Southeast Louisiana duck hunting spawned some of the most collectible decoy folk art in America. Fashioned from nearby natural materials, they were originally made to feed families, communities, and an entire culture. Brian Cheramie grew up on the banks of Bayou Lafourche, where at a young age he developed through his grandfather an interest in old wooden decoys and the legendary duck hunters who made them. But this fascinating story is about way more than decoys. In its telling, Cheramie colorfully describes old school duck hunters from a bygone era, what became of them and their ways, and the immense void that was created.
Duck Decoy Heritage
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, I am on the banks of Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. And I’m starting like this, would you all agree with me that no other form of hunting has the amount of cultural treasure that duck hunting does in the forms of decoys, in the forms of older guns, in the forms of duck calls. And if I ask you a question, because if you ask me a question, if you ask me this question, where would have been the absolute ground center, where would the most decoys have been carved? I said, probably Chesapeake Bay, but today’s guest is living proof, that’s not a fact and his research of South East Louisiana decoys. It’s not so much about the decoys as the historical cultural value of bygone times that they represent. Today’s guest is Mr. Brian Cheramie, who wrote an epic book, Louisiana Lures and Legends back in 1997. Brian, how are you today?
Brian Cheramie: Well, great Ramsey, nice to have you down.
Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir. Thank you for the tour and thank you for the education. I read word for word, your book back when it came out and honestly, I had no idea at the time that there really was a decoy heritage down here in Louisiana, but I should have. I mean, duck hunting is who you are down here in this part of the world or who you were.
Brian Cheramie: It’s a passion, especially we know that before 1955 there wasn’t any TVs, a lot of people worked they shrimp, they fish they trapped, when the weekends came in the fall and the winter time they all congregated at the hunting clubs, they all did their own thing, duck hunting and that was their passion and naturally to duck hunt in this area, we weren’t blessed with the great rice fields in West Louisiana. So we had to make special decoys and a lot of decoys to lure the birds in. And so our carvers had to be extra talented and they were to bring and lure those birds in.
Ramsey Russell: How did you get into decoy carving? How did you get into decoy collecting? Because that was a great story I was surprised that you went back so far.
Brian Cheramie: Yeah. And I was fortunate when I was young in the 6-7 year old, range where I hunted with my grandfather and I saw his old hunting working decoys and he never put a second thought to it and this was about 1968, my sister had finished college and she was going to internship in New Orleans and she had bought an apartment and she was staying in it and she ran into one of her friends and one of her friends had a decoy on top of the shelf and my sister called me up and says, can you think my grandfather would get a decoy carve for her? She could put on the shelf. I said, well, I’m going to check with him. And so I went over and he lived kind of across the street from where we lived at and I used to call him Pepa and Pepa says, Linda had called me and asked for one of your old hunting decoys that she wants to put on the shelf like one of her friends. And right off the bat, he says, no, he says, I really need these ducks to hunt and this is a lot in French because he spoke mostly in French with me. So he was pretty adamant and I knew exactly how he felt that he just didn’t want to get rid of a because he needed them to hunt with. So I said he had about 18 blue winged teals that he really cherished that he hunted with. And so I went back to my father and I told him about it and says, Linda had called my sister and he says and he had a hardware store my father, he says, why don’t you go and take a couple of the new plastic decoys a couple of cases, a couple of dozen and go off from that, he might give you one. So I went over there and gave him the two cases of decoys and he says, well, this is perfect, he says, you can have all of them, he says I just wanted something to hunt with and then it dawned on me, I was saying, man, his whole thing is that he wanted to make sure he had some kind of tool to continue hunting his ducks. And so at that time, when I got all his decoys, I gave a decoy to my sister, in fact, I gave her a couple of them and I felt they were pretty special and I got to looking at them. And so I went back to my grandfather and I said, man, I says, this is pretty neat, can you bring me to different other duck hunters? And yeah, so we went to the next street, I remember a guy by the name of Victor Martin. And Victor had a bunch of yard ducks and everybody in our neighborhoods had a bunch of yard ducks and early in the morning all these ducks would start yelling and cackling all over the place, it was kind of a special place.
Ramsey Russell: Calling ducks, they were calling ducks –
Brian Cheramie: Yeah, they were French callers, English callers and they were actually half the size to the mallards and good point, I missed that point and in fact, a lot of the old decoy carvers, their mallards were a lot smaller because they were actually copying the English callers. And a good example is Mr. Clovis, who made decoys, who was somewhat of the teacher of the decorative decoy carver and his son Jet and Jude. So Mr. Vizier would copy the English callers that was in their yard so they can see, they look at the size and that’s what they did. But anyway, my grandfather brought me to different duck hunters and very fortunate, I started collecting and I was collecting 20 ducks at a time, 15 ducks at a time, some sacks and things and it was a hard time trying to distinguish and didn’t understand who made what and all and so I was constantly trying to identify and ask questions and all sorts, so that’s how I got started. And it was interesting process, but I guess the other thing, I was very fortunate, I want to look through their albums and I looked through the photo albums and I’d see their old photos and their duck hunts and like everything else, they were always proud to show their neighbor that they might have hung 20 ducks on the side of the garage. Then I got to thinking and I asked that question, I says, man, all these photographs I see and somebody said, well, you got to remember, they always felt by in the cool days if you hang the birds for 3 or 4 days, they would somewhat and I guess I’m not using the right decompose or whatever it was, it made them meat less tougher and so they had a purpose for it. And so it kind of bragged neighbors next door plus the birds are getting prepared to cook and so it worked out pretty good.
