane call. And it is as ducky sounding a call as I’ve ever heard. I do have a metal reed they gave me, but my grandfather’s call was not metal reed. Earl Denison was metal reed. And I can remember way back when hunting on Real Foot Lake and a lot of the guides there back in the 90s and 80s would blow metal reed calls highball. And then when the duck started getting close, they start anking them.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: Calling them with their mouth.

Howard Harlan: I know.

Ramsey Russell: Exactly. And it worked. I imagine that’s probably how a lot of the historic hunters called before there was such thing as a duck call, they just called them with their mouths.

Howard Harlan: That’s right. That area down there in Louisiana is a great stopping place, that’s where the ducks used to stop. Of course, they would go from there also over to Pecan Island and hunt all that stuff in there. But the duck call made all the difference in the world to the hunting community around the turn of the century.

Ramsey Russell: Our mutual friend Dr. Capooth has said, like in the Deep South, which was heavily wooded, that the decoys, which we all think of decoys as being a venerable to duck hunting, were very unimportant because they were hunting in the timber, they needed the sound, they could always hit the water.

Howard Harlan: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: So actually the duck call is more important.

From Humble Beginnings: The Importance of the Duck Call

And they’re taking an old call which nobody would ever suspect and they’re changing a couple of the angles on that call that makes a difference in the sound and have been very successful.

Howard Harlan: We have hunted down there before, like Wayne is talking about where the ducks couldn’t see us because we were standing in the swamp next to a tree and the ducks would land on us because the decoys were down there. Once they got through the trees and you could reach down and I’ve seen it happen before and grab that mallard by the throat with your hands and wring his neck. Didn’t have to shoot.

Ramsey Russell: If Mr. Grubbs invented what presumed to be the first duck call and it had a metal reed, Olt came along around the same time with a different material for the reed, why do you think they came up with different material?

Howard Harlan: It was stable. Grubbs call was made out of wood and it was not stable because wood swells.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Howard Harlan: And as soon as that wood swells in the reed department, you’re history. That’s the reason Olt came in and it was so successful with their call because it was hard rubber and hard rubber does not swell, nor does the reed swell.

Ramsey Russell: I’m thinking about the metal reed and then they came out with a plastic or rubber reed.

Howard Harlan: No, never came out with plastic, rubber read.

Ramsey Russell: I wonder what they were trying to accomplish with the difference in the reed. Because it sounds duckier.

Howard Harlan: It just sounds so much better. And I’ve got down here in my room collection of Olt calls. And being a duck hunter, that there’s a lot of people that have been very successful in altering and cutting off the reed calls and they’re still the main heavy duty people are adhering to that. And they’re taking an old call which nobody would ever suspect and they’re changing a couple of the angles on that call that makes a difference in the sound and have been very successful. And I’ve seen them bring $300 apiece for a good one.

Ramsey Russell: A lot of the duck hunters around Greenville, Mississippi, when I was a little boy in the 70s that grew up, 60s and 70s, they all blew double reeds Jensens.

Howard Harlan: Oh, I did, too.

Ramsey Russell: And was Mr. Grubbs and Olt, they’re single reed.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: So the single reed was first?

Howard Harlan: They’re not all single reeds, there were some double reed calls made.

Ramsey Russell: There were.

Howard Harlan: Yeah. But the Jensen call, the double reed Jensen call has been one of the most successful calls ever made to the mallards. And you can take a double reed Jensen and I still have mine, my first one that I use because it was so successful. And if you could build up enough wind to be able to get it right, you’d take a single reed call and throw it away. Because that double reed is going to kill that duck and he’s going to come to that double reed quicker than he will that single reed.

Ramsey Russell: It just occurred to me that because I can remember way back when, I think back in the 70s there was a calling competition on the Banks of Lake Ferguson and one of my neighbors, a forester from Greenville, Mississippi, blew a Jensen, put a little piece of tinfoil down in between those double reed, give it that high end buzz as he showed us kids one day and along came Mr. Butch Richenbach blowing a chick majors and beating him. We all thought he was going to be, our neighbor is going to be the world champion. Mr. Richenbach beat him and he was blowing a single reed. And that kind of, to me, ushered in, in my lifetime, the single read era. But really and truly, the duck call itself started as a single reed.

