The late Frank Kalash was one of many Minnesotans who grew up around Heron Lake when that large body of water near Iowa was the site of legal duck slaughters — spring and fall. It was an era just before the turn of the 20th century, and restaurant suppliers in Chicago and New York would buy as many ducks and shore birds as Heron Lake hunters could kill. Plumage from the birds was sold to the fashion industry, and railroads were the pipeline to a cluster of lakes the wild game industry dubbed the “Chesapeake of the West.”
“When there was no limit on the number of game birds one could have in his possession, it was more a matter of physical endurance and the amount of ammunition,” Kalash wrote in a 1958 letter kept by the Jackson County Historical Society.
His writings and those of others document how America came to the realization that dizzying flocks of teal, redheads, canvasbacks, mallards, pintails, wood ducks and other species were not inexhaustible. Those market-hunting days are being recalled this year as the U.S. and Canada celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty, the first international accord forged to protect wild birds. It also was among the first to protect any wildlife species.
Jerry Serie, a longtime wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was quoted by the agency earlier this year as saying the treaty was monumental.
“The centennial celebration of the Migratory Bird Treaty is a testament to all those farsighted individuals who recognized the need, pursued a diplomatic solution, and legislated into law the federal protection of migratory birds,” Serie said. “That gave rise to subsequent international treaties, and the development of successful management and research programs throughout North America.”
The United States signed similar bilateral treaties with Mexico (1936), Japan (1972) and Russia (1976). The 1916 bird treaty actually was signed with Great Britain, on behalf of Canada. In the U.S., the agreement was enlivened with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Kalash, who died in 1971 at the age of 85, was an attorney who also ran a well-known hunting camp on the south end of Heron Lake, which is shaped like an hourglass. As a boy, he hunted ducks for money before the state imposed its first limits on game birds in 1903 — 100 birds per day. Three years earlier, Congress had passed the Lacey Act, which sought to suppress the killing of wild game as a business.
“Harry Morrison and I hunted and shot the limit of 100 birds a day many times,” Kalash wrote.
At the State Historical Society of Iowa, a research paper written by Jack Musgrove outlines the kind of competition Kalash and others were up against. There was an area marksman, Fred “Dude” Gilbert, who shot 3,000 birds in a single season. Six co-hunters shot 1,500 to 2,000 a piece for a total in one season of 14,000 ducks and shorebirds.
Icehouses for storage sprung up and enterprising aggregators would sell their caches when the coolers neared capacity. For a dozen teal, the sellers could fetch $2 to $2.50 a dozen, the paper said. Some of the hunters were employed by the aggregators while other hunters were independent, selling their birds and ducks for pennies, nickels, dimes or quarters depending on going rates.
Market hunting on Heron Lake has been documented as far back as the early 1870s. In that age, there was a vibrant market for wild game. Take, for instance, the 1886 “Procession of Game” menu from the Drake Hotel in Chicago. The special Thanksgiving holiday menu included Boned Quail in Plumage, Ham of Bear, Venison Tongue, Roast Canvasback Duck and Broiled Bluewing Teal.
Kalash wrote in his historical letter that market hunters and sport hunters noticed thinning flocks. Heron Lake was drawing “great numbers” of hunters from long distances because it was accessible by rail and its wild celery was a magnet for prized canvasbacks and hoards of other ducks.
Famed outdoors writer Jimmy Robinson from Sports Afield made multiple visits to the lake and upscale lodges were occupied by the likes of the Mayo brothers from Rochester and Cargill’s John MacMillan.
According to information supplied by the Jackson County Historical Society and North Heron Lake Game Producers Association, the idea of waterfowl scarcity caused conflict between recreation-minded sportsmen and market hunters, who fought restrictions.
For one thing, market hunters weren’t wing shooters. They would selectively pot-shoot ducks on the water, killing multiple birds with a single shell. One tactic was to use heavy punt guns that could kill 100 ducks at a time as they rested after dark. By many accounts, it was hard work that often caused headaches from smokey black powder.
The issue came to a head at the State Capitol. In 1901, Minnesota prohibited the sale of game and outlawed spring hunting. By 1916, the year of the Migratory Bird Treaty, the daily limit had been reduced to 45 birds. Three years later, the daily limit fell to 15 birds and the fall hunting season was growing shorter.
“It was very apparent to the sportsmen and others … that some measures would have to be taken to preserve these game birds or they, too, would go the way of the buffalo,” Kalash wrote.
As chronicled in papers on file with the Jackson County Historical Society, market hunting lingered at Heron Lake, even after it was outlawed. There were roving gangs of commercial hunters and pockets of local people who did not share the chamber of commerce view that sport hunting would best serve the area’s economy.
The last big chapter in Minnesota market hunting played out with the 1905 bust of a bootlegger who operated at Heron Lake. Informants had tipped police to a large haul of black-market ducks that was destined for Chicago.
The subsequent high-profile prosecution of William Kerr and Robert Poole was hit and miss, but the case proved to be a turning point in Minnesota’s environmental history, according to a 2006 essay by Mark H. Davis.
Davis wrote that the case validated the state’s authority to regulate hunting and coincided with a movement that gave sport hunting a clear upper hand over commercial harvest.