The Evolution of Decoy Carvers
So then you have people, some great carvers and painters from New Orleans in different cities, but who had access to oil paint, who had access to the carving tools and things, they started making some special decoys.
Ramsey Russell: I want to hear some stories about your granddad. You were telling me a really interesting story about your granddad, he actually had been on the lookout for somebody and I want to hear about his philosophy on waterfowl ownership, this would have been back in the day.
Brian Cheramie: This goes back in the 50s and the late 50s and actually, I would say I had to guess the exact year 1960, 1961 if I can remember, my grandfather, again with a lot of the other and let’s use the word Cajuns and people living alone by Lafourche because Cajuns, mostly Southwest Louisiana, we had a lot of Cajuns here. But the family came directly from France, which is the northwest part of France in Brittany France came on a ship in late 1700s. And so a lot of them spoke Parisian French instead of the Cajun French, so it was a little different. And so my grandfather had this passion, he was a trapper, he was a shrimper, he lived off the land and so he didn’t understand about – he understood birds came down in the winter, but he didn’t understand the whole bag about preserving waterfowl and understanding the laws and why the laws were there, he looked at it as they were landing on his property and it was his birds and his ducks. And it was hard to understand – and as we marched on, one of my favorite people that helped me out so much in the beginning was David Hall and I don’t know if a lot of people will remember David. But there was a federal game agent for Southeast Louisiana pretty books have been written about him and all. But so anyway, back in 1960, I went with him a couple of times but I would just sit in the pirogue with them and we all know what pirogue are, small boats that someone like been made out of cypress, planks or plywood. He said, Brian, he came back from duck hunting and actually after school, I ran over there and see what they killed and he said, look, go stand in the front of the street and he said, make sure you see if a guy named David Hall comes by, come tell us quickly and I’m sitting there and I’m going, who in the world, David? I mean, I didn’t even know what he looked like, I had no idea, I didn’t know what to do. So I’m standing in front of the street and I can hear in the shed them emptying the sacks of ducks and ducks always make those funny noises when they hit the ground and they make a little quack noise here and there and I can hear that going on, I said, I wouldn’t have any idea this poor man would show up. Well, I’m going to fast forward this a little bit and so as I started collecting and I heard about this David Hall, while on the game warden side, back in 1960 – I think this was by 1970, I think 1970, 1971, I was collecting decoys and talking to some old hunters and somebody says, well, look this guy down this street, the third house on the left, he’s got some decoys and shelves and all in there, I said, well, good and at that time, we didn’t have, look him up on the internet, it was none of this stuff. So, I mean, I just walk on over and I’m knocking on the guy’s door and I see some plastic decoys in the yard with some pirogue and I’m going man, they got to have some decoys here. So I knock on the door, he opens the door, he says, hi, I’m David Hall, can I help you? I must tell you, I froze. I mean, I turned white as a ghost, I said, my heart, man, what I’ve done, I said my grandfather would die. Well, he brought me in his house and from that on it, it became friendships for life. Ramsey, he’s like you, he has this passion about people and duck hunting and waterfowling and how he ties into everybody and he just brought me on page, I needed somebody to bring me on page and he brought me on page and he had started collecting decoys. But earlier than I am because he did some work out of the chicken tink area which is off of Virginia and all and off the Chesapeake. So, he was older than I am, so he had some knowledge about collecting decoys, so I start picking up things from him and understanding what to look for and how to look for and he was all about commercial carvers, it was all about the carvers who were making decoys for the hunters, there were thousands of families who their grandfather made maybe 5 or 6 dozen decoys for in-house use. But the commercial carvers who would actually supply the market for Southeast Louisiana and that’s kind of where he brought me on page. And I remember, him sitting me down and not this occasion because I was too scared, I kind of had a short visit that day and I said, man, I got to get out of here, but he could look me back up, he came to the house, he actually befriended my father and my grandfather and he put his arms around my grandfather, he said, how many times I try to catch you over the years? And it’s a cute story about that. But I’ll kind of maybe we have time to talk about that later on just put in your notes. But he was very nice and again, I learned so much from him in that respect. But David was the person that I kind of got the feeling with all the old photographs, he showed me that, if you’re going to collect decoys, let’s make sure we pick up the history, pick up the many photographs we can because to give you a little quick history of what we feel happened again when say the late 1700s, the settlers came into Louisiana. The first thing they did, they looked at the wonderful people that were living here, the Indians that were living here, they were hunting waterfowl and they had their ways. So we copied them because we had to feed our families. So that went on for a good while, we had to take care of the family first, it was all about the family. We had to survive, take care of the families. Then all of a sudden settlement started happening and the market, the French market started growing up, the restaurants, the steamboats, all these people needed waterfowl, needed food to feed these restaurants and all. So all of a sudden this market for waterfowl to be served at these restaurants, they get a dollar for a pair of canvasbacks, they get so much money. So all of a sudden they needed these decoys for these market hunters to go ahead and sell to these restaurants. So the decoys were just being made and tremendously prolific in this area because they were shipped up along the river all the way to Saint Louis and all the steamboats needed fowl for their restaurant menu. So that went on for a good