A lifetime of turkeys

There is, tucked into a tiny office in a shop in rural Sussex County, a sight probably unlike any other to be found in the nation.
Each year it draws the curious by the hundreds.
It’s a man cave’s man cave — a room stuffed, crammed and packed with enough turkey hunting collectables that the 10-foot by 10-foot space is a keg of feathered testosterone dynamite.
This is the one-room office, at Dukes Lumber Co. near Laurel, belonging to salesman Don Fountain of Salisbury.
It’s also his pride and joy turkey museum and collectives exhibit.
There are 16 genuine full mounts (or “stuffed” as they were called) mature turkeys, several flying from the ceiling, others strutting, walking and observing.
“All these birds were taken locally, from Crisfield, Dagsboro, the Burnt Swamp. Yep, mine all mine. I won the turkey hunting contest three years in a row at Wink’s Sporting Goods Store in Princess Anne until they stopped having it.
“I’ve killed the biggest turkey, hands down, in the Burnt Swamp for the past three years.”
Last year’s swamp prize weighed just a feather more than 23 pounds, bearing inch-and-a-half spurs.
“That’s a big turkey,” he all but whispered to maintain modesty.
There are tricks of the hunting trade to get the prize turkey.
“Deer hunting is ambushing, but in turkey hunting you have to call him,” he said. To get the right conversation going between a turkey and a wannabe turkey, Fountain relies on a collection of turkey calls.
In a box are numerous wooden turkey calls, strange two-piece contraptions that, when activated with a slight back and forth of the wrist, produce an absolutely convincing mimic of gobbler talk.
Truth is, the wooden chatter is so “right on,” its eerie.
“I can make it work a thousand different ways,” he said. “This one I got from the Eastern Shore of Virginia” he said of an all-wood caller. “A very primitive one, made from the lock box in a door. Someone was very clever.
“One of the biggest things in turkey collectables are the calls, that’s really hot,” he said. He even has a “wing bone call,” a call fashioned from a turkey’s bone wing that “talks the talk” when the hunter activates it by “kinda sucking on it,” he said.
Not exactly everybody’s idea of fun, sucking on a very dry and very old bone.
There’s hardly enough room in the office for two chairs and a desk surface about 2 feet square. Fortunately the landline phone hangs on the wall, but his cell, the business phone of choice, seems to ring every other minute .
It’s an immediate in-your-face you can’t possibly see it all at a glance visual explosion of shimmering iridescent feathers and turkeys from ceiling to floor, left and right. They fly over Fountain’s head, peck at his feet and scurry by his elbows.
Neatly tucked between each bird are all things turkey. A few dozen turkey salt and peppers share space with a display case of turkey-themed belt buckles and folks art carvings, and dozens of ceramic figurines of colorful turkeys.
Even the office light switch plate is turkey themed.
In plastic holders are hundreds of quarters from Mississippi with turkeys featured on the reverse side. There are a few beer steins featuring Benjamin Franklin’s favorite strutting fowl
“Kids just flip out when they come in here and see this stuff, and when our truck drivers from the South come in here, they are just stunned,” the collector said.
From a table dangle two handfuls of turkey feet. They are, Fountain said, his voice softened with reverence, coveted awards of the turkey hunter’s skill. It’s the length of the spur that reveals the age of the bird and its potential furiously.
“This is the trophy on a turkey, the big spurs on the feet.”
“If a turkey lives to be five, he’s super old. Anything with a point and black tips is three years old or better. They are white black-tipped daggers spurs on older birds.
“I get women sales people coming here and they aren’t familiar with turkey hunting. They see turkey feet hanging there and make a face,” he explained.
“It’s a tradition. Accomplished hunters will have rows of feet and beards on display,” he said. “The longer the beards, the longer the spurs, the better the turkey. About one in a hundred hens will have a beard. And you can only shoot turkeys with beards.”
Each foot, suspended from a leather strap, is much like a multi-pointed set of trophy deer antlers. Here and there, for accent, dangle gray turkey beards with their course horse-tail like strands.
Stacked, squeezed, piled and crammed are dozens of other turkey related items.
There are turkey platters, thermometers, calendar plates from 1906, a rare turkey candy mold, photos, drawings, oil paintings of turkeys, rare German papier mache gobblers, made in 1890, that were candy holders. There’s even kitchen towels sporting the fowl once considered a candidate to be the nation’s official bird.
