MRS. LATTA’S PAPER BAG
It was a hot summer evening in July of 1981 when an elderly lady I had become friends with by the name of Mrs. Vivian Latta strolled through the doors of my family’s restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi. Mrs. Latta was in her 80s and had been an educator all her life, retiring from Central High School.
“I have something I want you to have,” she said as she handed me a brown paper bag concealing her gift.
You see, I was the manager on duty many afternoons and evenings when Mrs. Latta came in for her evening meal. I had started my game call company in 1976, known as Primos Yelpers at the time, and would soon be known as Primos Hunting. To be sure I could pay the bills, I kept my job working in the family restaurants as the call company grew.
I would always stop and speak to Mrs. Latta and if I had time, I would visit and see how she was doing. Mrs. Latta would always ask about my new company. In the spring, she always wanted to hear how turkey season was going, as her daddy had been a turkey hunter.
And that brings us to the treasure she handed me in a paper bag.
THE GIBSON LEGEND
I slowly opened the bag to find a box call, of a rather large size, in a leather form-fitted carrying case. The lid on the box call was stamped in black ink and read, “GIBSON TURKEY CALL & GOBBLER, Patented Jan. 5th 1897, SIMMONS HARDWARE CO., Sole Agts., St. Louis, MO.”
The call was in excellent condition and being a turkey hunter, I had read about the Gibson box call, but I had never seen one. “Oh, Mrs. Latta, this is incredible!” I said. “This call is worth something, and I think you could sell it for a fair sum.” Mrs. Latta replied, “I want you to have it.” I sat down with her and asked her to tell me the story behind the call.
She said her daddy, William Fred Marshall (1869-1911), left her the call, and it had been in her closet ever since. Right then I said, “Mrs. Latta, I will treasure this call and share it with as many people as I can so they, too, can enjoy its history.” I made a simple shadow box for the call and its leather case so we could proudly display it in the showroom for every visitor to Primos Hunting to enjoy.
I thought that displaying it this way was the best way I could share it, as I had promised Mrs. Latta I would. As time went on and Primos grew, passing its 40th year in business, I thought I needed to do something more with this call. I had an idea.
THE GIBSON GIVES BACK
In February of 2016, I told several of the NWTF’s leaders at the annual Convention and Sport Show in Nashville that I had this Gibson box call and that I wanted to give it to the NWTF Winchester Museum for display in Edgefield, South Carolina. First, I wanted to create an opportunity around the gift for the NWTF to raise money to benefit its members, its mission and Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. Over the next year, we ran several ideas up the flagpole. We wanted to give turkey hunters around the country the chance to hold and own a piece of turkey call history, as well as gain a better understanding of what Gibson’s invention meant to our industry and the sport we love.
All of us — call makers and hunters alike — have benefited from Gibson’s invention. His idea remains the basis for all box calls we use today, as stated on the patent: of Mr. C. Henry Gibson, a citizen of the United States, residing at Dardanelle, in the county of Yell and State of Arkansas, and the resulting patent No. 574,534 on Jan. 5, 1897. At that time, it was as innovative as anything a turkey hunter had ever seen. Imagine a hunter from the late 1800s standing in a store today and gazing at the wall of options we have to call in a roaring gobbler!
The truth is, Gibson had it right. His patent called for “preferably cedar” and the basic design of this hinged-lid box was cutting edge in 1897. Over the years, we call makers have experimented with different size boxes, different woods, wood treatments, the angles of the side boards, the thickness of the side boards, the thickness of the lid, the curvature of the lid and adding a spring under the lid to make the call better and better at “Speaking the Language.”
Of all the calls we have to choose from today, the box call is one of the calls I do not leave home without. We, as call makers and artisans of the box call, have experimented and honed our craft; the box call has become not only a work of art but also a folk art. They are beautiful instruments, like the Stradivarius violin, and in the right hands they can make beautiful music and illicit a response from what would have been a closed-mouthed gobbler.
HONORING THE ORIGINAL, MAKING IT BETTER
Our industry is fortunate to have a handful of master call makers. The finest artisan of the craft of building calls I know of is Anthony Foster, who runs the Primos call shop. He has taken the art of building calls to a level never thought of until the last 30 years by using programmable CNC (Computerized Numerically Controlled) equipment to reach precise measurements for reproducing sound. One of our efforts and the NWTF’s efforts to bring awareness of Henry C. Gibson’s contribution to the art of calling turkeys was to recreate, in every detail, the Gibson box call.
Anthony and I did our research down to the specific screw in the original Gibson that held the lid to the box. The shape of the screw’s head made a big difference in the consistency of the sounds made by the Gibson box call. We found that screw in — of all places — England, and we found this screw was still in production today. We are reproducing 1,641 of these original Gibson box calls for auction at NWTF banquets in 2018 to raise money for the NWTF.
In addition, we are also challenging every successful purchaser of the Gibson to take it hunting, call up a gobbler and experience what our ancestors experienced in the late 1800s. I can promise, you will have a blast holding this call and reliving what those turkey hunters of old felt as a gobbler responded to their calls made with this innovative call, just as I did this past season.
120 YEARS LATER: CAN IT STILL CALL ‘EM IN?
At Primos, we are as committed as ever to proving a call that works. With our Gibson replica in hand, I sat down to gobbling turkeys in the Mississippi River bottom on opening weekend with Brad Farris, who has worked on and appeared in the “Truth About Hunting” series of TV shows and DVDs for 20 years. We doubled when two 3-year-old toms came to the sounds of our Gibson. In late April, Brad and I went to Kansas and called up a devious Rio in an incredibly beautiful creek bottom. On that Kansas hunt, I yelped and purred so softly I don’t think a human could have heard me at 10 yards. At one point, Brad whispered, “I don’t think he can hear you,” so I called softly again and what turned out to be a 4-plus-year-old gobbler heard it for sure and gobbled back from about 200 yards. This mean, old turkey answered so loud he sounded like a lion roaring in that creek bottom.
This Gibson box reproduction is authentic in every way. I want you to own one, hunt with it, experience holding this precursor to the modern box call and cherish the thrill of what those who came before us felt. You will appreciate how far the box call artisans have come, and you will forever be thankful that Henry C. Gibson patented the box call on Jan. 5, 1897, to share with all of us.
Mrs. Latta, I thank you for this incredible gift of your father’s Gibson box call, and all the supporters and volunteers of the NWTF thank you, too!
“May all your spring mornings be greeted by the great monarch of the woods sounding his presence over his domain.”