bit of while and it kind of condensed things pretty quick and of course, market hunting and I forget the year it was whenever the year when it became illegal that stopped. Well, all of a sudden all these people that were doing this market hunting started to panic, what are we going to do? So let’s go and bring people duck hunting, they became guides. So again, these guys needed decoys, so then the decoys kept on being made and the guide started making decoys and so they were bringing and in those time, they would call people from Chicago, Saint Louis and New Orleans and different cities, they’d call them sports, not in a bad way, but in a good way. And when that happened, the sports started picking up the talent on make, they wanted to make their own decoys. So then you have people, some great carvers and painters from New Orleans in different cities, but who had access to oil paint, who had access to the carving tools and things, they started making some special decoys. So that’s kind of how the evolution of decoy making and how it tied in, but the part that disappoints me more than anything else is that we’ve had 5 or 6 catastrophic storms that wiped out the marsh and wiped out communities, below New Orleans, that whole Plaquemines parish area. I mean, they had communities after communities have been gone this last 75 years has been wiped out by storms, no telling how many decoys they had in that area, it’s the same thing with the Lafourche and Saint Mary’s parish, Shell Beach. So when you have this amount of storms, it wipes out the history, the photographs, it wipes out again, decoys that were all in the camps. I mean, how many times I hear these hunting clubs, all we had a couple of 1000 decoys storm took them all away that not just one time, but it would happen several times in the same location, so you put those multiples together, you can see why, answer your question earlier that were very prolific in the decoy making and the history of decoys. Again, we go to North Louisiana, it was about duck calling. There were some great duck call makers, they were in the trees, they were beautiful, ducks loved it, they called birds came in, West Louisiana. Then they had decoy makers but not as many, but they had the rice fields and they had beautiful clubs and things and the birds came. So again, Southeast Louisiana, you had to have great wooden decoys and I think that was the need and on that spot.
Ramsey Russell: You were telling a story about the three – you started telling me about your granddaddy, his generation believed they owned those ducks because they were on their property on their marsh. There were three to teal?
Brian Cheramie: Right. That’s always a story that to you – he really insisted on this to me. And again, I’m going to brag on my grandfather, again, he was a man off the land and in fact, when I was young, I did some trapping with him and again, shrimper, he was the king of the shrimp fleet, everybody would follow him where he would go shrimp at and he was a big gentleman, his middle name was Rock, he was just one of those guys, just unbelievable person. But he always believed something in French, the first blue wings that would come down, they were not in full plumage, all you would see was when you kill them was just the little blue patch. So in French, he would call that aile bleue, which is the blue wing. So the next teal he’d see it was a little green wing that would come down in December and for some reason everybody along these Southeast Louisiana, anything that was small, it was just something small and that was the green wing teal. Then later on around Easter, when the blues would start heading back from the Yucatan and back from Mexico, they were full plumage, they were beautiful. They had a beautiful white crescent around the eyes and he called that the
Sarcelle en prière which in English, it meant praying teal because he felt it was a gift from God and he was hunting it at the wrong time of the year, but he hunted them at that time because he felt again, that was his birds coming to him. Yeah, it was this special thing and again, that was early on, but that was part of some of the stuff that he would tell me.
Oldest Decoys: Straw to Cypress and Beyond
But I would think that decoys were being used by the Indians, decoys made of straw, the straw ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Let me start with this. In some of your research and collection, how far do you date them back? Some of the oldest?
Brian Cheramie: With a lot of the collectors today from the east coast to California Midwest – I know we talk about that often because there’s a lot of similarities of – we argue a lot with the Midwestern from the Illinois and the Minnesota area, they have a lot of similarities in a certain carver we call it Mitchell La France had some scratch painting, they had some scratch painting. We’re trying to figure out who came first because we had some Chicago landowners, Joe, who owned the chateau, which was one of the famous duck clubs on the east side of the river. We don’t know if he brought decoys down or he brought decoys back, so that’s always been a contentious argument that we would have. Because the decoys are kind of similar. But we really feel that – again, with our hurricanes, we really feel like, I know I have decoys probably 1850. But when you read about Autobahn’s work and he talks about the Baratarian and he says, I was hunting with the Baratarian today and he was staying in New Orleans and we killed 300 Eskimo and I laid it off on the ramp parts for me to pick one to get a great species to paint off of, the Baratarian with the pirates and that’s the people that lived off, right, all across on Grand Island, which is across from Grand Isle. They had their warehouse there, they went back and forth, cross Baratarian and Bay and there were hunters and things. So even at that time, we know they had decoys in my collection, I’m sure I have something of that age, I don’t know. I have a lot of unknowns and in the book the canoe, don’t know who made them. I just suspect that’s someone way back that we can’t identify because records were lost and photographs were lost. But I would think that decoys were being used by the Indians, decoys made of straw, the straw ducks. They would make straw, then they would actually, as they kill the birds, they would take the skin and put on top of the straw. And so they had their mechanisms, they had their tools, this is all about tools, you bring your tools to go work and to go hunting, to go fish, you brought your tools, decoys was part of the tool.
