94-Year-Old Turkey Call Maker Keeps Tradition Alive
Ozarks Alive is a web-based local history and culture preservation project. Begun in 2015 by Kaitlyn McConnell, the site features articles about unique people and places throughout the region, as well as news that reflects changing times and the evolution of the Ozarks region.
Even from the remote hills and hollows of rural Reynolds County, Pete Pulley’s call can be heard around the world.
Or, rather, his calls – as in plural. Because he’s made thousands of them out of smooth cedar to assist hunters in search of deer, ducks and above all, turkeys.
"I could get pretty close," he says of how many he's made over the years. "I put down every time I start making more of one kind. I’ve put down how many I’ve made. I’d say between 15 and 20,000."
Now 94 years old, Pete has spent many a year making calls. He’s also lived his life in an Ozarks few today remember firsthand. Born in 1926, he was one of 12 children in a farming family, in days before modern conveniences such as electricity.
Nearby sits Hazel, Pete’s wife; the couple has been married for 73 years so far. One of their journeys together was operating the local Shell service station, which he did for years after spending time in the logging industry.
"Well, I was in the logging business whenever the Shell man came around," says Pete. "He came to the house and wanted me to take over his Shell station. I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’d want a Shell station.’ He said, ‘Oh, you’d do good. You’re the right kind of a guy we need.’ I said, ‘I don’t have any money to buy stuff with.’ He said, ‘We’ll fix you up, we’ll buy everything.’”
While working at the station, and later, when Pete operated the Midwest Auto store, he had the chance to make calls in his spare time. It’s a bit uncertain just when he first started, but what he does know is that they also tie to a love of hunting found as a child.
Today, he says, “I make 32 different calls."
Some of them are called Flirty Hen, Pretty Girl Mag and Super Sweet Echo II. And they come in all sorts of shapes. There’s one that looks like a gun that sounds like a turkey when you pull the trigger. There’s another that looks like a boat. A giant one for funnies is big enough to hang on a wall.
"A guy came in with a birdhouse made like an acorn. It was big, you know," he recalls, and thought he could make a turkey call look similar. "And so I made one, and they’ve sold good."
Most are small enough to fit in your hand, many made from varnished cedar sourced from sawmills.
"I like this little box call," he says of his favorite one. "You stick it in your pocket. It doesn’t have to be big, but a lot of them want the big ones."
But their looks aren’t the important part. Something else -- his favorite part of the process, in fact -- comes in as a much higher priority: Making them sound right.
"You can’t make one just halfway,” he says. “It has to work right."
All are signed and numbered. Other invisible marks include the pride, time and technique Pete puts into making each one the best for his customers.
“That’s another thing I come up with – glass against aluminum," he says. "Glass rubs aluminum. Makes the noise. I come up with that thing, and you don’t ever have to ... See, all the calls I know of on the market, you have to chalk them all the time. You’ll never chalk. You’ll never do nothing to them.”
He even worked with national manufacturers at various times, and had at least one design patented in the 1970s. But most of the work was done right in the Ozarks with his own hands and tools.
“He didn’t have any equipment (in the early years) – he made them by hand; that’s why they’re so rough. But now he’s got the equipment and not able to use it,” says Hazel.
Pete hasn’t retired, but as Hazel mentioned, age has come calling. Various health issues have made it difficult to create the calls as he’s done for so many years.
But a trip to the workshop under stormy skies shows his shop is still ready. Hazel unlocks the door, where much of the work has taken place for years. Air scented by cedar, and sawdust shavings, remind of the last moments when tools were used. There pieces of calls waiting in hope he comes back again. On the wall hangs a plaque he received from the Shell Oil Company for 10 years of dedicated service. And on shelves, plastic bins show tags of where certain calls used to be stored before they were sold.
Most are empty now, but his legacy continues on.
While calls regularly retailed for around $20 each in recent years, and were sold at a few local stores, Pete also shares that some were considered worth far more.
"A lot of collectors have been here," he says, sharing about one experience in particular.
"We had three old ones that I'd whittled out with a knife, and he gave me $11,000 for them."
He and Hazel share that calls have gone many places, including as far as Europe, and of collectors who have come by.
“They say I’m famous now, but I don’t aim to be," he says.