Howard Harlan: That’s right. Now, there were metal reed calls that were double reeds and they would take and put a punch in the end of that reed, right on the end, they’d put a punch and that punch would keep the reed below it from locking up to where you can slobber and would lock them up. But there was so many different variations of reeds and so forth in the American duck call that it’s hard to know where to stop and where to go.

Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir. One interesting thing I’ve always noticed is, you go to Illinois, for example, we’re the mallards king, Arkansas the mallard king, you jump around the United States. When I think of Chesapeake Bay, I think of canvasback, we’re talking about parts of Utah, they do have mallards, but they got a lot of other teal and pintail and other ducks out on the West Coast. And we’re going to get into this a little bit, I’m leading up to it in your book as you run around the United States collecting duck calls, mallard calls, mallards drive the whole duck hunting world, it was all about the mallard call. Now today, you see my buddy Joe Briscoe makes a gadwall call, I see teal calls, I see some really nice pintail calls, but at the end of the day, mallards, that’s what it’s about. It’s about a mallard duck call.

Howard Harlan: That’s right. And it’s always going to be about that. Now, if we don’t get some weather change and get cold back in Tennessee, Arkansas, all those other states that have got swamp and areas that the mallard comes to because of the acorns, if we don’t get some cold weather here, there’s not going to be many stamps sold, that’s the only interest the government’s got is selling stamps.

Ramsey Russell: As somebody travels a lot around the world, I’m proud to be from the United States of America because we have federal agencies, we have state agencies, we have universities, have a lot of dedicated professionals committing their lives and careers to management of waterfowl and their habitats. But the problem is, as good as they all may be, they’re not God, we can’t change the weather. That’s the most frustrating part.

Howard Harlan: That’s where it’s at. Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: And those old greenheads we love so much just aren’t going to come for long if we don’t get a hard –

Howard Harlan: If you look at the history of the weather in our America, you’re going to see ups and downs. Just take the last 500 years, this is not the first time the weather has gotten hot mid-range America. And so it has nothing to do, I don’t think, we didn’t have cars 500 years ago polluting the air, we didn’t have trucks.

Ramsey Russell: We didn’t have as much agriculture disking up the soils and releasing carbon.

Howard Harlan: Absolutely not. So till that changes, the duck seasons are going to be few and far behind.

Ramsey Russell: But I see, too, a change versus, let’s say, the guys going back in the 1800s, early 1900s feeding a commercial market with meat. I think a lot of American duck hunters have changed also where we just want to go out and call them and interact with them and have this relationship, we want to set our decoys and go to wilder places and use our calls and use the tools of the trade and outwit wild ducks. And none of us need to kill thousands anymore and I see that changing, too. I’d love to come out to a duck blind with you and if we come out with a pair of mallards apiece, I’d be as happy as I could be and I’ll take a gadwall or ringneck in a heartbeat.

Howard Harlan: Oh, in a minute.

Evolution of Duck Calls

The big changes in duck calls has been we got away from wood and we started machinists making moulds that they could pour acrylics and inject acrylics. 

Ramsey Russell: When you were building your collection and doing your research on duck calls like you did, what changes did you see, let’s say between Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Illinois and other parts of the United States in terms of materials or the call itself? Were there a lot of regional changes?

Howard Harlan: The big changes in duck calls has been we got away from wood and we started machinists making moulds that they could pour acrylics and inject acrylics. And today when you go to Bass Pro Shop, Cabela’s or any sporting goods store that sells duck calls, you’re not going to see, probably the bottom 10% of calls sold in those stores are going to be wood. So if you’re dealing with wood, you’re going to be dealing with shrinkage and swelling and that doesn’t happen with the acrylics. So they’re more reliable, even though I think the finest wood that’s ever come along the road for ducks, duck calls is cocobolo. But the cocobolo has got some drawbacks, it will swell, but it is full of oil and it doesn’t react to weather change conditions to where your call is locking up like the plastic calls. And so the plastic call market has surpassed and it’s greater than the acrylics and the acrylics don’t lock up and have all the problems that the wooden calls have. But I still prefer cocobolo.

Ramsey Russell: I like cocobolo, but I also like – a lot of my favorite calls are bodok, I just love them.

Howard Harlan: No question about that.

Ramsey Russell: And they swell. Boy, I hate it when they swell and I can’t get them apart.

Howard Harlan: We call it mock orange.

Ramsey Russell: Mock orange?