Ramsey Russell: It’s amazing to me that these old timers going way back to the 1800s that were market hunters that were later guides that until maybe up into the 70s still hunted up for food, decoys were not folk art to them, it was a tool, at the end of the day.
Brian Cheramie: By far, that’s the thing.
Ramsey Russell: What are a lot of the materials used? What wood did they prefer to use?
Brian Cheramie: And it goes back to the evolution when I went earlier how the market hunter and the guys and the sportsmen, the actual beginning with cypress root. And the reason why I say that is that we’d have tons of these cypress trees would fall into the river and they would actually, the roots would just come exposed and this would lay up in the river and the river would run down and come out of Southwest Pass, South Pass and the current would always bring them around to Grand is along the shorelines. So these carvers would actually see these, cypress roots are so light, they would go out there and hand saws and they would cut and some of these roots were something like 12 inches round, so they can make big mallards, some were small to make the teal, so the roots of the wood actually dictated what they were going to carve. So the cypress root was the main steady diet, if so be it of what they needed to carve with. Later on, there was another group of carvers from Raceland that discovered this that Tupelo gum was another great piece of wood and where they would cut it at is right where it touches the water. A gum tree comes straight down, then it makes an umbrella at the end and where it would touch the water is where it was almost, when you cut it out of the water, it was a lot of work, it was almost like carving potatoes. Cypress root, when you would carve sometimes it would bristle or it would mesh a little bit, it wouldn’t give a crisp cut but this Tupelo would give a beautiful cut. And the Rossel family from Raceland all carved out of this Tupelo, what’s so unique today, the great decorative carvers, I mean, the Brunet family and all these people, they use Tupelo Gum because they could do detailed work. And so the old carver, Mr. Rossel found this stuff out and so now the new carvers and new decorative carvers picked up on it and they got a great piece of wood and they actually, I don’t know how many people from downhill, sell that wood up onto the east coast to the east coast, decorative carvers because it’s such a great wood to carve with.
Ramsey Russell: One thing that strikes me, when you start looking, you could look at a dozen examples in here, that’s a pintail, but how each artist expressed the scalpels or the wing patterns or something differently, but it worked, it was a decoy. And we were looking around and I pointed to a couple of canvasback that had an interesting head shape, different carvers and I said, where did those come from? And he said, well, they came from the same. How and why did this community versus this community versus that community, it’s like almost if you spend enough time looking at it and can say that came from here, no matter who the carver was or that came from here. What do you think was going on there?
Brian Cheramie: And that’s another question when I sit down with collectors and different people that topic comes up all the time. And I just try to say, let’s think about where the area it came from. Let’s first take Plaquemines parish area mostly on the west side towards the head of the passes sunrise Pollock town ships were passing, so they actually made their decoys look like boats because they floated well. So, the Armstrong family who all made these decoys, all the bodies were like boats and boats had wooden pegs, they had wooden pegs in their necks because they understood they were hunting in salt water and it would rust, so they did something that kept their too for a long time. They hunt and made strong, ducks because of the water conditions, so that area was that type of sample. The Zalman, that one changed a little bit because it was the German heritage and had a lot of German people live there, so their decoys were very big and robust and you can tell when you look at it and say, man, it had to be made by a German, it’s because it’s the design, fatty smell of the world and he made some beautiful canvasbacks and so that’s kind of how it is. The other thing, I guess when you get to New Orleans, we call them the people, the sportsmen, they were looking at something to – it was a little bit more fancier and had a better carving and it was the painting was, they had their hands on good art artists, oil paint, so it was a little bit, prettier and most of that stuff came after the war. So each area kind of dictated where it came from. So right off the bat as you collect and it takes a little while to understand, this is from New Orleans, this is from Shell Beach, we talked about the Shell Beach decoys, they’re one of the greatest ones of the Campo family. We look at their decoys, Nino’s family came from the Canary Islands, the Spanish background in their painting, you could see the hooks, the Spanish hooks the way they would work with. And so right off the bat, you notice decoys came from Shell Beach. So it kind of basically the area what they had to work with, also the ethnic background has a lot to do with it, whether German, French, whatever. And that’s kind of how I take it and I think that everybody would have a different opinion, the Larose family again that from the Midwest, the Chicago area down to here, they share different ideas, so you kind of understand where the east side of the river where they kind of came from and how their decoys look.
French Ducks vs. English Calls
The wild mallards were called French duck.
Ramsey Russell: I think one of the most surprising things to me is how many mallard or French ducks are represented by those old carvers. Do you see them? And I know, the answer to this question is going to go. But do you see them over a timeline beginning to now, do you see at any period of time that they fall out from what those people were carving?
