For many years, near Banner, Illinois and deep in the Illinois river bottoms, a private duck hunting club existed.  From different sources, the name of the site varies a bit, but was most commonly referred to as the Duck Island Hunting Club or versions of such a title. To the Monte Ellis family, it was just referred to as “Big Lake” and that is how it will referred to here.

Monte was the site manager and caretaker from 1965 to Spring of 1975.  Prior to 1965, Monte was also a guide or “pusher” at this site.  A guide or “pusher” would transport hunters to duck blinds spread out throughout the site by boat.  Many of the Ellis family worked at this site throughout the years.  The term “pusher” refers to the practice of moving boats along by use of a long pole or paddle, especially in shallow water.  Monte’s brother Jared, was one of the best “push-pole” handlers known in this area and amazed many by his ability to keep the bow of his crafts traveling in a straight line with what seemed to be little effort.

Many of the boats used were heavy, wooden skiffs, rather than the later used and much preferred lighter aluminum Jon Boats.

Below is an aerial map of the site.  The large body of water in the upper left is Rice Lake.  The large body of water to the right of Rice Lake is Big Lake and the land mass between the two is Duck Island.   The Illinois River cuts the illustration through the middle.

Below is a close up of the aerial diagram.  In the middle of the image is a black dot.  This is the location where the buildings to the Duck Island Hunting Club once stood.  A small off-shoot of the Illinois River flows to the west and is known as West River.   When the area would flood high enough to prevent travel by road, West River would be used to gain access to the main house at Big Lake.

The Big Lake site is accessed by traveling down what used to be for a very long time, a gravel road south of Banner, IL.  This road, the Banner Dike Road, has since been covered with a more durable and smooth gravel and tar road and ends in a turn-around along he Illinois River.  The entrance road to Big Lake is found where the Banner Dike Road ends.  This road, which once led to the buildings at Big Lake, was a single lane dirt road, often reinforced with large gravel after high-water flooding.

At a point in the mid-to-late-eighties, the State of Illinois purchased this site and bulldozed all the remaining structures at the Big Lake site.

Below is a photograph depicting what one used to see when approaching the buildings at Big Lake by the dirt road.  The building in the forefront was known as the Club House.  On the right is planted corn and on the left, a field of Sunflowers planted by Monte.

Below is a photograph of the main house at Big Lake.  West River would be located to the left of the house and Big Lake toward the right.  A large, screened in porch was on the second floor to the house.  In the image, the porch is to the left.  Large Cottonwood trees stood guard outside of this porch.    The Monte Ellis family greatly enjoyed sitting on this porch during thunderstorms and into the evening.   For a short period of time, a pair of flying squirrels were also kept on this porch, but quickly lost favor due to their habit of biting people.

After Monte relinquished his job as site manager, the next tenants chose to board up this screen porch.

One year, honey bees built a very large honey-comb nest off one of the corners of the porch.  When the time was right, the bees were chased away with smoke and the honey rich comb broken away, collected and stored in a large, antique milk can.

Below is another photograph of the main house at Big Lake.  This photograph is taken from the entrance road that came up to the main house and depicts a time of flooding.

Below is a photograph of the out buildings that once existed between the main house and club house.  The club house can be seen in background and to the right, the plucking building.  The building in the left, forefront  was used for sleeping quarters.  Another building used for sleeping quarters was also located behind the plucking building and can’t be seen in this photograph. Each of these buildings contained bunk beds, a stove and refrigerator.

The last building in front of the club house was a large work and storage building.

Inside of a the plucking building, hunters would sit on a long board above a large, rectangular, box-like structure used to catch the feathers plucked from their killed waterfowl.  Hunters would sit on this bench, pluck their kill and drop the feathers into this catching bin.

On different occasions, Sharyl, Monte’s wife, would retrieve feathers and make both feather pillows and mattresses.

Below is a photograph of the Club House at Big Lake.  The main, first floor portion of the building contained a large, open entertaining area, with the highlight being a huge fireplace.  The upstairs to the main part of the building contained the sleeping quarters.   The square attachment part of the building was a room where hunters would change their clothes, muddy boots and store their gear.

Sometime around 1979, ice from a winter flood damaged the Club House beyond repair.  It was torn down and a metal building greatly lacking in character and style raised as its replacement.

According to Monte, during the very later part of his tenure at Big Lake, the topic of logging existing large trees within this area would arise from time to time.  Monte strongly voiced his opinion to the owners of the site and while site manager, such logging did not occur.   In later years, such logging did happen and to Monte, he believed the loss of many large trees in the area allowed the ice to freeze in larger chunks, which may have contributed to the damage of the Club House.

From the site area, Big Lake was accessed by use of a dirt road west of the Club House.  Because a raised boat dock did not exist, access to the lake was by a ditch or by pushing a boat out through shallow water until the water grew deep enough for oars, or if available, outboard boat motors.

Below is a photograph of Monte with the family dog, Pet, at the base of an observation tower, near the water access area of Big Lake.  For many years, the observation tower deck rose above the tree line, but in later years, surrounding Maple trees out grew the tower.  After years of neglect, the wood to the tower rotted and while to this day the metal frame of the tower still exists, it is unsafe to climb and just a rusting skeleton of its former complete structure.

Monte and his family left Big Lake during the Spring of 1975.  Monte was introduced to a man regarding the promotion of his artwork and it was stressed to Monte, to become financially successful, he must focus exclusively upon his artwork.  With this pressure and the mistaken belief Monte and Sharyl had that their children greatly disliked living at Big Lake, a need for a change was decided.  The Monte Ellis family then moved to the small town of Banner, IL.