Howard Harlan: Yeah. Arkansas would go out and they make great wooden calls, fence post and I mean, they get sweet, too. Once you get ones right, it’s been in the ground and it’s already gone through the process of shrinking and drying up while it’s in the ground. And a lot of people don’t want anything but bodok or mock orange.

Ramsey Russell: And when they get wet or they’re submerged for a while, it’s what you call that green – they get that green wood.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And that’s my favorite. The one I carry most often is that green bodok.

Howard Harlan: Well, the call that I really cherished and I still have it, I got from Howard Amaden the Hambone call and it was bodok little bitty call. And when I went down there that first time and I was walking out, this call was hanging over his workbench. And I said, what about that one right there? And he said, well, that was mine, I don’t want to sell it, it’s such a good – well, before I left there, I had it in my pocket and I took it home.

Ramsey Russell: Back in the old days, a lot of the materials used for building crafts like this were available and abundant locally. For example, decoys. A lot of your decoy carvers down in Louisiana use tupelo or cypress root, whereas out on the Atlantic coast they might use white pine or shipmast, which were made out of white pine. And so when I think in the duck call world, I think to myself, okay, we get down to Arkansas, we’re using bodok, it’s widely available, get down to Louisiana, we’re using cane, I’ve seen calls made out of walnut, I’m assuming that came from further north or cedar, which probably came from out west. Did you see a lot of material changes like that?

Howard Harlan: Yes. And it’s still changing.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Howard Harlan: Now, something that we really haven’t talked about, that’s really a wonderful material to make a call out of and that is cedar.

Ramsey Russell: Really?

Howard Harlan: Cedar is a softer wood, but it’s got a different ring to it. And if you put a plastic reed and a cedar call and I’ve made thousands of them, they ring. And a duck call is a musical instrument.

Ramsey Russell: Yes, it is.

Howard Harlan: I can play Dixie on it. It’s a reed call, but I can play a whole lot of different songs on a duck call.

Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir.

Howard Harlan: Like I say, it’s a reed instrument. And when I started making duck calls, I bought every book that I could find on musical instruments and it helped me to learn how to throat that call and make it sound like a musical instrument.

Ramsey Russell: It’s interesting, you had over 3000 calls in your collection, but when you mentioned your favorite call, it goes back to that Hambone call that you started, went to Arkansas and that’s where it started.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And I’ve got a lot of duck calls that I blow, but it’s the same old ones on my lanyard because I’m familiar with them. I’m not a great duck caller, but I can call a mallard duck. And my favorite is, because my introduction, I think when I started blowing duck calls was Mr. Alvin Taylor and I just love his calls, I like the sound of it.

Howard Harlan: I’m going to tell you a story on Alvin. Alvin has never been given the credit because he had the competition there in Stuttgart, that Rich-N-Tone. And Rich-N-Tone, you have to respect Rich-N-Tone, he made and still is making, he’s dead now, but the guy that he sold the business to, he’s still making Rich-N-Tone products and he’s probably one of the leading duck call sales in the nation.

Ramsey Russell: But Alvin Taylor, one time I bumped into him, I was in Clarendon, had been by his shop and what I loved about it, Mr. Harlan, was you could not just call him and say, hey, send me a call, because especially if you didn’t know him. What you did, it was a part of the process to go to his shop and visit with him and you had nothing else to do, you better not be in a rush. But you picked up those calls and you blew them because they were handmade, hand tuned and they all blew subtly different. And whereas you might find a call and say, man, I love this call, it blows just like I want it, I could never get it to do what I wanted to do. And you picked the call and that call was singular to you. It was very personal.

Howard Harlan: Yeah. In the later part of his life, Alvin called me one day and I was on my way to Stuttgart to the contest and I went by to see him and it was within maybe a year of his death and I went by his shop, went in there and he was making duck calls, working on them and he said, Howard, I am having to have a lot of medication because of my cancer or whatever the disease was. And he said, you have asked me in the past if I would sell you my calling jacket. It was his jacket that he had all the different labels on it so forth about contest that he had won. And I said, well, Alvin, yes, I would love to have it. And he said, well, I’ll sell it to you. And I said, well, Alvin, what do you want for it? He said, I need a $1000 and I said, sold. I said, I would dearly love to have it. He said, well and he said, I don’t want to sell it, but I need to and I have to. I said okay. So he brought it to me out of the shop, was sitting back there out of the backside of his house, gave it to me and I said, Alvin, I’m going to tell you something, this jacket I’m taking from here and I’m taking it to the Stuttgart Museum and I’m donating it to the museum. I said, your jacket needs to be in there next to all the other famous people, none of which are any better or lesser than you, but your jacket needs to be in there. And he looked at me and I could tell he was tearing up. And I said, that’s how proud I am of your calls and how much they have meant to me. And I bought, like, 50 calls that were in a big bucket underneath his bench. And I said, what are those calls? Would you sell me? What’s wrong with those calls? He said, they just don’t blow right. And I said, what do you think that’s from? He said, it’s the jig is wearing out. And I said, well, what jig are you using on them? And he looked over here and pulled them out and showed them to me, of course, they were worn. I don’t know whether they were annealed and they were wearing out because he didn’t anneal them or he just made that many calls and wore it out and I still got the jigs.