Brian Cheramie: I think the answer to it, it should have, I think that’s the best answer because the wooden decoys pretty much went out of style coming back into the late 1950s, then the decorative stuff started coming into play. They still had people made old decoys to hunt with, but not as much. But you make a good point, if plastic decoys wouldn’t have been invented and they still were making wooden decoys, I think you’re right in this area, they have made less and less mallards because of the erosion, the marsh. I got this story, I was talking to a class mate of mines, we had our 50th anniversary, class reunion and we were talking about, again, his grandfather and our great hunters brought us the same kind of the way we grew up. And his name was Scott and I said, Scott, talk to me about Mr. John, he said, when I was a little boy, he says, I got a little memory of our grandfathers, he says, and it was right along the Gulf there was a we call Shan, which is a row of oak trees and it was big, it was this big row of oak trees. And he said he raised the little English callers and he said he had two or three hundreds of them that he raised right behind his camp where he had a blind, almost like a house inside of one of the oak trees. So his English callers were being fed, his English caller would stay in inside of – He had like a little chicken wire fence that he kept all these little English callers in, it was about maybe a couple 100 yards behind his camp and he had his camp in oak trees and sure enough in the morning, every duck in the world is coming into that area, those English callers are screaming and yelling and so all you would do, you’d hid on the side of the camp and all the ducks that got up with the real ducks and that’s what he shot because the English calls were all clipped, they wouldn’t fly. So that’s how he made his hunts and he fed all his family, his aunts and his uncles and all that kind of good stuff. But it was just two weeks ago that, that story was told to me and because I understand the place and if you go there now, all you see is the bare bark of the oak trees you can see is a big line of them and it’s not a leaf on them, it’s a shame, but that’s erosion. But it was a great story. And again, this goes back into the 30s and 40s, that his grandfather would have done this.
Ramsey Russell: Why do you think they were called French Mallards? I don’t know, it’s interesting to me.
Brian Cheramie: It’s all the English callers, I think it’s a breed that actually came from England that somewhere along the line because England they let the mallets go to fly and I just think that that’s kind of where it came from. And I guess somewhere along the line that –
Ramsey Russell: The wild mallards were called French duck.
Brian Cheramie: That’s right.
Ramsey Russell: I just heard that for the first time the other day and I’m like, what the heck is that?
Brian Cheramie: And then, so a lot of the carvers actually would have that as yard ducks and that’s what they would copy. So a lot of their mallards were a lot smaller, that’s kind of how they worked.
Ramsey Russell: And that’s something else I just find amazing and is how few shovelers are represented because I would have just thought back in the day that people were feeding their families and they were hunting and there was abundance of ducks and the one such thing as a boot lip or whatever they call shoveler today that they would have shot shovelers. I mean, they’re related to blue wings and I would have just thought they might have had a blue wing nickname for them. But they are very few historical shovelers, why is that?
Brian Cheramie: There were several carvers that made spoonbills in Louisiana, one of the ones is the, one of the home Indians that I grew up with my grandfather trapper, it was Mr. Laurent Verdin and he made spoonbills. The thing about a spoonbill making decoys, they’re so fragile. Most of the decoy carvers is understood, if the bill would stick out further than their chest, they were exposed to be hit and knocked and broken. So the spoonbill, I mean, he just went out. So I think that they didn’t think less of it, I just think it was just hard to make and it was just that, it was easy to break. So I think it had a purpose of that, I really didn’t hear anything bad about spoonbills till later on as I grew up, they ate bugs and all this kind of crazy stuff, I didn’t believe any of that stuff but honestly, that’s kind of what I feel, that’s the reason why they didn’t make that many decoys out of spoonbills.
Ramsey Russell: There was a shoveler I saw around here that had the most beautiful bill shape, it looked exactly like a shoveler, I mean, he must have been a lot of time, that was beautiful.
Brian Cheramie: This gentleman was featured in 1940s and 1950s, he was a – I’m trying to think what he did for a living, he worked for a lumber company, a lumber yard, but he was like the owner and all and made beautiful decoys but he tied these fly fishing knots and he’s all the flies and all. And I remember, I got some beautiful articles and even in Dixie magazine, which was one of the original magazines way back and he would be tying this. But anyway, he made decoys also. I went to a decoy show in Eastern Maryland, this was 1974 and I was going through all these unbelievable decoys from the east coast and there was a great pair of brothers called the Ward Brothers, in the country they’re like, one or two best in the country. They carved from the 1920s to 1960s when they started getting a little too old. But this gentleman’s name, the collector’s name was Summers Headley and he had all these beautiful Ward Brothers and I brought out my hand and shook hands with him and said, I’m Brian Cheramie, I said, I want to tell you, I mean, I’m just in awe with beautiful Ward Brothers and I’m looking at a pair of snow geese on the bottom of this beautiful pair of spoonbills. And he says, Mr. Cheramie, he says those are from New Orleans, I said what? And I didn’t even never heard of Jim Mesmer, so he turned them over and he showed me the name of Jim Mesmer and it was a beautiful pair of spoonbills, a beautiful pair of snow geese. And he said there was a great collector from Mobile, Alabama named Carter Smith and Carter Smith collected in the 1950s and he knew Jim Mesmer and he went and he actually had these birds made special for him and he traded me for some decoys and I have in my collection. He says, I adore them and I said, man, they’re just dynamite, I said the spoonbill is just unbelievable and the snow geese is just on and on. So at that moment, I put up a goal in my life that says, man, I got to get these birds back to Louisiana, I just got to get them back. And I would let every collector on east coast know about it. And I just would tell them this and that. Well, somehow or another David Hall and I started collecting some Ward brothers and I had something like I think 4 pairs of Ward brothers, redheads, canvasback, mergansers and black duck and they were beautiful pairs. And there was another gentleman by Bud Ward who lived on Long Island, he came visit me and he saw the Ward Brothers and he said, well, he’s some good birds and all I get a call from him, this must be the late 1980s, he says, Brian, you still want those Mesmer, I says, I really want them. He said, look, I got a decoy that someone sadly wants and this other collector, Bill Parnell’s got a card that I want and Parnell collects Ward Brothers, would you be willing to trade all your Ward Brothers and we can make the 4 way switch, I didn’t even think about it. I said, yes, sir, ready right now, let’s go. So make a long story short, I sent the birds up to him and in fact, Tan was going to the Eastern Waterfowl Show and Tan promised me to bring Mesmer back and he brought them back with him. And that’s how I got those decoys, that’s our trading and it’s like baseball cards or anything. So, really, my goal was is to try to build some type of, I hate to use collection but some type of library that other collectors and display them in museums and do books they can kind of research from and get some knowledge and work from there.
