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Duck call proves to be a treasure chest(nut)

1/13/2005

With the holiday seasons fresh in our mind, I suppose that old Christmas song about chestnuts roasting on an open fire is, too.

And it reminds me of a special duck call I heard about several years back. It was made out of American chestnut, as a matter of fact. That's a rare item, indeed, especially in our part of the country — the mid-South.

American chestnuts were wiped out by blight and a fungus that's believed to have spread in this country near New York City in 1901.

In my region of the mid-South, American chestnut trees died due to the blight that spread through this area in the 1940s.

But even though the living is gone, a few skeletons were left in the form of stumps. And apparently those who know where to look can find them.

A few years back Bobby Joyner, of the Union community in Tennessee, found such a skeleton and told me about it. He had remembered where his father had chopped down a dying American chestnut in the 1940s, when he was a kid.

"I can remember Daddy holding my hand and saying that was the last chestnut tree that he knew of anywhere 'round here,'" Joyner told me in the interview.

The lumber from the tree was used for a barn and fence posts, he said. But the sparks of that old memory got Joyner to thinking about something else — his son, John.

"John is a duck hunter, and he's the kind of person who appreciates things from the past. So, I thought I'd go looking for that old stump. I still remembered where it was," the elder Joyner told me.

Upon finding the stump, he managed to salvage several pieces of wood that he took to Brownsville, Tenn., call maker Silas Wilson.

Joyner wanted the craftsman to create something special for his son. In turn, Wilson made three duck calls out of the wood (one with a metal reed and two with plastic reeds), which he found to be in surprisingly good shape.

"The wood is light, but strong," Wilson said. "It looks a lot like American black walnut."

Just how original are calls made of American chestnut?

Wilson said that in more than 50 years of call making and collecting, he's never seen a duck call made of American chestnut.

So, there obviously wasn't many made of chestnut prior to the blight.

And with no more forests of American chestnuts growing on the immediate horizon, or probably anywhere else, for that matter, we are not likely to see any more calls made of this wood, either.

But why bother with all this?

Well, there's more growing here, of course.

In the world of duck-call collecting, rare translates to valuable — if not now, maybe in the future.

For example, I'll never forget interviewing a call collector who had bought a call said to be worth thousands of dollars for only $10.

"I bought it at a flea market from a lady who said, 'Duck call? I thought that was the leg off a chifforobe,'" the collector told me.

But back to the Joyner, who hinted the creation of the call wasn't really about money to begin with. Could he put a price tag on the gift he gave his son? Nope.

"What's a call like that worth?" Joyner pondered. "It's no way to put a price on something that's not around any more.

"I just wanted it to be something unique for John — a connection to the past and a memory of his grandfather."

So in a way an old chestnut stump, a duck call and family ties are a lot alike: something to treasure.

Taylor Wilson is a free-lance writer and editor for Bill Dance Publishing in Brownsville, Tenn. He can be contacted at taylorwilson@billdancefishing.com.