'Do you have a Swenson Decoy?'
For this article, I thought it appropriate to talk about a pair of decoy makers that many area folks will remember -- John and Evelyn Swenson. They resided many years in Frazee. Even though their carvings are far from being obscure, the Swenson decoy, in my opinion, does not receive the recognition it deserves. I find it strange that I don't come across more of them in my search for fish decoys. It is my understanding they were prolific carvers.
John and Evelyn began their carving careers in earnest in 1984 while John was recovering from an accident. Both had carved in earlier years, but made a lifestyle out of it after his accident. Their carvings were done primarily in a motor home, which often towed a van that had "Do you have a Swenson Decoy?" painted on the back. I clearly remember seeing that rig, especially at the Lake Melissa flea market where, for years, they sold their products. There is a great picture of John and Evelyn in Donald Petersen's book on Minnesota fish decoy carvers. I easily recognized the photograph from the Melissa flea market. Somewhere in my travels, I found a great hand written catalog on their decoys where much of this article's information comes from.
John and Evelyn sold their carvings for many years all over the United States. John states their fish were pictured in U.S.A. Today. David Hirschey wrote an article titled, "Do You Have A Swenson Decoy?" in Decoy magazine, March-April 1993. Their catalog notes Swenson fish were illustrated in the New England Antique Journal, displayed in Brimfild, Mass., Kennybunk, Maine, Adamstow, Pa., Denver , Colo., Phoenix, Ariz., throughout California and many more locations.
The Swensons state they make decoys of many different species, of which fish, frogs and bugs were some of their more common items. Their decoys are all rustic hand carved, each being slightly different from each other, and sizes of the same decoy often varied. All carvings were rustic hand painted or stained with a special stain. Larger carvings were cut with a chainsaw and trimmed with a knife by hand. They shipped orders via UPS and insured each item for their full purchase price. John and Evelyn required 15 percent of the product price to cover insurance and shipping. All Swenson decoys were signed with a crude fish drawing with J.S. or E.S. printed inside their fish logo.
When you review their delightful hand printed and drawn catalog, you wonder how did they ever make so many different carvings. Northern pike, walleye and musky fish were made in sizes from 6" to 24" and sold for $25 to $100 respectively -- a great deal of money back then. Rainbow/lake trout and whitefish were made from 6" to 18" and sold for $25 to $85 respectively. Catfish, sucker and bullhead were made in sizes from 6" to 12" and sold for $25 to $45 respectively. Other products they offered included salamanders, lady bugs, grasshoppers, flies (I can only imagine what that looked like), lizards, muskrats, mice, tadpoles, beaver, jig sticks, numerous birds, carved signs, large wood statues and many more species of fish which include bass and panfish.
Now my thoughts on the value of Swenson carvings. In Donald Petersen's, there is a reference of Minnesota decoy makers and the value of their fish. Keep in mind it's a reference and should not be considered the final say. In regards to Swenson decoys, he states they should bring about $50 each. This is a difficult call for me. As I stated earlier, it's puzzling to me I don't see more of their product line in the open market. I can count on one hand the number of Swenson decoys I have seen for sale on eBay. In 2002, I purchased a Swenson sunfish for $5. Yet, so few in the market makes it hard to really find a pattern for their value. My take simply is it would be difficult to get $50 for a Swenson decoy today. That's sad because their style is unique and very appealing to me. Understand, I gravitate to old time carvers with their often crude, yet wonderful folk art style and appeal. So I believe $25 for a typical Swenson decoy (if there is such a thing) is more realistic. However, if you have one of their jig sticks, especially a perch, turtle or, better yet, mermaid then you're in an entirely different market level. I can't put a value on one because I have never seen one for sale. Yet, I would estimate at least $75 to $100 would be fair. John and Evelyn sold their jig sticks for $50 back in the mid-eighties. Sure wish I had a few of them today.
It is my hope some readers will review this and have the proverbial light go on in their head and remember the Swenson product they have around the home. I am confident there is a multitude of John and Evelyn carvings in the immediate area. It would be a joy to see some of them and just maybe together we can elevate Swenson carvings to the collectible level they deserve.
Until next time, may all your searches be successful.