Ramsey Russell: Well, Mr. David Gaston, who I’m friends with, got a lot of his jigs, he mentored under Mr. Taylor and I actually carry a Gaston call because now he’s got his own calls and he’s got the little Coca Cola bottle rim on the top of it, that’s very diagnostic. And I was shocked this year hunting in Oklahoma, I think was John Williamson, I think it was Ben, we were standing next to a tree shooting ducks and he looked at my lanyard and said, is that an Alvin Taylor? And I was shocked that a 25 year old knew who Taylor was. But I was going to tell you this story. One day, we were at a little café, I was eating lunch, he came in to get his coffee and he sat down with us, we visited and he told me a story I’ve never forgotten, although I have forgotten some of the details. We were talking about back in the old days, the market hunters and just very simple calls and he told me, he said, son, you all don’t know what ducks are, you should have seen the ducks here back in the day. He said, back in the day when duck would roll from run rice field across the highway, it was black to the sky. And he said, I didn’t have no money, he was working at a shop doing something, he said, I didn’t have money to go buy no fancy duck call, so I made one. He told me about his first call he made, he had fished out a broom handle, a broom had broken a shop broom and he whittled it and the barrel was a piece of PVC and one of them old magnetic signs you stuck on the side of the truck, he took it, I guess, kind of like that old reed and he shaved it till it got what he wanted. If he told me what the stopper was, I don’t remember, but that was his duck call and he killed so many ducks with it, a lot of the boys in the shop wanted one. So he started whittling on it, making them one and first one thing or another, he became tailor made calls. And boy, I’d like to know who has that first call, wouldn’t that be something to hold?

Howard Harlan: Well, he deserves all the recognition that he can get. And there’s a lot of people that have done a lot for the duck call and duck calling business down there in Stuttgart, but he’s the most undisone call maker that I know of, and a lot of that was politics.

Duck Call Differences

What defines an Arkansas or Mississippi duck call?

Ramsey Russell: In your book, you’ve got some chapters about Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, what are some of the distinctions in duck calls among those areas? What defines an Arkansas or Mississippi duck call?

Howard Harlan: Well, the Arkansas duck calls as we see it today is a conventional plastic reed duck call and it was several different call makers from Arkansas that did start out with hard rubber reeds because it had such a ducky sound in the bottom of it, I mean, when you blow them. Tennessee was more into mental reed calls because of the tremendous area at Real Foot Lake and they were probably more of a metal reed recognition than a plastic reed. Illinois was kind of a different half and half, maybe, I don’t know what the percentages would be, but they used a lot of metal reed calls, too. Mississippi had some metal reed calls, but they were so close to Stuttgart and Arkansas that they would probably have to be the same 50% metal, 50% hard rubber and plastic, early plastic. I would say that the plastic reed calls are way ahead of the present day metal reed and you will probably see the death of a metal reed call here before it’s all over with, maybe in our lifetime.

Ramsey Russell: Probably. Where does the tongue pincher call? I’ve seen those in your book and elsewhere. Where does it fall on a timeline?

Howard Harlan: They are around the turn of the century.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Howard Harlan: And they were imported from Europe.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Howard Harlan: Now, we found the first tongue pinchers in the cases of the large bore gun makers and the difference between the contemporary call and the tongue pincher call is that the tongue pincher has two tone boards and they’re mounted together. In other words, you’ve got a tone board here and a tone board here.

Ramsey Russell: Kind of like a duck’s lip.

Howard Harlan: Yeah. And they’re European design, we did not develop that call, that call was developed in Europe.

