Turkey Call as Art
Dan Searcy has watched his calls go from hunting tool
to collectible craft
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
group of calls awaits completion in Searcy's shop. Although in great
demand by collectors, these calls may be some of the last Searcy
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,”
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
Soon Searcy began making calls
modeled after his father’s. He’s been making them the same
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
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