The Wedding Pair
There’s a pair of decoys that I was lucky enough to get early on, they call it the wedding pair, it’s pretty famous with all the collectors.
Ramsey Russell: Do you have a favorite decoy carver? And I’m talking about a carver, like you’ve done a lot of research, a lot of pictures, is there just a person doing your research that just for some reason speaks to you?
Brian Cheramie: I guess, that’s a 2 answers on that one, I probably have, if you live in a certain area, you feel your person who carved in the area is your favorite, but I also have that and then I’m going to tell you what, then I have my favorite para decoys. So, it’s kind of like a 2 answers there, so we lived in an area where our biggest commercial carver was by the name of Mr. Clovis best way to describe him, he made birds look like English callers, they’re a little undersized, but it was so rounded and it was so curvy and his tail and I say like, Tan would tell me, it was like a bouquet of flowers would just open up and as a mallard would open up his tail feathers, he did that on every duck he carved. So it’s so inviting for birds flying over and seeing that it’s comfortable, let’s go see what’s going on and he did that. So he put a lot of effort, he put a cleft in his breast on all his decoys, which is a true thing on all ducks, I never see another decoy maker ever do that, but he did it. He would take paint that came off all the shrimp boats from the shipyard and at the bottom of the can, he would come back and he mix it with a little gasoline and that’s what he would paint his birds with. Great history about the guy. He made decoys all summer long and he put them in here, he had a house that had the gable and he had a door in the gable at the top and had a long wooden ladder and the hunters would come up in the August and September and he had all those decoys he carved during the summertime and they go up and they pick what they wanted and bought them. And he was a special on the buyer, so he was kind of like one of my favorites because of a lot of reasons. The favorite pair is a pair by a guy named Nico, he was Croatian, his father Giovanni came right straight from Croatia, they were boat builders, furniture maker, house builders, just tremendous with wood. There’s a pair of decoys that I was lucky enough to get early on, they call it the wedding pair, it’s pretty famous with all the collectors. In 1910, he married and this was the wedding present he gave to his wife and they lived in a place called Sunrise Louisiana, which is way down below Venice, down the mouth of the river and hurricane hit, it was coming on 1910 when the storm got bad, they cleared out, but they brought the pair of birds with them to two lane Avenue and that’s where they kind of settle because their house was wiped out by the storm. And so ever since that time it’s a special pair, I can see all, he did his best form, his best talent. So again, I got a favorite carver and I got a favorite pair, if that makes any sense.
Ramsey Russell: It makes great sense. I’m going to look back around to that story you were telling earlier and I’m going to start like this. Dave Hall was federal law enforcement, I mean, he was sent down to a certain part of the world like the late Jim Pilgreen in North Mississippi to sent down as part of the world to clean it up. Dave Hall is a Mississippi State graduate, one time I met him, he was at Mississippi State, I just happened to meet him. But I can remember, poachers to preachers program he started.
Brian Cheramie: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Big on that. And I can remember the book, you reminded me that he had written The Game Wars.
Brian Cheramie: If anybody’s in this waterfowl and hunting and fishing, you try to get this book, it’s pretty special. It shows something that on the other side of the fence –
Ramsey Russell: Tell me a story. What about the Hells Angels? You were involved with him.
Brian Cheramie: Yeah, I get a call from David and I was very hesitant on this. He says, look, I’m going up to Alaska, he said, the pipeline, oil pipeline Exxon pipeline, they finished up and I said, yeah, David, I says, I understand, he says, well, what happened was during the pipeline, they had a group of motorcycle gangs that were up there that did all the vices and sold all that up and down the pipeline. Well, after that they kind of didn’t have anything to do, so they went along the Lucian Islands and what they were doing, they were paying the people living along there trinkets for walrus tusk and that’s ivory and all that kind of good stuff. He says what happened, the Russian consulate called up the US and they were having all these decapitated walrus washing up on their beaches. And so the federal government asked David to start going and looking into it because the state troopers were scared of them to go in and infiltrate these motorcycle gangs. So David called me up, he said, look, I have a bank and I says, if you get a call, just play like you’re a buyer and that you’re interested in walrus and that you’ll check and see, try to play along with it as much as you can, he says, I’m going to use your name. I said David, man just with my Cajun accent, they got to believe me? He said no, don’t worry about it, it’s going to work. So we started laughing and all that stuff and all, but I did get a call but I got a call from a financial guy and to this day, I never could figure out what the connection was, he was asking if I was buying the ivory and I said, yeah, it comes around every now and then and he says, I look at it and, I just donate it to different things or whatever, I was just trying to kind of shoot the bull, but I never heard from that guy again and David never could confirm where this person came from. But I did get a call. But anyway, David went up there and he spent a few months and he actually infiltrated them and he wore tape and they said some horrible things and David put them in jail. And so I think that that saved a lot of the walrus population up there, a lot of things of also in the community straighten up, a lot of community, bad situations. So not just of pure game warden and I think he did it, I know he also did something, I don’t even know if a lot of people know, when Russia wanted to open up the grizzly bear hunting in that peninsula right next to Alaska and he flew over there and he helped set all that up and to do it commercially and to make it viable and I thought that was pretty impressive and I’d hear, he’d come back and tell his stories and I was like, wow, he got to be the bravest man I met in my life, but he did that.