Ramsey Russell: What’s the most interesting duck call you ever came across? Most interesting duck calls. Duck calls, plural.

Howard Harlan: It’s in that book right there.

Ramsey Russell: Tell me about it.

Howard Harlan: It’s a piece of art and it’s a tongue pincher and yet it’s got a lot of different things about it. It’s a tongue pincher, it could be used to call crows, it could be used to call duck and it is just a piece of art, I’ve never seen anything that – it had a spider web on the flat part of the top of the call, a spider web. And when you’d blow it on the other end, it was almost calling a duck to its death, because a spider web catches its prey and it had a spider web encircled in the top of the call there. So piece of art.

Ramsey Russell: How long did it go back? What was it dated?

Howard Harlan: It came out of Southern Illinois, that’s where I got it.

Ramsey Russell: So it was a tongue pincher, which is European origin, but there were American people, Americans that carved them.

Howard Harlan: Oh, yeah. I hated to sell that call. Of all the calls I had, I hated to do that, because the semblance of what it represented was the story of looking up and calling and having the flight of ducks or whatever come to them, crows or whatever came to them and it signified art.

Ramsey Russell: Right. Not only the art of the call itself, but the art of calling duck.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

The History of the Story

Ramsey Russell: You talked about why you began to collect calls and probably everybody listening, we all collect something and it gets out of hand, I collect experiences and it got out of hand. But why the book? When did you write the book?

Howard Harlan: Jay came down here, he flew to Chicago for the decoy show and he was going to start buying a collection of calls and some of those people that buy decoys and calls and stuff up there got to him and said, look, if you will not bid on these particular calls right here, we need them for our collection and if you will not bid on them, we will not bid on these over here. And so he agreed that he wouldn’t try to outbet them. Well, they were pretty smart and they still bought the calls that they told him that they would not buy. And so he came up to me I didn’t know him, he came up to me and he said, Howard, I know you collect a lot of these calls, have you got any of these calls that they just bought? And I said, yeah. He said, well, where do you live? And I said, I live in Nashville, he said, how far is that from Chicago? I said, about 10 hour drive. He said, do you mind if me and my girlfriend follow you down here to your house? He said, can you sell me some calls? I said, well, sure. So on Sunday, we left, drove all the way to Nashville, he walked through that door right there, came around and went down in my room, because I hadn’t sold anything then, I was still collecting. He walked down the stairs and I showed him the calls that he wanted up there in Chicago and he picked out 10 of them, several different call makers and he paid me, like for 10 calls, $200,000. So he looked around at the other stuff and I had an abundance of everything. We walked out and he stopped on that front porch right there, turned around and looked at me and he said, Howard, I really like your calls, he said, would you sell me all of them? And I said, well, sure. He said, we’ll figure it up. Now, I said, it’s going to take me a while to figure it up, what I want, because there’s so many of them. He said, that’s okay, you just call me. So he left, went back to Nashville Airport and flew back to Mount Vernon, Washington. So I came in, I told my wife that he wanted to buy it all. She said, well, you don’t want to sell them, do you? And I said, yeah, I do. And she said, okay. So 6 weeks later, I called him and he had a real high voice and I said, Jay, this is Howard, yeah? I said, I figured it up, okay. I told him how much I wanted, he said, okay, I’ll take them. So I said, okay, I’ll pack them up. He said, I’ll go and I’ll come back, I’ll bring a trailer and he did. And we tried to get it in my gate up here and it’s too narrow to get that trailer in that big bus that he was in, he had a big brand new bus. So he took it over next door to the Hank Williams home, which is next door to me here, he could get it in there and park it. And our church owns the Hank Williams home now.

Ramsey Russell: Was he your neighbor at one time? Did you know him?

Howard Harlan: Oh, yeah. I moved here in 1946, I was 7 years old, and Hank Jr. had just lost his father. But before he died on the backseat of that Cadillac, Hank Sr. he used to come over here on our back porch and he would go across the street at Radner Lake and shoot squirrels, he had a little squirrel dog.

Ramsey Russell: Are we talking about Bocephus or the daddy?

Howard Harlan: No, the daddy.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Howard Harlan: He’d come around here and he’d bring a number two tub full of squirrels, my daddy was a country boy and he would fix them for him.

Ramsey Russell: Really?

Howard Harlan: Yeah. So I remember him.

Ramsey Russell: That’s a great story.

