A historic look at Richard Janson Bridge across Sonoma Creek

Born in Estonia in 1871, Janson arrived in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century and worked for a while as a market hunter in the tidal marshes of the bay.|

The Richard “Fresh Air” Janson Bridge crosses Sonoma Creek on Highway 37. Janson earned his nickname on a fishing boat in Alaska because he insisted on sleeping on deck no matter what the weather. Born in Estonia in 1871, Janson arrived in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century and worked for a while as a market hunter in the tidal marshes of the bay. It was a big business in those days, with Bay Area residents consuming more than 250,000 wild ducks a year. Eventually, the number of birds, which had once seemed inexhaustible, diminished to the point where market hunting was no longer profitable.

It was about this time that Janson took up residence in the marsh along Sonoma Creek. Janson “was a retired merchant seaman and a bachelor,” remembers Newt DalPoggetto, who grew up in Sonoma in the 1920s and ’30s. “He lived about a half-mile up from the bridge on a little ‘Ark’ beached in the mud among the tules. To get to his place you had to walk out maybe 150 yards on a redwood-plank walkway. I don’t think he ever took a bath.” Hence Janson’s other nickname, “Dirty Dick.”

Dick lived “very modestly,” DalPoggetto recalled. “He would fish day and night - just left the line out and caught fish. He also had a little dock with two or three rowboats that he’d rent out for fifty cents a day.” For entertainment, “he had a little hand-cranked phonograph that he’d play. He didn’t have much to say but he was steady. He lived there for years.”

With the decline of ducks, sportsmen began using decoys to attract real birds. Janson supplemented his income as a carver of decoys.

“Dick had a workbench outside where he made decoys with a little hatchet and sold them for fifty cents apiece,” DalPoggetto said. “He made them out of redwood. He was very skillful, a real craftsman.”

By the time he died in 1951, Janson was well-known in duck hunting circles for the artistry and detailed accuracy of his decoys. His work is now considered the gold standard against which all other Pacific Coast decoys are judged. A bit of a recluse and a genuine eccentric, Richard “Fresh Air” Janson was a genuine artist whose work has gained recognition over time. His creations are now collectors’ items that fetch a thousand dollars or more. He was, in many ways, the Van Gogh of the tidal marsh.

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