Ramsey Russell: He was passionate about conservation and he came to Louisiana to address what the federal government perceived as a problem, which was a former generation, recognizing waterfowl, not as federal property because it’s a migratory bird, but as their own because it was on their duck land. And you told a really interesting story because I remember, I made a note when you met your granddaddy, he said, he was hunting you.
Brian Cheramie: He was. And I don’t think I even told you this one, but I’m going to tell you this real quick and David came down 59-60, again, he came from the chickatee area where when he graduated from State got his, whatever he needs to become a federal game agent, him and his wife was put over there and they had some tremendous problems and actually, somebody had killed a federal game agent and I remember his wife, Sarah saying, going into the grocery store and they told her to be careful and she says, don’t worry about my husband, everybody over here better be careful about my husband, I thought that was pretty cool. So I got to find all of this stuff afterwards. So I met David back again in 1969, 1970 or whatever, 1970, 1971 whatever that was. And David tells me this story, so when I came in, I knew your grandfather was old school, so we had set up station with a boat, we knew he would feed the birds in the afternoon and he’d make a hunt sometimes in that afternoon. So they were playing like they were fishing in the canal about a mile from where my grandfather would park his boat to take a dug out to go to duck hunting. Well, my grandfather left the house and he started in his crooked bayou blue, which is really crooked and it has a lot of turns in it and as he was passing he noticed man, ducks were getting up like crazy and he kept on looking at him and one of the bends he didn’t make and the boat went up on the land. So man, he had a found a big stick, he kept on pushing the boat off, finally, when he pushed it off the boat floated the other side of the bank had to take off his clothes, he had to swim, get the boat and it was cold, so he went back to the house to change his clothes. So he told my grandmother, he says, man, there’s so many birds back there, if I don’t go back and feed them, I’m going to lose them. So he went back, didn’t bring a gun, so he went and he fed the birds. Well, somebody saw David Hall in the canal, somebody went around the opposite end and put a note on my grandfather’s boat, be careful when you come out, there’s game wardens. So my grandfather comes out of the marsh, he fed, he’s coming out, he’s coming down the canal and he sees his fishing boat, he stops. He said, can you help me? He says, I can’t read or write. He says, there’s this note, I’m scared somebody’s hurt. So David’s reading the note, he says, let me tell you this note tells you if you don’t be careful, I’m going to catch you. So I guess guy was very good to him. And actually, I think after that day I can remember that, after that I don’t think he really kind of started respecting things and he understood the whole story after that.
Contributing to Louisiana Duck Hunting Culture
There were so many things that helped develop Louisiana and I would say decoys, it’s a tool.
Ramsey Russell: Thank you for sharing that. What I was going to ask you because I’m bringing this thing full loop, I’m trying to. Agent Hall did come down here, he did reform old school duck hunting, how did that impact the duck hunting culture here?
Brian Cheramie: I think the thing that really – we all got on board and we all admired him because he actually would visited the people at their houses, he would actually go and sit and eat with them. He’d go to the camps, he did a lot of that and by passing the story on just to be careful, that’s what I’m here for, I don’t want no more feeding, I don’t want any more over the limit or any of that stuff, he got the message across, it worked. The biggest problem that came out of that, it created this void, the erosion has killed us, our food for ducks is gone, so here we are at the end of that 60s where the little feed that we’re feeding them, we couldn’t do that anymore. So we couldn’t bring the birds in anymore. And a lot of these people took so hard in all the Southeast Louisiana is that they went and started buying land in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi all over. And they buy land and they go ahead and pay the farmers to farm it, cut the fields down and so they were hunting over ponds anyway, so it changed, it made a change. So that’s been some of the biggest gripes that doing in Southeast Louisiana that has happened, but it’s the right thing, it’s what it is and that’s something that happened a long time ago, but most of the hunters here will go and hunt with friends and people in Tennessee, Arkansas, that kind of good stuff.
Ramsey Russell: What then do these decoys and your research represent? In your opinion, what do they represent culturally to the state of Louisiana?