Howard Harlan: Hey, man, I remember his wife Audrey shooting at him out of the house here because, I don’t know, he came up to our back door –

Ramsey Russell: Must have been a pretty good reason.

Howard Harlan: Yeah, I’m sure it was. He came up on the back door here and he had a cigar box about like this and he told daddy, he said, when I left here to go on tour wherever, Mississippi, Florida, wherever, he was traveling in the backseat of that big Cadillac, he said it was full of $100 bills, you have any idea where Audrey is? Daddy said, no, man, I don’t have any idea. So that’s the way I started out here. And then Hank Jr. and I got involved in Civil War stuff and they had 12,000 Union troops that parked in my front yard during the Civil War because of a big spring that’s across the street up there. And Hank and I found 1500 ring mini balls in one hole on the end of this house with a metal detector.

Ramsey Russell: That’s a great story.

Howard Harlan: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Now, he’s not a duck hunter, is he?

Howard Harlan: Yeah, he’ll hunt a lot. I was up at his house a couple of months ago and he’s a super guy. And I’ll tell you something, he was a whole lot more talented than his god bless his daddy. But Audrey Williams, his mother had him learn under all of the country music legends here in Nashville. And I got a couple of pictures over there on the table over there next to you where you’re sitting, that shows him, he’s a super guy.

Call Makers & the Tools of the Trade

I can’t think of any other segment of hunting that the same can be said, but in duck hunting, how so many of the tools of the trade have become collectible art.

Ramsey Russell: What’s the most expensive duck call you’ve ever seen sold? I think, of decoy and I’m thinking, man, those things go for a million dollars.

Howard Harlan: $150,000.

Ramsey Russell: Is it something detailed about the artwork or is it the call maker? What describes the price?

Howard Harlan: Yes, it’s the call maker. It’s the ability that they had as artists and the rarity. Now, on the front of that book, you’ll see a duck head call.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Howard Harlan: And inside there, you see a bunch of duck head calls that were done in Newark, Ohio and it’s the artistry of it.

Ramsey Russell: It is. It’s interesting to me how in waterfowling and honestly, Mr. Harlan, I can’t think of any other segment of hunting that the same can be said, but in duck hunting, how so many of the tools of the trade have become collectible art.

Howard Harlan: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Is there any other hunting sport that you can think of that the same can be said? I mean, turkey hunting, maybe. The calls and –

Howard Harlan: The calls are really handmade, a lot of those turkey calls and Gibson calls were hand painted, they were box calls and they were recognized as folk art, which they are. There’s another collecting item that covers a lot of territory and that’s the whistle and Jay bought my whistle collection, too.

Ramsey Russell: What kind of whistles?

Howard Harlan: Hunting whistles.

Ramsey Russell: Like for calling up hounds or pintails.

Howard Harlan: Every kind of bird you can imagine. I mean, when I was in Europe and I went to some of the museums there, a lot of the whistles were used to call everything. Shorebird whistles now are just out of sight, price wise.

Ramsey Russell: Like what, $50,000?

Howard Harlan: Oh, no, they’re not that high.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Howard Harlan: Maybe $1,000 apiece.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Howard Harlan: But I mean, they were nothing. And a lot of the European German whistles, the Spanish whistles, English, J. Hudson Company in Birmingham, England, I went over there and I was going to do a book on whistles and the president of the Hudson whistle company had a tremendous collection of whistles, but most of them were police whistles, but the ivory and really fine whistles are Spanish, a lot of them are Spanish.

Ramsey Russell: The things you learn.

Howard Harlan: Yeah. Well, I’ve enjoyed collecting anything that makes any kind of animal come to you.

Ramsey Russell: You went over to Arkansas, you bought those Hambone calls, you said it started your collection.

Howard Harlan: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And we all know collections get out of hand, we all collect something.

Howard Harlan: That’s what happened to me.

Ramsey Russell: Why did you collect calls? And then I want to ask you, why did you sell it? What was it you felt when you’re studying these different calls or you’re driving somewhere to go see this certain call? Like an art collector?

Howard Harlan: Yeah, it’s the same thing. But in the last year, I’ve had several strokes and I knew I was having some difficulties and I didn’t want my wife and my children to have to have a garage sale out there on the front porch because they wouldn’t have any idea what the value of it was.

Collecting Functional Art

The great thing about folk art is as a collection, as an investment, is you get to put your hands on it, blow it, enjoy it, you get to enjoy it. 

