Today I will talk about King Buck, arguably one the most famous sporting dogs that ever lived and certainly the most important dog in the fish and game hobby. Then, in the culmination of our story, we will see how the iconic 1959-60 federal waterfowl stamp came into being. In a surprising narrative – and perhaps for the first time – Maynard Reece reveals the exact sequence of events that led to a once in a lifetime encounter.
Throughout the 1950s, John Olin was concerned with the long-range effect of the tremendous postwar hunting boom on already dwindling wildlife populations. He strongly believed that one solution would be to educate both hunters and conservation officials to the value of trained dogs in recovering lost and crippled game.
John also believed in replenishing wildlife populations through artificial stocking and improving habitat based upon the scientific work of Aldo Leopold. He decided that all these ideas needed practical demonstration and this was the motivation behind Nilo Farms (see Figure 1).
One of his goals was to develop the finest retrievers in the country to demonstrate, both at the Nilo kennels and at field trials, the importance of using trained dogs in hunting.
As explained in part one of this series, the first kennels at Nilo Farms were built in 1950. In January of 1951, John hired T.W. Pershall (better known as Cotton) to be his head dog trainer and handler. The remaining staff was “carefully selected with an emphasis on dedication and loyalty”. A house was built for the Pershalls at Nilo and then Cotton and his wife, Mayrene, moved onto the farm.
By May of 1951, the project was well under way and John decided to buy himself a field trial dog. For those unaware, field trials are competitions for hunting dogs. They were developed to test the dog’s skill and training in retrieving or pointing.
Needless to say, John Olin was not going to settle for just any good dog.
Fragile Early Life
King Buck was born on April 3, 1948 at Storm Lake, Iowa. This is notable for two reasons. First, storm Lake is located only 53 miles away from where Maynard Reece was born, in Arnold’s Park. It turns out that not only is northwestern Iowa famous for being duck country – but as a center for fine retrieving dogs. This is probably not a not a coincidence.
Second, King Buck was born in 1948, the same year that Maynard’s Buffleheads was selected to be on his first federal waterfowl stamp.
King Buck was born to Timothy of Arden, owned by Ed Quinn of Storm Lake and Alta of Banchory, owned by Merle Cadwell of nearby Alta, Iowa. His litter included four brothers and three sisters. All of the dogs were born healthy and their obedience work was begun in June.
Ed Quinn managed the initial training for the puppies, which included introducing them to water in a spring-filled gravel pit, several times a week. At this point, all the puppies looking promising but none of them stood out.
Neither Quinn nor Cadwell kept any of the puppies. They were all sold in the fall, when they were six months old. Two of the puppies, including the one that would later be named King Buck, were sold to men in Omaha, Nebraska.
According to Quinn, all of the puppies were immunized for distemper, hepatitis and rabies before leaving Storm Lake. However, within a few days after arriving in Omaha, both puppies developed acute symptoms of distemper. The one that had been sold to E. J. Karnes was taken to a veterinarian and soon died.
The one that had been sold to Robert Howard showed no signs of improvement and Howard was advised to put him to sleep. But Howard and his wife had different ideas. They kept him in a warm basement and tried to nurse him back to health.
For over a month the puppy was too weak to stand and often near death. It is believed that Mrs Howard’s love and devotion to the sick puppy made the difference. She said, “one night I went downstairs to have a look at him and he managed to stand in his basket and greet me. I knew then that he was going to make it.”
Soon after the puppy started to recover and was able to take light exercise, Howard named him. He had previously owned several dogs named Buck (as he liked calling that name) and in the optimistic hopes that the fragile little puppy would someday rise to fame – named him “King Buck”.
King Buck had lingering health problems for the first eighteen months of his life. It was not until the fall of 1949 that he began his first hunting in the field. King Buck was always a very smart dog and quickly showed promise, winning a couple of entry level field trials soon after becoming healthy.
He was not an overnight sensation, however, and for some time produced mixed results. He sometimes did so poorly that Howard became worried the distemper may have permanently affected his eyesight. King Buck gradually improved, showing Howard that he was a hard worker and very strong in the water.
Howard sensed the dog could have a great future. Knowing he could not afford to run his retriever in top-flight field trials, he sold King Buck to Byron “Bing” Grunwald (also of Omaha) for $500.00. Howard sold the dog in order to give him a fair chance to prove himself – with one stipulation; that he could continue to train him and handle him in trials.
King Buck continued to produce mixed results, sometimes winning and sometimes doing poorly, in mid level trials. In 1951, at three years of age, he finally won two top level trials and started to make a name for himself (see Figure 2). Now people started paying more attention to him at the trials and one of the people watching was John Olin.
