Though Jefferson City borders the Missouri River, it is not, at least in this era, considered as a major site for waterfowl or duck hunting. Jefferson City was, however, a major center for wooden duck decoy making from 1921-45. During this interval, a succession of three decoy factories in Jefferson City produced hundreds of thousands of very fine wooden duck decoys that were sold all over the United States.
The history for decoy making in Jefferson City actually begins with establishment of the J. S. Sullivan Saddle Tree Company that was originally set up within the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1876 and initially employed the use of prison labor to make wooden saddle trees. With later phasing out of prison labor, the factory was relocated outside of the prison and eventually to Industrial Drive, near the Bagnell tracks. Most of the factory complex still stands, with the larger building used now as a warehouse. In 1911, the business was bought out by Sullivan's brother-in-law, James M. Hays, who had come to Jefferson City in 1878 and over time established a remarkably varied business empire.
The company was purported to be the largest maker of saddle trees and related items in the world at that time and was the principle supplier of saddle trees to the U.S. Military in World War I. In 1917, with diminishing need for saddle trees, the company's name was changed to the J. M. Hays Wood Products Company and continued to make saddle trees, but over time, a variety of other wood products were made as well. They produced a variety of wooden toys, several furniture products and later a special wooden automobile bumper known as the "Hays Hickory Hitter." Sometime in 1921, they began to manufacture wooden duck decoys.
Early decoys produced by the J. M. Hays Wood Products Company were made very similar to those being manufactured by the Mason Decoy Company of Detroit, Michigan, which was at that time the world leader in wooden duck decoy production. Hays produced a higher grade "Grand Prix" model and a lesser grade "Superior" model for most sporting duck species. A later 1922 catalogue for the Hays Wood Products Company indicates they made decoys of 17 varieties in the Grand Prix model and 15 varieties in the Superior model.
In the later part of 1922, ownership of the Hays Wood Products Company was bought out by a group of Jefferson City businessmen who had formed a company called Standard Crate & Filler, whose special mission was to produce a special hexagonal egg crate product and necessary crate filler. They continued all of the activities of the J. M. Hays Wood Products Company as a Division of the Standard Crate & Filler Company, but they sought to produce their special wooden egg crates, filler and other products as well. They made considerable changes to the body styles and painting schemes for most of the varied decoy species and continued to sell them throughout the United States.
While most would say the first-generation Hays decoys were the best made by the company, in this second-generation era, the Hays company began to employ the use of scratch-feather and cross-body comb painting, which evolved over the following two decades to be very special hallmark features of most Jefferson City wooden decoys.
The Standard Crate & Filler Company was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1924, and the company assets were eventually bought by three members of the Gundelfinger family of Jefferson City and St. Louis. They then set up the Gundelfinger Wood Products Company in the same factory buildings that had housed the Hays Wood Products Company and continued to make varied wood furniture items and high-quality wooden duck decoys. Gundelfinger continued to primarily produce higher-end Grand Prix and lesser Superior grade decoys but did experiment with some other models at times. While they used the same duplicating lathe equipment as had the Hays company, Gundelfinger made changes that allowed them to produce their own unique style of decoys in a wide variety of species. Throughout most of their production era, Gundelfinger applied a notably thick paint that, unfortunately, did have tendency to chip with use. Gundelfinger decoys without heavy use tend to be very excellent looking decoys.
Unfortunately, the vagaries of business set in again, and the Gundelfinger Wood Products Company was forced into bankruptcy in 1929. This time, the assets were sold to Jefferson City businessman Harry Benz, who then set up the Benz Wood Products Company and continued to make wooden duck decoys for another 15 years. Benz built his own factory building on what is now Missouri Boulevard, and in short time, limited the company to decoy production only. He modified the type of paint used and over time went through several changes in decoy body design and painting schemes, producing many very fine duck decoys. With the onslaught of cheaper paper mache and plastic duck decoys, Benz discontinued making wooden duck decoys in 1945, ending a 25-year history of high production, very artistic, wooden duck decoy making in Jefferson City.
Special study continues on the three Jefferson City decoy factories (Hays, Gundelfinger or Benz Wood Product Companies) and related businesses (J. S. Sullivan Saddle Tree Company or Standard Crate & Filler Company). Anyone with decoys, photos, other products or information about the people who worked in these factories is asked to contact Greg Renner at 573-808-6103 or [email protected] or Carolyn McDowell at 573-635-6634 or [email protected]
Dr. Greg Renner grew up in southern Illinois but has lived in Missouri since 1976, when he came to the University of Missouri to do his medical training in otolaryngology — head and neck surgery. He continued as an attending physician at the University of Missouri in that discipline since 1981 and is currently semi-retired. He has collected and studied duck decoys and their history for more than 15 years, now with focus primarily to those made in Missouri and Illinois. His talk on this subject for Historic City of Jefferson will be scheduled at a later date.