It is an explosion of feathers, drumsticks and wings celebrating all things turkey. There are at least 2,000 bird-related items that are slowly edging Fountain and his chair out the door.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is where turkeys come home to roost for eternity.
As one can’t have too much money, Fountain has discovered that one can’t have enough turkeys. He is still poking about flea markets and yard sales for that elusive turkey prize.
Some things are just a quarter, and some things come with a $800 price tag.
All of this can be traced to the love of sitting in the woods hunting a turkey.
The excitement, the anticipation, the very thrill of the hunt are reflected in the tiny beads of sweat on his forehead as he recounts the hunting mystique.
This is a serious, serious hunter.
“The hunting appeal is simply bagging a turkey. It’s the hardest thing in hunting. You can go on a hunt 10 times before you get a turkey. They are the most wary things out there. If you don’t sound just right calling, he won’t come. It’s not natural for him to come. What’s natural is for him to strut and the hens come to come.”
He talks in the jargon of a hunter, losing the casual listener.
“If you are fortunate enough into attracting the ‘boss hen,’ the one that determines the movement of the hens, that’s a plus.”
To be more convincing, hunters will flash a “fan” made of turkey tail feathers to fill him into believing another tom is vying for those hens. “Then he will come a running,” Fountain said.
“It’s also a dangerous ploy because you can get shot if you don’t know where the other hunters are.”
“I rely more on just calling. I use a box call, or a mouth diaphragm or a squeaker call and scratch the leaves. This is involved to an extremely high degree. I sit out there with ten different calls. Which one’s the best?. The one that gets the turkey.”
Sitting there as still as dead, Fountain watches the tom. With his shotgun on a holder he takes aim at the bird five to 60 yards away. “You can barely move. You have to shoot him in the head or his little neck or you’ll never kill him. You can shoot his features all day long and not get him. The layered feathers are just like armor.”
Nothing in life is as serious and deserving of such intense concentration than the task at hand. In his beloved hunting habitat, and as much on edge as a member of the Special Forces on a mission, Fountain dares not to even draw a much needed breath over dry lips.
The turkey moves even close and then, the hunter said, all the beautiful colors in the head and iridescent feathers, unseen in winter, “become electric.”
And then, if the Roman god of hunt is with him, Fountain bags his bird. And if it’s “good enough” it will soon be in his office.
Fountain recounts the almost unbearable tension of hiding in the woodland background, fearing to even blink least he betray his presence to the oh-so-smart, oh-some-stupid, gobbling tom.
He relives the highlights of hunts past, memories of pure ecstasy.
Fountains eyes widen as he relives those tales. His trigger finger ever so lightly twitches. No turkey is safe.
Fellow hunters have elevated this exhibit to a spiritual status.
“This is a shrine,” said customer and hunter Craig Thompson. “This is awesome. This is a shrine to a pastime. Turkey hunting takes real skill because the birds are smart as hell, dumb as hell at the same time. I bring my friends in to see this place. There’s nothing like this anywhere, even in the homes of hunters. This represents a lot of work Don has put into hunting, a lot of work. There’s hours and hours of hunting that goes in to each bird. This place is special, real special.”
There are wind up mechanical turkeys, a series of wild turkey liquor bottles and signs, and coveted turkey calls. They are ingenious devices, the older ones crafted of two pieces of wood. On the wall hangs a framed print of turkeys playing poker, and nearby, a genuine oil on canvas of a strutting tom.
“I have hand-painted turkey platters,” he said, pointing to a setting on a shelf. The platters are quality works of art. “These kinds of platters have always been popular with collectors.”
So, just how did this turkey obsession begin?
“When I was young, I went to live with an aunt because my father was trying to get in her will. Her husband was a taxidermist and every room in the house was filled with taxidermy. So I loved it, dealt in it heavily as a business with restaurants and stuff. At home it’s all about deers and antlers.
“I have collected and traded in taxidermy, buying and selling fish, elk, deer, everything.”
He started turkey hunting when the season first opened in 1988, but it took him three years before he bagged his first bird.
That bird was mounted and was the first item to appear in his office. Then an avalanche of gobbler collectibles began picking up speed.