King Buck Comes to Nilo Farms
For over a year John had been studying the competitive performances of young retrievers on the field trials circuit. He began paying particularly close attention to King Buck, who had begun to win “more than his share of trials”. John was coming to the conclusion that this was the dog for him.
Cotton Pershall, with years of field trial experience behind him, thought differently. He reminded John of the dog’s checkered past. In addition, he did not believe the dog was worth its asking price of $6,500.00 (apparently Howard had already turned down many offers, including one of $5,000.00). Cotten came up with what he thought was a much better dog for less money, Freehaven Muscles.
John’s response was to buy both dogs for the Nilo Kennels. Although Cotton handled and trained both dogs (see Figure 3), Muscles became known around the kennels as Cotton’s dog and Buck became known as John’s. Within a year, Muscles won a major championship and justified the confidence Cotton had shown in him. It was John’s dog, however, that would make field trial history.
In November of 1952, under Cotton Pershall’s expert handling, King Buck won the National Retriever Field Trial Championship, the most coveted prize in field trial competition. The following year he did it again – becoming only the third dog to repeat in the history of the event (see Figure 4).
King Buck stayed active in field trials for the next four years, often competing with much younger dogs. As late as 1957, when King Buck was nine years old, he not only qualified for the National Championship again – but almost won it. Through the decade, he became somewhat of a national celebrity and (within sporting circles) reached international fame.
To learn more about Nilo Farms and see King Buck in action, watch the film below:
The 1958 Duck Stamp Contest
On July 27, 1958, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that prospective artists for the annual duck stamp contest should submit artwork “which show a retriever in action”. The press release went on to state “The idea has been suggested by several conservation organizations whose members are anxious to promote a campaign to reduce crippling losses by the use of retriever dogs while hunting” (see Figure 5).
Although I do not know this for a fact, I am going to take a stab in the dark here and suggest that John Olin supported this idea. It had been eight years since Maynard Reece had entered a duck stamp contest. His career was in full swing and he was being kept quite busy.
In a recent interview for this series of posts, Maynard revealed to me that it was Olin Industries who first approached him, told Maynard they had learned the USFWS desired to have a dog on a stamp for the first time and, further, requested that he drive over to Nilo Farms to be introduced to King Buck – not the other way around.
In a subsequent interview, Maynard told me that one of John Olin’s employee’s had worked at the Des Moines Register with Jay Darling before moving on to Olin Industries. He knew Maynard from his days in Des Moines and was the one that suggested they contact Maynard and ask if he would be interested painting the dog for the duck stamp contest.
According to Maynard, “Prior to the contact I was not even thinking of entering that year.” After thinking it over, he then decided “it would be a great idea”, as he had done paintings of dogs before and had always enjoyed the experience.
The Visit to Nilo Farms
After first meeting King Buck at Nilo Farms, Maynard instinctively felt he was “an interesting dog”. Some time later, Olin employees took Maynard and King Buck down to a pond, where they threw a dead duck into the water for the dog to retrieve. The first time, King Buck was swift to respond and delivered the duck to the men’s feet.
Then one of the men threw the duck into the water again and this is when the magic happened. According to Maynard, instead of going into the water for a second time, Buck turned to Maynard and looked him in the eyes as if to say “Really? I just did this and am not going to do it again.”
It was this momentary gaze that provided the the opportunity for Maynard and King Buck to connect. Maynard subsequently captured the dog’s expression in a way that would captivate and move viewers for generations to come. In so doing, he cemented legendary status for both of them.
Maynard was invited to visit King Buck’s “dog house”, where all of his awards, trophies and other mementos were on display. He made several sketches of King Buck in the dog house and then returned to his studio to create the original art for his entry. The chosen medium was gouache with a black and white wash (see Figure 6).
How does gouache differ from tempera? Tempera is a powdered color pigment mixed with a water soluble binder such as egg yolk (traditionally), milk or glue. Gouache is a water soluble opaque paint made up from pigment combined with gum arabic.
Improvement on a Classic Theme
The placement of the duck in King Buck’s mouth was not an original idea on Maynard’s part. It was a tried and true theme, used in sporting art and merchandising going back to the 1800s. Such images were prevalent at the beginning of the 20th century (see Figures 7 and 8).
What made Maynard’s image one for the ages is the way he, especially, and later the vignette engraver, rendered the look in the black Lab’s eyes (see Figure 9). The viewer cannot help but feel a strong fondness for the dog.
Reece Wins Contest for the Second Time
On December 5, 1958, the USFWS announced “A black and white wash drawing featuring a Labrador retriever carrying a Mallard Drake has been chosen as the design for the 1959-60 Migratory Bird Hunting stamp…” The press release went on to say that “Mr. Reece is the first three-time winner of the annual contest” (see Figures 10a and b).