At first glance, because of Monte’s love of nature, it might seem strange a huge influence upon Monte was as an employee and site manager of a wildlife hunting site, but on further study, Monte benefited greatly from this era of his life.  The former owners of this site provided Monte with an opportunity to have unfettered access to nature.  These owners also appreciated nature more than most and purchased many items of Monte’s artwork and introduced him to other potential customers.

Other art pieces…..

April 17, 2010

Over the years, Monte would develop different pieces of art.  Below are two pieces involving cut outs/presses.

Regarding the Maple tree leaf, one way he would create such a leaf would be to make a plastic template and then add striations to the plastic to re-produce the veins and seams of the leaf and then press the leaf on to paper products to record the characteristics of the leaf.   He would then cut out around the leaf.

Monte did not “trace” a leaf or things like butterflies for these pieces.  He also experimented with different recording mediums, such as thin sheets of brass, when it came to these cut outs/presses.  

The below three illustrations are very early works by Monte.  For many years, all of these hung on the walls in the home of John and Zelma Ellis in Monterey, IL.  For years, Monte tried to get these illustrations from Zelma, however, she would not relinquish any of these, even upon Monte’s promise to trade later works of art of a higher quality.  Zelma possibly would not trade them due to sentimental reasons.

The  middle illustration may also be one of the few, remaining earliest pieces ever done by Monte and was clearly completed while he was quite young, evident by both the quality of the illustration and by his early signature style.

The bottom water-color obviously shows Monte’s great promise as an artist.  If given the chance, Monte probably would have destroyed these illustrations.

After Zelma, then John, passed away, Monte’s wife Sharyl, gave these to their son Eric, without Monte’s knowledge.

Monte was profiled in the 10-23-1971 Weekender edition of the Peoria Journal Star.  Photographs of several pieces of his artwork were included in this profile.

The front cover was an oil painting of a pair of Wood Ducks.

It is unsure who owns this painting.

Swamp Pastel from 1974

April 8, 2010

Above is a pastel of a swamp scene created by Monte from 1974.

Because of the date of the illustration and the content of the depicted scene, it is clear this creation was inspired by trips to the Black River Swamp Preserve in South Carolina during the 1970’s.   During this period, Monte’s brother, Larry, took Monte and others for trips to this preserve in Larry’s hand-crafted “swamp boats.”

Monte’s thoughts and vivid descriptions on these trips are known through written journals.

From time to time, Monte would create family portraits of members of his family.  Earlier in this blog, a photograph of Monte and Sharyl’s daughter, Kathy, and a black and white photograph of a pastel of the photograph was posted.  The images are repeated below.   Also, elsewhere in this blog are a series of six images of pencil drawings of the six Ellis boys Monte created for his mother, Zelma, in 1964.

Below are other images Monte created of family members.

One odd discovery has been made through the examination of Monte’s artwork and that is, of his known remaining pieces, a portrait of Monte’s mother, Zelma, does not exist for some unknown reason.  It is possible through her modesty, Zelma preferred Monte not to produce a portrait in her honor.  The choice of not creating such a portrait of Zelma was certainly not out of the lack of affection.

Monte also created a large pastel of Sharyl early in their marriage, but because of personal reasons an image of that pastel will not be posted.

Below is a large pencil drawing of Monte’s father, John, and other relatives.  John’s image is in the middle and is believed to have been reproduced from his high school graduation picture.

Above, John F. Ellis.

At this time, the name of the above gentleman it is not known, but an attempt to identify him is being made.

While it is believed the drawing of the man in the upper right hand corner is of John’s brother, Fred, the names of the other three men are not known as of this time.  Again, an attempt is being made to discover the names of the remaining three men.

Below is the earlier posted photograph of Monte and Sharyl’s daughter, Kathy.

Below is a black and white photograph of the color portrait pastel Monte created.  The image needs to be seen to be fully appreciated and is in the possession of Kathy’s husband, Frank, and their son, Kris.

Below are two portraits of Monte and Sharyl’s son, Eric.  The first is a ball-point ink-pen parody and the second, a pastel drawing.  Earlier in this blog a portrait of Eric reading a horror comic was posted.

Below is a pencil drawing of an old, wooden wagon in front of pine trees.  Since Monte is no longer here, unless all ready known, exact explanations of the origins of his artwork can only be speculated about.

During a period around the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Monte and Sharyl worked on several items to sale during the annual Spoon River Drive in central Illinois.  These items included note cards with covers bearing Monte’s artwork and pouches of potpourri.

At one time, the family living next door to the Monte Ellis family had an old wagon in their yard near a large Basswood tree.  Coincidentally, years later the Monte Ellis family would move into this same house.  The wagon that used to be in this yard appeared very similar to the one depicted below and it may have given Monte an idea for one of the note cards.

Below is a photograph of the large Basswood tree in the yard of what would become the final home of Monte and Sharyl Ellis.  This particular tree was a great favorite of both Monte and Sharyl.

Below is the cover to one of the note cards crafted by Monte.  Note the similarity of the changed tree in the final note card image to that of the Basswood tree.

As mentioned much earlier, Monte was not a religious man and could probably be described as a naturalist, atheist.  Monte also believed in evolution, the tenets of Darwinism and in his mind, did not especially care for how human-kind had grown to perceive the natural world as being provided for the pleasure of humans and to be used at their leisure.  Monte’s love and passion for the natural world can never be over-emphasized and to understand the many motivations of Monte, the passion and love he held for the natural world is the best way of understanding the essence of his life and drives.

These views held by Monte are not being reiterated to offend, but to illustrate just how unusual it was for Monte to have undertaken the two below art pieces.

The origin of the first is unclear, however, it is possible the below pencil drawing may have been done as a commissioned piece of artwork.