Thursday, October 28, 2010

Enoch Reindahl 1904-2000

I met Enoch Reindahl when I was eleven, when my father and Jack Dearholt and I, following a lead from West Palm Beach decoy collector Brodie Henson, drove from Milwaukee to Stoughton in an attempt to find Mr. Reindahl and buy one or more of his decoys. While successful in locating him (he had no phone in 1964) we went home empty handed. Despite a bad hip which made hunting impossible, he was not ready to part with any of the decoys over which he had once lavished almost infinite care.

Whenever I visited during the ensuing years I always found him sitting in his easy chair, watching the traffic pass the big Norway pine outside his living room. The sun shone through a high side window, warming the room and lighting his paintings on the softly faded flowered wallpaper.

Sometimes we looked at photos he had taken around Stoughton during the 1930s: skiers soaring from the jump which Stoughton once boasted, pictures of trapping muskrats, of birds nesting, and of friends hunting ducks, geese, and crows. There were photos of himself making decoys, and of others farming tobacco. He abandoned the last series when he realized that he would have to ask permission to photograph inside the tobacco warehouse: he didn't know the owners. "I didn't have the guts for that," he told me. "I couldn't just go up to a stranger and ask to take pictures, so I gave it over."

He took his Eastman Kodak to the nearby marsh where he would choose a likely cattail, taller than its neighbors, set the camera close, cock the shutter, then run a string back to a waiting place. When a songbird lit on that chosen cattail he would trip the shutter, walk forward, advance the film, cock the shutter again, then retreat to start his waiting over.

When his camera leaked light, he found an umbrella in the town dump and made its black silk into a new bellows, lined with paper. When he needed a duck boat to get around the marsh, he pulled sheet metal from the dump and beat it into shape. In 1938 he wanted a mandolin, so he made one, using an old Gibson as a pattern and maple from an abandoned lathe stand for the back.

Some afternoons we sat on his pressed-back kitchen chairs while we talked over cups of instant coffee. A cast iron stove sat in one corner with two enameled metal coffeepots on top, one red, the other white, while a corrugated cardboard box half full of wood chips and elm bark sat in front. Next to the door to the dining room stood a two-burner kerosene stove on an enameled iron stand. A two-burner propane stove sat on top of it, while atop that in turn sat a two-burner electric which he used to heat water for our coffee.

While waiting for the water he leaned against the sink and cranked his coffee grinder, cracking seeds from his garden, then, supporting himself on an old mop handle with a white plastic bicycle grip, he carried a few thimbles full out the back door, down the steps and through the grass to the apple orchard where he sat them on a fencepost for the nuthatches, cardinals, and chickadees. He wanted to avoid attracting squirrels and purple grackles so he made the slow trip several times a day.

He told me during the 1970s that other collectors had recently made offers for his goose decoys. He said that he had refused, slowly shook his head in wonder and commented that "it must be some kind of sickness" that made them willing to pay so much.

When he was in his nineties he told me that most evenings he fell asleep in his easy chair, and would wake around midnight, when he would spend an hour playing his mandolin. An era quietly ended when Enoch Reindahl, the last survivor of America's great pre-World War II decoy makers, died on September 21, 2000.

Tom Bosworth

An earlier version of this appeared in Decoy Magazine, November/December 2000.

When Mr. Reindahl referred to the sickness making collectors willing to pay so much for his decoys he had just been offered $200 or $250 for a goose decoy. That was about 1976. In 2000, Sotheby's sold two of his decoys as part of the Jim McCleery collection. A sleeping mallard brought $46,000, while a Canada goose sold for $65,750. At the Guyette & Schmidt decoy auction of July 29 & 30, 2006, one of the three canvasback drakes which Enoch Reindahl made for his 1941 rig sold for $74,750. Guyette & Schmidt re-sold the McCleery sleeping mallard drake at their April 24-25, 2008 auction for $92,000.

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