Brian Cheramie: Well, going back so far, it’s like everything else. There were so many things that helped develop Louisiana and I would say decoys, it’s a tool. That’s the bottom line with it. It was a tool to promote food for a family, it was a tool to promote food for restaurants that they could sell to their customers, decoys helped socially with people to join duck clubs and hunting clubs at that time. So I guess what it did, this was all over Louisiana, this goes back to Monroe and Shreveport, all these places are great duck hunting areas and you need decoys to hunt with. And so I think it was something that it gave us special place because Mississippi had a very few decoys, Texas had very few that they had them, but very few, we just had a lot because we just didn’t have the food as other places did for ducks.
Ramsey Russell: To me, it just screams Louisiana culture, it really does. Since you started in high school with your granddad’s decoys, why is this research and this collection important to you? The cultural value? Why is it important to you? What does it mean to you I should ask?
Brian Cheramie: There’s certain things that I love and I love our people, I love Louisiana. I think there’s nothing, no place else in the world I would rather live in. I think I told you the story that I had a gentleman, I had a meeting with, a few months back and he’s a respected gentleman in the sports world, we start talking and he wanted to hear the experience of Hurricane Ida that I went through that I stayed in my house here and cut off with my family, we had to hold a door that could have blown in, went through that tragic episode and he says, okay, will you stay again? I said, yes, sir, I’d stay again. I felt I saved a lot of things in my house, it’s part of our culture. The next morning we moved two or three families into with us, we helped get roofs on some houses, we help do some things, I have relatives that get food and with other Catholic charities. And so it is something about where you live, you accept this and you try to make the best of it, it’s sort of like if I have the respect of people where I’m from, I feel very honored about that and that’s all it is, it’s just trying to have – and so by doing this, I give a little bit of background of their families, their history of their family, if they were carvers or how many times they say, well, you’ll realize that your great grandfather on your wife’s side was so and so and he made great commercial decoys, they have no clue, then I can kind of show them the book, show them some articles, explain to them how wonderful that is and said, we never knew that, so those are the kind of things that I get a kick out, especially if I have old photographs that’s connected with that family or connected with some people. I did a display in the New Orleans Historic Museum in New Orleans for 6 months and I really had to be there a lot because of the questions people were asking, the families would come in and they’d want to see their parent’s, their grandparent’s decoys or something, so it gave me an opportunity to explain to them what I knew about it and that was the fun part about it. So, that’s what we try to do, we try to write articles and magazines, try to put things in museums but it’s like part of me, this whole culture, it’s like red beans and rice and it’s like, fried shrimp and decoy making and today with this wonderful tradition, there’s so many decade decoy makers today, we’ve been blessed right across the bay here, we have the world champion decoy family. Tan Brunet and his two sons. I mean, they’re known all over the world as the best and then from there they’re branching off with some other champions and all these people all throughout the state and I can name dozens of people. They have shows 2 or 3 times a year and they have hundreds of people come to these shows and they see all these beautiful carvings. So it’s like a friendship, maybe it’s like, somebody collects baseball cards and there’s a baseball card show or something of that nature or something like that, I guess. But more personal, yeah, fraternity, but more personal for this area and well, we got some great decorative carvers and it’s a shame I can name a dozen more right now and I know I’m going to kill myself because I don’t want to take me all day long and name them all. But we’re just blessed and that traditions continue going and that makes me happy and I try to sponsor a lot of these shows, because it’s important to me that this culture remains, now they’re not making them to go hunting with, they’re making them to be putting on a shelf and so that reminds the families of what it was before. And so that kind of ties in all the stuff.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, you all have been listening to my friend, Brian Cheramie on the shore of Lafourche. He wrote a book, Louisiana Lures and Legends, good luck trying to find a copy, it’s been out of print a while, but it’s worth looking for, you know, you cannot have mine. Brian, thank you very much.
Brian Cheramie: Well, this has been a treat and I hope I didn’t talk too much. And Ramsay, I feel very comfortable, I think what you’re doing is just marvelous. Sometimes we talk about the past and sometimes we look at it, yeah, maybe this how it was here, it wasn’t right, but the learning curve happens and it works out, but they had to feed their families, they had to make money and to sell to the restaurants. They had to bring these gentlemen from Chicago and Saint Louis and they learn how to hunt and they learn how to carve and it was just a great evolution.
Ramsey Russell: The skill it represents connecting them to the hunting for survival, but the detail they put into the painting and the shapes of these birds and the practicality for the environment they hunted just reflects this profound connection that plastics will never match.
Brian Cheramie: No. Plastic’s easy for when they shoot holes in it, they’ll throw them away and forget about them. But I don’t think the wooden decoys, these old hunters, they would preserve them and they were all peculiar about their decoys, I’ll tell you the story about my grandfather. You got enough time? His decoy rig was special. Of course, he love blue wing teals and the body of his blue wing teals was made by Mr. Vizier with that beautiful bouquet tail, but Mr. Vizier’s head and bill was a little smaller, so he felt that didn’t look like a blue wing because the blue wing has like a miniature spoonbill bill to make it an easy way to say it. Mark in the Homer area had a beautiful blue wing teal head. So he found some of those and he put that on top of the body, then after that, he went ahead and had his friends, the Homer Indians he painted them. So he had three different carvers that he felt made the best possible lure for him to go hunting with.
Ramsey Russell: And that’s what it’s all about.
Brian Cheramie: That’s what it’s about.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.