Branded Sibleys – Who is J.F.F

In the early 1950s, Joe French, one of the first Midwest decoy collectors, traveled along the Illinois River to collect old wooden hunting blocks. He frequently stopped by with the local hunters, asking about old decoy makers and gathering as much information as he could while constructing his collection.

He purchased a gunnysack full of blocks one day in Putman, Illinois, in 1952. The rig included a spotless little bluebill hen with "Patent Applied for 1899" printed on her wide v-shaped bottom. The bill was mitered and appeared to be carved from a different hardwood from the rest of the decoy. The decoy's body was split, revealing a hollow pine cavity with a piece of strap metal inside the base of the decoy to make it self-righting. Since then, French has been on the lookout for the creator of his tiny bluebill hen.

In 1968, Hal Sorenson put out an article in his publication, Decoy Collector's Guide, by French entitled "Mr. X, Mr. Y; Mr. Z," in which he revealed other collectors to favorite decoys that he still couldn't identify but recognized as excellent Illinois River decoys. He described the maker as "Mr.X," stating, "I've come across these 'hardbills,' ranging from LaSalle to Beardstown, dispersed at irregular intervals along the Illinois River...and I've discovered several on the Mississippi." For almost 40 years, French and other collectors have been looking for Mr. X without success.

Joe Tonelli has devoted as much time to hunting for decoys on the Illinois River as anybody, becoming an expert in waterfowl history and a collector. He has come across many old letters, records, and other printed items about the hunting clubs in the region of the Illinois River. He was looking through some papers he had found relating to the Hennepin Shooting Club, which was founded in 1887 and shut down in 1914, when he came across an old ad for a decoy business he was unfamiliar with, "Sibley Co., Manufacturers of the Sibley Decoy". He was flabbergasted by what he read in the leaflet: It's the only decoy with a hardwood inserted bill (patent pending)... Our decoys are weighted on the inside... There's a leather loop on the bottom where you can connect the anchor line. The Mr. X. decoy was described in this passage!

The tale of French's Mr. X, the decoy. Sibley Co., which was run by father and son James A. and George M. Sibley of Chicago, Illinois, produced the decoys. The Sibley family history is studded with distinguished figures in American history, and it is regarded one of the old guard American families that can trace its origins to early settlers who arrived in the New England Colonies aboard the Winthrop's Fleet in 1629. The patriarch of the Sibley family who was involved with the decoy firm was James Sibley. James A. Sibley provided the funding for his son George's decoy firm. One of the club's initial members, George was a waterfowler and one of the organization's founding members.

Much of the initial information we found came from the club's records and Sibley's letters.

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