As we have seen in part three of this series, the second statement is not accurate. Maynard’s artwork was selected by committee for the 1948-49 stamp. This was his second contest win and he had three stamps to his credit (at this point) total.
A Masterpiece of Wildlife Art
This would turn out to be more than just another stamp, however, this would prove to be a masterpiece of wildlife art. The King Buck image with a Mallard in his mouth would come to stand with Ding Darling’s Mallards alighting as the two most recognizable – and the most popular – waterfowl stamps of all time.
The image is truly iconic and has been reproduced on everything from coffee mugs to T-shirts to license plate holders – you name it. The composition, colors – everything – is pleasing to the eye (see Figure 11).
The winning artwork was sent to a team of two designers, Robert Hines and Victor S. McCloskey, Jr. The design team is compelling. As we saw in part three, Robert Hines already had a federal duck stamp to his credit (1946) and conceived the federal duck stamp contest in 1948. He designed four commemorative postage stamps to draw public attention to wildlife conservation, three in 1956 and one in 1957.
The 1957 stamp featured a whooping crane and was one of the first U.S. commemoratives printed in multicolor. It was selected as one of the “top ten stamps in the world” for that year. Interestingly, the 1957 commemorative has a similar feel to the 1959-60 duck stamp (see Figure 12).
Victor McCloskey was a veteran at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing with a distinguished past, especially with regard to duck stamps. Victor designed the classic 1940-41 duck stamp; the artwork for the stamp was created by Francis Jaques – one of Maynard’s boyhood idols and whose art heavily influenced his own.
Once Hines and McCloskey were finished designing the stamp, it was sent to the Engraving Department at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Arthur W. Dintaman engraved the vignette and Howard F. Sharpless engraved the frame lines, letters and numerals.
Each of the men named above deserves some measure of credit for the finished product and I, for one, would like to acknowledge them. Producing a great stamp like this is truly a team effort.
The 1959-60 stamp is known for many firsts: 1) The printed fee was raised from two to three dollars; 2) it was the first multicolored stamp; 3) the printing press changed from a flatbed to a Giori rotary press; 4) the sheet size changed from 112 subjects to 120, therefore, each individual pane consisted of 30 stamps (see Figure 13) and 5) the plate number was moved to the corner on the 30 stamp panes, creating plate number blocks of four as compared to plate number blocks of six on the previous issues (see Figure 14).
In addition, the 1959-60 issue was the first stamp with a conservation theme, using a dog with the message “RETRIEVERS SAVE GAME”, rather than a waterfowl as the primary subject. Subsequent issues saw the conservation messages continue, with “WILDLIFE NEEDS WATER – PRESERVE WETLANDS” printed on 1960-61 stamps and “HABITAT PRODUCES DUCKS” on 1961-62 stamps.
The 1959-60 issue is also known for a major printing error. On at least one sheet of stamps, the inscription on the reverse was inverted. Very few of these stamps have surfaced, in part due to the fact that the error is on the reverse and not readily apparent. If you own one or more copies, you might want to check them (see Figure 15).
One of my favorite 1959-60 usages is in combination with the first 1959-60 Honey Lake (California) waterfowl stamp sold (see Figure 16).
After the design featuring King Buck was announced as the winner, John commissioned Maynard to paint a large copy. This painting hung over the mantle in John’s house and it was one of his prized possessions throughout his life (see Figure 17).
Then, for Christmas, John and his current wife, Evelyn, turned the stamp image into an oversized greeting card and sent it to family, friends and clients (see Figures 18 and 19). The card, when folded, measures 7.5″ x 9″. I love this piece!
Certificates of Appreciation
The 1959-60 huntings seasons saw revenue from duck stamp sales fall by 25%. This was the result of an extended drought during the previous few years which adversely affected breeding grounds and led to a sharp decline in many species of waterfowl. Seasons needed to be shortened and bag limits reduced. Many hunters decided not to participate.
To make up for the lost revenue from hunters, the Department of the Interior (in cooperation with the National Wildlife Federation) looked to stamp collectors, wildlife art lovers and conservation minded citizens.
The National Wildlife Federation supplied the Department with attractive certificates of appreciation. The certificates were 5″ x 7′ and printed on imitation parchment (see Figure 20). The certificates were intended to reward buyers who bought the stamp after the hunting season was over.
In order to stimulate non-hunter purchases of the 1959-60 stamp before it went off sale in June, the Department of the Interior announced (via a series of press releases) that “Each purchaser of a stamp during the campaign will receive one of the certificates signed by Secretary [of the Interior] Seaton (see Figures 21a and b).
