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Rural Missouri Magazine
The Turkey Call as Art
Dan Searcy has watched his calls go from hunting tool to collectible craft

by Jeff Joiner

Sitting at the kitchen table, Dan Searcy is surrounded by a life’s collection of objects that reveal his Ozarks roots. White oak baskets hang from the ceiling while mottled brown and blue earthenware cookery decorate walls and line shelves in a home filled with antiques. Family photographs, including many of Dan and his two children hunting and fishing, cover one wall. A former state representative and Shannon County collector and treasurer, Searcy has spent a big part of his life, when he wasn’t politicking, in the hills and on the rivers surrounding Eminence.

Dan Searcy of Eminence has made turkey calls since turkey hunting was reintroduced to Missouri in the 1960s. Since then his calls have moved from the hunter’s woods to the display cases of collectors all across the country.

If there’s such a thing as an Ozarks Renaissance man, it’s Searcy. As a teenager he guided fishermen on the Current and Jacks Fork rivers in wooden johnboats he made himself. He’s cut his own white oak timber and pulled slats to make baskets and cane chair bottoms. He also makes dulcimers and plays the mandolin.

But what he’s best known for are the turkey calls he makes from red cedar, which the 81-year-old cuts himself off his place just outside of town along the Jacks Fork River.

These days Searcy doesn’t make his calls for hunters. In an odd twist for an outdoorsman, Searcy has been discovered.

“These turkey calls are high dollar things anymore,” he says. “Most of the people who buy my calls these days are collectors. They don’t take them to the woods.”

Searcy’s daughter, who lives in Oregon, recently sold a matched pair of his box calls on the Internet auction site eBay for $1,625. “That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what some sell for,” he says.

Last year a call made by a man from South Carolina who had passed away sold on eBay for the unheard of price of $11,000.

For Searcy it didn’t hurt that he’s has been featured in turkey call magazines and included in a pair of books on turkey calls and their makers. He also won an honorable mention and a second place in the National Wild Turkey Federation call carving championships.

Searcy’s design for his box calls are little changed from the way his dad made calls years ago. Many of Searcy’s calls are intricately decorated with outdoor scenes of the Ozarks etched into the wood with an electric wood burning pen.

“That was a big thing. After that I got into these magazines and for four or five years there I was swamped,” says the member of Howell-Oregon Elecric Cooperative. “Right now I’m probably 20 calls behind. I know a couple of guys that would take everything I could make.”

That’s something for the humble turkey box call, a block of wood with a carved sound chamber and a wooden lid loosely attached to the top by a single screw. The hunter scrapes the lid across the top of the box and, if the lid is attached with just the right amount of tension and the sound chamber is carved out just right, makes the sound of a hen turkey calling for a mate. The idea is to use the call to lure a Tom turkey to the hunter.

The most valuable turkey call Searcy owns is not one of his own nor one made by other well-known makers. The call was made by his father, Robert E. Searcy, also a one-time state representative and county treasurer and a self-taught artist who carved ornately decorated turkey calls, wooden tobacco pipes and sketched scenes of farm animals and wildlife. Little remains of Robert Searcy’s artwork and carvings because nearly everything he made was destroyed in his office when fire destroyed the Shannon County Courthouse in 1939.

Searcy blows a carved horn his father made. Like Dan, the elder Searcy carved turkey calls.

During World War II the younger Searcy owned a barber shop in Eminence. One day a longtime friend came in carrying something he wanted to give to him.

“He said, ‘Your dad made me this turkey call. There won’t ever be any more turkeys in this country, so I’ll just give you this call.’ This was about 1943 and there weren’t any turkeys left around here. That’s the only turkey call my dad made that’s left that I know of. I’m sure he made more.”

The simple box call was decorated with carved pictures of Ozarks plants and wildlife and inscribed with “R.E. Searcy 1912” and “Made in Eminence. Guaranteed under the Pure Food and Drug Act 1906.”

“Dad had quite a sense of humor.”

Along with that turkey call another of Searcy’s prized possessions are two horns from longhorn cattle that his dad spent months carving with a pocketknife. One, longer than a man’s arm, is decorated with pictures of elk, buffalo, rabbits, fish, images of a bear attacking a man, a cowboy on horseback, a flying eagle with a lamb in its claws and a little boy holding a pole and a string of fish. Searcy says it was common in the Ozarks for hunters to blow into large horns like these to call their dogs.

A group of calls awaits completion in Searcy's shop. Although in great demand by collectors, these calls may be some of the last Searcy makes.

Searcy remembers his dad carving on a horn when he was just 7 years old and home recovering after an operation to remove one of his legs.

“In 1929 I lost my leg to blood poisoning and my dad stayed home with me and I remember him carving on that horn,” says Searcy, who’s worn an artificial leg since. “That was my first recollection of him (carving).”

Searcy’s father encouraged him to go to art school after he graduated from Eminence High School in 1941. His dad took him to Kansas City where he enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute. He stayed only four days.

“I saw that I was so far behind the others,” he says. “I hadn’t had any art at all in high school. Just what my dad taught me.”

Now, more than 60 years later, Searcy’s turkey calls are highly prized by collectors who appreciate them as much for their artistry as their sound.

“I have collectors come in here all the time who buy my calls without ever listening to them,” he says.

Searcy works in his shop shaping blocks of red cedar with a draw knife. Below: Several calls await Searcy’s finishing touch.

Because there were so few wild turkeys left in the Ozarks in the first half of the 20th century, there was little need for turkey calls. In fact, it was illegal to hunt wild turkeys until 1963 when the Missouri Department of Conservation held its first regulated season after decades of rebuilding the state’s turkey population.

Soon Searcy began making calls modeled after his father’s. He’s been making them the same way since.

Searcy makes his calls in a tiny shop filled with hand and power tools, stacks of red cedar, pictures of himself gigging for fish on the Jacks Fork River and lots of his wildlife sketches which he copies onto turkey calls. While his dad most often carved pictures into his calls, Searcy uses an electric wood burning pen.

And, of course, his favorite themes are the same his father used — images of deer, elk and, of course, turkeys.

Searcy carves wildlife and nature-themed details into all of his calls.

He uses a draw knife to shave and shape a block of red cedar. A drill bit creates the long opening in the block. Using a pocket knife, he carves out the opening farther to create the sound chamber. Searcy doesn’t put a finish on his calls but instead leaves them in their natural wood color.

Though he still has more demand for his calls than he can keep up with, Searcy says he’s almost done making them. In his 80s, he’s not able to stand in his shop and work for very long. By his own recollection, Searcy has made more than 400 calls over the years, many of which he’s given away to friends and family. He says he’s not interested in making them for money and he’s not interested in selling them on eBay. The pair his daughter sold on the auction site will be the only ones he’ll sell that way, he says.

“I’ve got them scattered about pretty good. They’re in 29 states that I know of.

“When we started making these calls there were seven of us in Eminence that made them. I guess there only two of us left and I don’t plan on making them for much longer.”

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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