At about 8 a.m. on a clear February morning in 2016, Jim Ronquest heard a commotion outside his office at Rich-N-Tone Calls in Stuttgart.
Ronquest had just returned from filming a hunting show he produces and co-hosts on the Sportsman Channel with RNT president and owner John Stephens. When Ronquest poked his head out his office door, he detected an acrid smell.
He walked to the back of the shop where RNT manufactures its popular duck calls. An employee handed him a phone and told him he needed to call 911 because the shop was on fire.
Ronquest looked at RNT Vice President Rusty Bulloch.
“I said, ‘Rusty, you got this?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, Jimmy.’ I could tell by the tone of his voice, it was serious.”
Ronquest dashed to save the computers and hard drives that stored footage for the latest season of the hunting show. Meanwhile, employees did what they could with a fire extinguisher until fire trucks reached RNT, located between Mack’s Prairie Wings and Tractor Supply Co. on U.S. Highway 63, a couple miles north of downtown Stuttgart.
For several hours firefighters battled a blaze that, according to the Stuttgart Daily Leader, began in a barrel used to collect shavings and was hot enough to bend steel beams inside.
Shortly before midnight, RNT owners John and Angie Stephens returned from a hastily concluded vacation in Mexico. Walking through their dark, smoking shop in the middle of the cold night, they took inventory.
While the metal exterior was intact, fire and extensive smoke damage had overtaken two-thirds of the facility. Gone were the four CNC lathe machines used to carve the calls, the two mills used to cut out the tone boards, and all the inventory the machines had produced.
Power was out, not soon to return. The owners had 17 employees and no way to make money.
Yet all was not lost. Shortly before the fire, RNT had ordered a new CNC lathe and mill, which would arrive a week later. Enough usable space remained to house the new equipment. The Stephens rented three, portable 12-by-15 trailers, one in which to apply the polyurethane finish to the calls and two to tune and test them.
Power was restored, and after a month and a half, duck calls were shipping out of Rich-N-Tone again.
The next three years would be marked by this makeshift arrangement. But from the literal ashes of the fire, the Stephens and their employees decided to re-imagine what the business could be.
Rich In History
Rich-N-Tone had operated out of the same facility since 2001, and the fire and destruction provided an opportunity to rebuild in a way that preserved RNT’s best features while adding new ones.
“We just all got in a room, brainstormed on if we could improve anything, what would it be,” John Stephens said.
The staff agreed they wanted to build something that would promote the craft of call-making and the history behind it. This is a particular passion for Stephens, who is a native of Stuttgart and began collecting vintage duck calls and competing in duck calling contests as a young boy.
Stephens was tutored by legendary call-maker Butch Richenback, who founded Rich-N-Tone in 1976. Stephens became a junior and adult winner of the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest, held each Thanksgiving week in Stuttgart.
He purchased the store from Richenback in 2000.
The RNT team hit upon the idea of hosting a non-profit duck call museum in their rebuilt and refurbished shop, an idea that appealed to Stephens’ passion for calls. The staff also designed T-shirts promoting vintage call-makers and decided to put a bar in the front of the new facility. After meeting with breweries in central Arkansas, RNT partnered with Flyway Brewing of North Little Rock to produce a Rich-N-Tone brand called Flying Duck Amber Ale, named after a vintage duck call line.
Plans for the museum came in over budget, so the Stephens compromised by placing rotating displays of vintage duck calls in the craft beer bar. Customers can also visit the back of the facility to see how the calls are made on the CNC machines.
Up front, in a retail space that Stephens estimates is three or four times as large as the old facility, is his personal shop where he makes duck calls by hand.
The Tone of Teaching
All of the changes and upgrades were on display in a weeklong, early-March celebration called “Callapalooza” that marked Rich-N-Tone’s grand reopening.
“The whole building was designed and built for the customer to be able to see how calls are made,” Stephens said.
Stephens’ line of handmade calls – called J. Stephens Calls – is a relatively recent innovation, begun shortly after the fire. Stephens had promised Richenback he would not make his own custom calls as long as Richenback was still making them. Decades earlier, Richenback had observed the same tradition with Chick Major, maker of the famed Dixie Mallard call, who had taught Richenback the call-making craft.
“That’s just kind of an old –school deal with call makers, just respect,” Stephens said. “[Richenback] didn’t start making his until the guy that taught him quit. I kind of just felt like that was the right thing to do for myself, too.”
That reverence for the past is understandable given the lineage of notable duck callers who have passed on their knowledge to youth.
The Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest has awarded more than $73,000 in scholarships to young duck callers in its 43-year history. Major’s step-daughter Pat Peacock, the only woman to win a world championship in the men’s category (1955 and 1956) as well as a Champion of Champions, spent decades teaching kids how to call ducks.
Peacock’s daughter, Melody Stackhouse, served 27 years as Mal-R-Duck, the Stuttgart community mascot created in the 1990s by the local chamber of commerce. She praised RNT for seizing the opportunity to become more educational about the area’s duck hunting history.
“[Rich-N-Tone is] providing education to help youth understand that you’re not just shooting a bird out of the sky, you’re learning about that bird, its migration, how everything in this world informs that circle of life,” Stackhouse said.
Calling on the Past
In a 2011 story by Reuters, the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce estimated that duck hunting brings in more than $1 million per day in revenue during the two-month duck season.
That doesn’t happen without the ducks, which stop in Stuttgart because it sits squarely in the Mississippi Flyway, the main North American migration pattern for ducks flying from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
Like many other rural areas in Arkansas and across the country, Stuttgart faces challenges like population loss as young people move increasingly to major cities for work. Stuttgart is also imperiled by the declining popularity of hunting nationwide.
The trend is borne out by the decline in sales of federal duck stamps, which are required to legally hunt waterfowl. Duck stamp sales have dwindled from 2.5 million in 1971 to about 1.5 million in 2017.
Those sales are crucial because they fund habitat preservation and restoration for ducks along the entire Mississippi Flyway. Ironically, locals argue, ducks need more hunters in order to survive. Without the investment from hunters to preserve habitat, ducks will have nowhere to go.
George Dunklin, a past president of Ducks Unlimited who lives outside Stuttgart, said efforts by RNT to pass on a love for duck hunting are crucial for the area.
“They don’t look just at the short-term, one-year sales, they’re looking long-term at the importance of keeping this industry viable,” Dunklin said. “Without conservation practices and education, that would be devastating to Stuttgart and RNT, and all of us in this country.”
That’s exactly what the Stephens and RNT have in mind, Ronquest said.
“That’s part of what we’re doing at the shop, by promoting the history, and talking about the history of duck call making and collecting around the country,” he said. “By promoting the past, hopefully we can enhance the future.”