Fountain hunts with the Lower Sussex Sportsman Association, and it’s helpful to him that president Debbie Daisey, of Parker’s Taxidermy, is the one who mounts his birds. “She really knows how a strutting tom in the wild is supposed to look like,” he said. “That’s why my birds look so real.”
According to Fountain, it’s virtually impossible for a taxidermist to recreate the full body “blown feathers” look that the tom can muster to increase his size and appeal to the hens.
He admits he is not a connoisseur of wild turkey meat, and chooses to give turkeys that “don’t make the cut (for mounting),” away.
The only utilitarian part of the turkey is the wing tip, and like goose wings, can be used as dusters.
“But nobody uses wing dusters anymore,” Fountain explained. “Back in the day, because turkey features are so stiff, they made brooms out of them. I give a lot of feathers to my Native American friends.”
This office is definitely not where turkey’s feel at home — his phone rings every two minutes or so with customers on the other end. It gets nerve wracking, fast.
But, the salesman said, it’s the sound money makes. He’s been, “as man and boy,” working at Dukes for 44 years.
His office museum is fine with the management because he has mastered “sales and production.”
“Long as you sell, nobody cares,” he said with laughter. “That’s the bottom line.
“When we started here 44 years ago, it was me and Dale Dukes. I’d sell all day then come back and pull the orders and he and I would deliver the orders until midnight then get back here at 6 a.m. the following morning, doing it again. We were working 75-hour weeks, and I still work 60-plus,” he said. Each year, from April 18 to May 23, Fountain takes his vacation. And each year means more stuff for the museum.
“His wife doesn’t know all this stuff is here and if she did she’d want it to stay here. He can hardly get in his office,” said company owner Dale Dukes, laughing. “I don’t hunt turkeys, I hire turkeys. The kids love coming in here and some kids think these things are real.”
So the office turkeys are there to stay.
What happens with all these things when the “big day” comes and Fountain is whisked away to turkey heaven? What will wife, Susan, do with turkey feet, calls, platters and mounted fowl?
“Oh, I haven’t told her what I have invested in this collection,” he confessed. “I guess I have $30,000 plus in it. But if I should sell, I probably won’t get anything like that back.”
Of course, he said, there are things in the collection that are sure-thing investments.
“These paper German candy holders are good, they are real as real can be (genuine antiques). I paid $200 each and just turned down $300.”
“That first edition Austin Nichols wild turkey liquor bottle sold for $3,000 when it was new. Won’t bring that now, though. I was lucky to get it for $20 at a yard sale.”
Part Two of this collecting obsession threatens to take over his man cave at home. Wife Susan must be a saint.
“Home to me is deer, ducks, geese, turkeys, any animal.”
She holds her tongue, he said, as she surveys the collection of a couple of thousand deer antlers. That’s right — a generous cascading pile of 2,000-plus antlers.
“I’m a collector,” he admitted. Susan sees it as hoarding. She just doesn’t understand a man simply cannot have too many antlers.
“Here at the office and at home I do all the dusting and cleaning. Don’t want anyone else messing with it.”
He need not worry. Susan isn’t risking her life over an antler avalanche.
“She collects, too. She’s got a closet full of clothes and shoes.”
Home or office, Fountain is surrounded with the things he loves.
“I call my office my turkey museum. It’s a place where turkey hunters go nuts. If you are not a turkey hunter you can’t connect on the same level. You can’t. If you haven’t spent hours and hours and hours in the woods listening to turkeys gobble and you can’t get them to come, listening to birds sing, and having snakes crawl under your legs, you can’t understand. It’s the pinnacle of hunting,” Fountain said.
Come Thanksgiving, Fountain confessed, the one thing that will not on the holiday menu is the wild turkey shot in spring and frozen.
Truth is, he just doesn’t care for wild turkey served with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.
“I like it (breast meat) cut in cubes and deep fried. I usually just give away the turkeys that I get in the spring.”
Cooking turkey is tricky he said. “If you cook him up until 10 seconds before he becomes leather, it’s great. But, literally, 10 seconds too long and you can put it in your shoes to cover up holes.”
He prefers fresh turkey from Wright’s Turkey Farm near Mardela Springs. “Best yet, I’d prefer eating out on Thanksgiving, but the wife also fixes us turkey.”