EDITORIAL/Past, present and future
Wednesday, September 4, 2013 1:00 PM
How are a Madison antique store, Pascagoula circa 1940, and Mississippi's future all interrelated?
Hint: the answer involves ducks, our outdoor heritage, and the economy.
The Wilsons recently went tooling around Madison on one of those rare Saturdays on which we had little that had to be done. One of our stops was a new antique shop, Back in Time Antiques, that opened right in "downtown" Madison this summer.
The new store is like others popping up across Madison County. There seem to be a few less "for lease" signs in storefront windows. One of the state's fastest-growing places, Madison County also offers hard-to-quantify "quality of life." From personal experience, Madison County is a nice place to call home.
Economic growth grounded in both town-square small businesses and mega-projects (like Nissan's expansion), combined with that quality of life, is a recipe for success. It is a hopeful sign that not only are new stores opening, but that customers are also coming in to browse. And maybe feeling secure enough about the future to buy.
But back to Back in Time, and ducks. In the store, against a back wall, were about a dozen antique wooden duck decoys. They are highly collectible these days (which means collecting duck decoys entails significant economic activity).
They immediately caught my eye. But not because I am a collector.
The decoys were interesting to me because they literally took me back in time. To Pascagoula, 1940. That year, my great-grandfather, "Emp" Trehern, and his son Elba, started a new business of their own, the Trehern Decoy Factory.
I bet they did not get county tax credits, state loan guarantees, or federal "green energy" subsidies in starting their business. Instead, they probably relied on their know-how, hard work, and a natural fit in a region steeped with hunters and anglers. Pretty quaint.
By 1940, Pascagoula was one of the largest sources of wooden duck decoys in the country. A series of companies produced and shipped duck decoys all over the world from the 1920s until wood went out of vogue (replaced by plastic and Styrofoam) by the early 1960s.
In 2003, Joe Bosco published a very useful book, Pascagoula Decoys, that details the history of the industry in Pascagoula. The decoys produced there had distinctive lathe marks because of the way they were made. It was also a labor intensive process, with women often hand-painting the ducks before they were shipped.
And there I stood, in 2013, looking at several genuine Pascagoula decoys.
There is really no way to know if any of the Madison antiques were actually made by my family. They did not mark their ducks, and the Trehern company was in business less than a year before selling to another company in 1941.
According to Bosco's book, my great aunt Lucille said that Trehern ducks were mostly sold outside Pascagoula. As I grew up, both she and my grandmother had several decoys in their houses. I am sure I "repainted" a couple as a kid. They never struck me as remarkable, though maybe they should have.
Little did I know what an economic generator the decoy business was for Pascagoula, and for my kin in particular.
Perhaps there is also a lesson for Mississippi's future. Decoys were produced in Pascagoula because of a ready supply of the right kinds of wood, the workforce, and superior transportation. Madison County is growing today because of its mix of workforce, business climate, strong schools, and proximity to the state capital. Past and present, playing on strengths.
Likewise, Mississippi has a number of natural economic strengths for the future. Emphasis on "natural."
Each year, about 650,000 hunters and anglers and 730,000 wildlife watchers combine to spend $1.1 billion on wildlife-related recreation in Mississippi. The Mississippi River flyway, the route followed by migratory birds (including ducks), accounts for 45% of waterfowl hunting in the U.S. No surprise to duck hunters, the Mississippi Delta sits smack in the middle of that flyway. According to recent data, wildlife tourism along the Gulf Coast alone generates $2 billion in economic activity and sustains 26,000 jobs.
That's a lot of duck decoys.
Indeed, as Mississippi considers how to spend what could be billions in BP oil spill dollars under the federal RESTORE Act, it bears remembering that sustaining that economic activity depends on restoring and preserving our natural resources. Without healthy habitat, sustainable fisheries, and abundant wildlife, those hunters and anglers will take their decoys, and their money, elsewhere.
Leaving only the antiques to collect.
Cory T. Wilson is a Madison attorney with Heidelberg Steinberger Colmer & Burrow, P.A. Follow Cory on Twitter, @CoryWilsonMS, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.