Monte and the Duck Island Hunting Club

April 25, 2010

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.

8 Responses to “Monte and the Duck Island Hunting Club”

  1. Jane said

    I love this area. I’m sorry the IDNR didn’t keep the buildings. What a history.

  2. Anonymous said

    One of my ancestors was referenced as a member of the Duck Club as part of his 1940s obituary. Your site provided some interesting background on the club. Thanks to your family for your care of the club, property, and members.

  3. monteellis said

    Thank you for taking the time to read through this blog and taking the time to make a comment.

  4. gina jones fitzgerald said

    My Dad hunted this area the 40’s thru the 80’s. Thank you for this interesting & informative website. blessings. gina jones fitzgerald

  5. Anonymous said

    Great site the duck island is a great place have hunted alot in the area.My father and uncle hunted the area a lot in the 1930’s and 1940’s and they had a lot of tales to tell they were differant times when people were real not like now.I try to make it to the area to hunt or just to sit and watch the day go by to bad the state can’t take care of any thing they get. But thanks again R.T.D

    • monteellis said

      Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. Yes, it was a remarkable place at one time and even a more wonderful time and place for those that were fortunate to have resided there. One thing Monte really desired was for the state to turn the residing house into some sort of interpretive/visitor’s center. He also hoped at one time the state would have done something similar to the hunter lodge at the Voorhees location along the Banner Dike Road (of course, prior to someone burning it down).

  6. Andrew Fuller said

    I was so surprised to find this site and the pictures. That is the house where I grew up. It really made an impact on my brothers and me living there. I believe that being there instilled values that I hold today- respect and reverence to nature. I would still hike in there from time to time to see the tower, the house, and the rest of the outbuildings. The day that I rounded the bend and saw that the old house was gone was an incredible shock. It’s gone now, but sometimes when I dream, I’m still there.

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