Ramsey Russell: Here comes the vultures.

Howard Harlan: So that’s the reason I have started divesting myself of my call collection and all my other hunting and fishing memorabilia I’ve got down there in the room that I’m fixing to show you, I must have 2000 minnow buckets. All kinds of minnow buckets. Don’t have any dead minnow, but I’ve got a lot of minnow buckets. And that’s a whole new venue, when you see them, you won’t be able to imagine what you wouldn’t recognize them as minnow buckets because they were pulled behinds back in the early turn of the century where they put the minnows in the boxes that they were handmade floating wooden pieces and you would keep them alive by pulling them behind the boat. But basically, I didn’t want my family to have to deal with it, that’s the reason I’m doing it.

Ramsey Russell: The great thing about folk art is as a collection, as an investment, is you get to put your hands on it, blow it, enjoy it, you get to enjoy it. It ain’t like a trust fund you leave to your family, you can, but it is. It’s something you’re passionate about, you get to enjoy.

Howard Harlan: I’ve fallen off the wagon a lot of times and gotten away from collecting boats and motors and fishing reels and rods and early memorabilia that representing that are being recognized as art. I’m collecting hats now. And hats are hunting hats like you’re wearing, but there’s a lot of different styles of hunting hat. And clothes, that sort of thing, I’m collecting clothes. So I’m getting out of it, but I’m still addicted to collecting something that’s historical about America.

Ramsey Russell: And what does that mean to you? See, you just touched on something, you’re collecting parts of Americana related to the outdoor world, beyond the art, beyond the monetary value or whatever. What does yesteryear hunting mean to you? Because I’m leading up to a question I have written down. What do these collections represent as then versus now? There’s a big time change then versus now. What do you think about all, you’re 80 something years old, you’ve been duck hunting for 70 years? What do you think about the clothes and the decoys? And what do you think about modern tools of the trade versus stuff that might be represented in your collection?

Howard Harlan: Well, in the early days of hunting, the clothing was just what you rode around in when you’re riding your horse or your wagon, they didn’t have any significance about hunting, they didn’t have the camouflage that we have today, it’s a whole industry now that is just blowing out.

Ramsey Russell: I don’t think you really need it today, do you? I wear earth tone, wax cotton coat.

Howard Harlan: Let me tell you something, I believe and I’m an avid turkey hunter, I believe that the biggest reason a hunter is unsuccessful, whether you’re hunting ducks or you’re hunting turkeys, is the biggest problem with hunting is the person that is hunting moves.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Howard Harlan: If you don’t move, you got a much better chance of killing that turkey or killing that duck and the clothing that we have today really is much better. And it adds that little extra success to your hunt, probably because of the camouflage on it.

Ramsey Russell: Well, we hunters, since caveman days have been looking for an advantage. We started with pointed sticks to arrowheads to bows, to guns, to gunpowder and we’re always looking for that extra edge.

Howard Harlan: That’s right. Well, movement is the biggest adversary to killing game.

Ramsey Russell: Mr. Harlan, where can the listener find this book? Now, folks, The Legacy of the American Duck Call. Beautiful book, big book, you all ain’t going to sit down and read it overnight, you all going to spend a lifetime going through this book and treasuring it like I have. But where can the listener find your book, Mr. Harlan?

Howard Harlan: It’s in color and I had a lot of extra help on the color to be sure that it would show the book in the right climate and so forth. My address 4920 Franklin Pike and 37220. It’s Howard Harlan and I’ve got a few of them left and the price varies depending on which book, but basically $100 for the color.

Ramsey Russell: Do you have an email address they could reach out to you?

Howard Harlan: I did, but I did away with my email, I got mad at it.

Ramsey Russell: Smart man.

Howard Harlan: Yeah, I don’t do that anymore.

Ramsey Russell: I wish I could do that.

Howard Harlan: Yeah, but you can get on the internet and you can buy them. A lot of people have got them on the internet that they’re selling them, but I’ll personally endorse it to you if you have an interest in it and would appreciate your business.

Ramsey Russell: Mr. Harlan, thank you so much for your afternoon, I’ve enjoyed it, I’m looking forward to going through some of your collection and eyeballing it. Folks, you all been listening to my friend, Mr. Howard Harlan, The Legacy of the American Duck Call. You all want to copy this book, I promise you do. Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.


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