This is a brief overview of the history of calls that have been used to hunt turkeys in America. For brevity's sake, the main discussion is limited primarily to the 19th - 21st centuries, although certain devices such as the "bone flutes" discovered in archaeological dig sites have been dated back to prehistoric North America. NOTE: The following historical info is accurate to the best of my limited knowledge. I will include references where it seems necessary, and eventually add a list of sources; however, I would be happy to pass on sources to anyone who is interested. Also, anyone who finds errors is welcome to straighten me out.
Records, journals, and other accounts of early pioneers and settlers dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries indicate that the native Americans they encountered used "bone flutes," presumably turkey wingbones, to call turkeys, although it has also been pointed out that many were proficient at both calling and gobbling with their voices. These early "air-operated" (as opposed to friction) calls were operated by forcefully pulling or sucking air through the device. There are also references to white settlers using bones to call turkeys. One source mentions that as early as 1787 a hunter in that part of Tennessee that is now Nashville was almost shot by another hunter who had mistaken him for a turkey.
One of the earliest "turkey hunting experts," Charles L. Jordan, who also wrote about turkey calling and hunting in Forest and Stream magazine in the late 19th Century, made a call from the turkey's radius bone, combining it with pieces of reed or cane to make something similar to the wingbone yelpers commonly made today. The famous book by McIlhenny is actually his completion of the book Jordan began; Jordan was killed, most likely by a poacher, before he could finish the book.
Recent Wingbone Yelper. Jordan's would have looked similar, but would have most likely attached the radius to pieces of cane with waxed thread (call and photo courtesy of Jesse H).
Other callmakers like Tom Turpin made a similar call by inserting the turkey bone into a hollowed out piece of wood (see photo at right), sometimes trumpet-shaped (below). Eventually, some callmakers would make yelpers similar to wingbones, but exclusively out of wood, cane, or other materials. Some have even been made with a "plunger" in the end to force air through the call, eliminating the need for a hunter to master the tricky art of playing this call from his lips.
"Bone pipes" were not the only calling devices used in the late 19th Century, however. "Peg and pot" slate calls and box calls were both used in the 1800s. The slate calls were used much like they are today, the only real difference being that a piece of slate was simply cupped in the hand instead of being set in a "pot" as they typically are now.
This type of call is operated by scraping the peg against the slate to produce the various standard hen calls. The "peg" or dowel striker is typically attached to a larger dowel or block of wood that has been hollowed out to produce a sound chamber. These days, many substances have been used to replace slate as a striking service--notably aluminum and glass--while carbon and acrylic rods are often used as strikers, particularly on non-slate surfaces.
This "Pure Poison" Tony Reynolds peg-and-pot features glass as a striking surface, while the Ron Clough call on the right sports a slate surface and "stick (dowel)-and-corncob" striker.
Some of the earliest box-type calls were the "fiddle" or "scratch box" calls which utilized a small box as a sound chamber with a single raised edge across which a piece of slate or perhaps wood was scraped to make the yelp and other calls. Of course, boxes with hinged lids became popular just before the turn of the century when Henry Gibson patented his classic box caller in 1897.
In addition to the "bone flute" or wingbone yelpers, which were operated by suction, another air-operated calling device preferred by some was to simply blow across a thin piece of rubber or latex stretched tight between thumb and forefinger and held close to the lips. The execution of this same basic idea later evolved into the snuff can or tube call, in which a section was cut out of the lid of a snuff can, and a rubber reed stretched across and held in place by a rubber band, string, etc. The bottom of the can was then cut out to form an open-ended sound chamber which could be used to concentrate and project the sound in a preferred direction.
The 20th Century
Tom Turpin, Inman Turpin, and M. L. Lynch further popularized the box call throughout the early and middle decades of this century. Roger Latham of Penn's Woods calls later bought the Turpin's business and continued making a very similar box call, the True Tone. Of course, the Lynch call company is still in business, having been sold by Mr. Lynch to Allen Jenkins around 1970. One other major call development was the mouth diaphragm. One account, according to outdoor writer John Phillips, attributes the development of the turkey diaphragm call to Jim Radcliffe of Andalusia, Alabama, who, while obtaining treatment for rabies at a New Orleans hospital in the 1920s, met a street performer who made various bird calls with a mouth diaphragm--a piece of thin rubber stretched between a horseshoe-shaped piece of lead. Radcliffe supposedly worked with the performer to bend the and manipulate the call until it could be made to produce turkey sounds.
Due to successful restocking efforts, turkey population increases, and the subsequent increase in popularity of turkey hunting in the United States, the latter half of the 20th Century saw an explosion in the number and variety of calls, both commercial and custom, offered to the public. In addition to the same basic yelpers, slates, boxes, mouth diaphragms, and tubes, numerous variations abound. Some of the most significant changes have involved the use of new and different materials to construct the same basic calls: for instance, the use of glass, aluminum, "Sla-Tek," and other synthetic materials have increased the range and durability of slate-type calls.
More information on turkey calls and their history, as well as pictures of contemporary callmakers and their work, can be found online at Custom Calls Online. A list of books related to turkey calls, callmakers, and their history, can be found on my Resources page. The books by Howard Harlan and Earl Mickel are highly recommended.