In a press release dated March 22, the Department appealed directly to stamp collectors, “From the viewpoint of the philatelist, the annual duck stamp is one of the most artistic stamps issued today… The design for the 1959-60 stamp, being sold during the drive, features a Labrador retriever carrying a Mallard drake. The black retriever used as a model by artist Maynard Reece is the famous King Buck belonging to John Olin of Nilo Kennels in Illinois.
… Stamps will be mailed in glassine envelopes so that the purchaser can then hinge-mount his stamp on the special certificate or place it in his collection”.
The Most Popular Stamp Print, Ever
Known affectionately as “the dog”, prints made from Maynard’s original artwork are exceedingly popular. There tends to be two types of buyers for federal duck stamp prints; the first attempts to acquire one print from each stamp image and works toward someday completing the set. The second wants only one or two individual prints, often to frame and place on a wall.
When it comes to the second type of buyer, Maynard Reece’s 1959 print was for decades the most requested – by far. In recent years, its popularity has been tempered by the availability and cost of obtaining a print from the first three editions.
There were five editions of Maynard’s King Buck image. The first edition was a stone lithograph. The image size was 6.625″ x 9.125″. The litho was pulled in black ink on white paper and was titled and signed by Maynard Reece in pencil. The first edition size was 400 (see Figure 22).
The second and 3rd editions were also stone lithographs, very similar to the first. The easiest way to tell the difference between the first and second editions is that the upper wing of the background duck furthest to the left is below the tip of the plant in the first (see Figure 22), while it is overlaying the tip of the plant in the second (see Figure 23).
The size of the second edition was 300. It should be noted that a large portion of the second edition was handled by Abercrombie & Fitch in New York City. When they framed the prints, they trimmed them severely. Therefore, prints from the second edition with margins greater than one and a half inches on all four sides generally sell for a premium.
The 3rd edition was label by Reece as such and numbered 400 plus 15 artist proofs. For the 4th edition, a new stone was drawn in which the expression in the dog’s eyes was clearly changed. For this reason, uncolored fourth edition prints are not considered as desirable but remain in demand due to their relative affordability.
The size for the 4th edition was 330 regular plus 90 prints that were hand colored. The hand colored edition is considered to be very desirable and is difficult to acquire (see Figure 24).
The 5th (or master) edition was released as part of a set of all five Reece duck stamp images, in 2006. For the first time, all five were available in full color. They were packaged in high quality folders, a special box and 125 sets were produced.
As you can see, a lot of things had to come together for the 1959-60 federal waterfowl stamp to come into being. John Olin developed a serious interest in wildlife conservation and became a leading advocate for the use of retrievers to limit the loss of crippled and otherwise unclaimed game birds that had been shot.
Jay Darling grew up with a profound interest in wildlife conservation and used his syndicated cartoons to raise public awareness for the cause. This attracted the attention of FDR and, along with Aldo Leopold, they were somehow able to get a resistant Congress to change its opinion on the national hunting license and the federal waterfowl stamp finally became a reality.
Maynard Reece grew up in Iowa and was introduced to Darling, who took him under his wing, helping Maynard on his way to becoming a great wildlife artist and encouraging Maynard to follow in his footsteps as a federal duck stamp artist in 1948.
John Olin saw something in a young black lab with a checkered past. He brought the dog to Nilo Farms where, under the talented handler Cotton Pershall, King Buck matured into a two time National Field Trials Champion and a national celebrity.
In 1958, conservation organizations anxious to promote the use of retrievers – undoubtedly supported by Olin – influenced the Department of the Interior to request that artists submitting entries for the 1959-60 stamp “submit drawings which show a retriever in action”.
Olin Industries invited Maynard Reece, an accomplished wildlife artist with two federal duck stamps and a seven-page Life Magazine spread to his credit, to visit Nilo Farms and meet King Buck, a black Labrador retriever they believe would be perfect for the upcoming stamp.
The second time the Olin employees throw the duck in the water, the dog turns to Maynard and their eyes meet for a few moments – allowing Maynard to capture the dog’s expression in such a way as to enchant not only the duck stamp contest judges – but generations of stamp collectors, wildlife art aficionados, conservation devotees, sportsmen and dog lovers.
I would like to thank Maynard and Brad Reece for answering all of my questions and providing a photo of the original artwork for the 1959-60 stamp; Russell Fink for helping me to sort out some of the intricate details in the story and Jen Pope, Librarian at Penrose Library on the Whitman College campus, for providing a key piece of the puzzle – the Department of the Interior publication by Edna Slater stating that in 1947, a committee invited artists to submit their work.
I would especially like to thank my lovely wife, Kay, for her patience and support as I build the content on this website.