Cradles of American Decoy Carving

This cherished folk art sprang up in many areas of the country with rich waterfowling traditions

a

By Gary Koehler

Today's hand-carved wooden decoy treasures were once no more than simple tools crafted by men from all walks of life for the purpose of enticing waterfowl within gunning range. The earliest examples, some of which date to the 1700s, were undoubtedly primitive in both design and construction. But times changed, and so did the world of the decoy carver.

As America's population began to surge following the Civil War, demand for food increased across the country. Wild game became popular table fare in many of the nation's finest restaurants, where waterfowl were often at the top of the menu. Market hunting prospered, and millions of birds were shipped annually to population centers such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, and San Francisco. The demand for table birds was accompanied by a need for large numbers of decoys.

At the same time, interest in sport hunting began to grow. Private duck clubs sprang up throughout the land. These venues, too, created a market for decoys. Recognizing the opportunity to put a little money in their pockets, some carvers supplemented their incomes by selling their handmade wares. Others had little or no interest in commercial carving, but created wooden birds for their personal use, or for family and friends.

From the 1860s to the 1950s, carvers focused on making decoys that mimicked the waterfowl prevalent in their respective regions. Craftsmen living around Upper Chesapeake Bay, for example, turned out thousands of big-bodied diver decoys.

Meanwhile, artisans in the Illinois River Valley created a variety of dabbling duck blocks. Carvers working in the same region found themselves employing similar techniques. Artistic influence certainly played a role, but practical considerations often determined the style, weight, shape, and paint patterns carvers used to make decoys that fit the needs of hunters in a given area.

Following are some of the storied places that spawned the golden era of American decoy making and the carvers who turned simple blocks of wood into functional works of art.

Chesapeake Bay

There's little wonder why the Chesapeake Bay region is known as the cradle of American decoy carving. Market gunning was once a way of life here. And even before that activity came to an end, private duck clubs had been established. The demand for decoys was clearly evident, and local residents were up to the task. There were clear stylistic differences: Upper Bay makers carved decoys for use on big, open water; Lower Bay carvers generally created smaller decoys for gunning on tidal marshes. The region gave rise to plenty of famous carvers, and many others who whittled out wooden birds in anonymity. In the Upper Bay, John "Daddy" Holly was revered for the canvasbacks, redheads, and scaup he crafted in the traditional Havre de Grace style. He came from a family of watermen, and three of his sons followed him in the decoy-making business. Along the lower Eastern Shore, the Ward brothers, Lem and Steve, produced carefully crafted waterfowl decoys with fine head carving and detailed painting. The Wards attained legendary status in the decoy world for the superb quality of their work.
 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption:
This delicate pair of pintails was crafted by Lem and Steve Ward of Crisfield, Maryland. The Ward brothers are among the most celebrated of the Chesapeake Bay-area carvers.

Massachusetts

East Harwich, located on Cape Cod, was the home of A. Elmer Crowell, who some collectors consider the all-time finest carver of any region. Crowell's carvings are undoubtedly among the most sought-after by modern decoy collectors. A commercial carver, he created representations of every duck, goose, and shorebird species. When it came to decoy painting, he had few peers. Crowell used a wet-on-wet technique to create feather textures and subtle color transitions, and many experts rank his brushwork as the best ever. He was not the only Massachusetts carver, however, to raise the bar of excellence. Joseph Lincoln excelled at making Canada geese and scoters, and is also recognized for his solid black ducks, bluebills, and other duck species. Filling out the state's winning carving trifecta is Lothrop Holmes, who crafted fine decoys in the mid-1800s. Holmes made both ducks and shorebirds at his home in Kingston.

 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

caption:
A rare oversized merganser by the great Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Massachusetts.

New York

There were at least two distinct carving communities in the state of New York. One centered on Long Island, where shorebird carving reigned supreme. The other was located upstate along the St. Lawrence River and throughout the Thousand Islands region, where artisans focused on creating traditional floating duck decoys. Notable exceptions included Long Island's Obediah Verity, who carved both shorebirds and floaters. Shorebirds were fair game until the early 20th century, and carver William Bowman supplied this market with some of the finest shorebird decoys ever crafted. In the far north, St. Lawrence River pilot Chauncey Wheeler emerged as a major figure. As an artist, Wheeler went to great lengths to create top-quality decoys for discerning customers like band leader John Philip Sousa, who once purchased a group of Wheeler doves.

 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption:
An elegant black duck by New York's Chauncey Wheeler.

New Jersey

Black ducks may still be considered king along the Jersey Shore, but Atlantic brant and scaup are not far behind. Historically, New Jersey hosted a wide range of waterfowl. Carvers took full advantage of local cedar trees when plying their craft. Many different decoy styles emerged over time in various areas around the state. One of the most prolific carvers-and arguably the most accomplished-was Harry Vinucksen Shourds, who is credited with making thousands of duck, goose, brant, and shorebird decoys. His signature was a rectangular cavity filled with lead, which served as a ballast weight on all his floating decoys. New Jersey decoys were often hollow and compact. Among this region's pioneer makers was Gideon Lippincott, a boat builder by trade. Other notable New Jersey artisans included John Updike, Nathan Rowley Horner, Mark English, Chris Sprague, Jesse Birdsall, and Charles McCoy.

 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption:
An outstanding early brant decoy by New Jersey carver Nathan Rowley Horner

Maine

There were likely more merganser decoys produced in Maine than in all other states combined. For whatever reason, mergansers became the signature niche of an extremely talented group of Maine carvers, who assembled the folksiest decoys in the country. Some were finished with horsehair or leather crests. Others depicted ducks with mussels or fish in their mouths. Regardless of the species, these birds were graceful and extremely artistic in design. While this state's roster of carvers is lengthy, Augustus "Gus" Wilson of South Portland may have been the best of them all. A lighthouse keeper by profession, he carved not only waterfowl, but also songbirds, herons, and whatever else struck his fancy.

Maine decoys were generally large and built for rough, open water. One famous carving family, the Whitneys, was credited with making decoys for more than 100 years.

 

Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption:
A rare preening scoter by Maine carver Gus Wilson.

Illinois River Valley

With few exceptions, Illinois River Valley decoys were generally deployed on backwater lakes and sloughs rather than on actual river channels. These decoys were typically hollow and built using a two- or three-piece design. Illinois carvers favored relatively bright paint schemes and often used imported English graining combs to create a feathered effect. White pine was usually the wood of choice. Illinois was home to more than 200 vintage carvers, including such legendary artists as Charles Perdew, Charles Walker, G. Bert Graves, Charles Schoenheider Sr., and Robert Elliston. Over the years, Perdew has received the bulk of the acclaim, and for good reason: he was an extraordinary talent. Credit his wife, Edna, for being perhaps the best decoy painter in the region. Elliston, who produced decoys prior to 1900, may well have set the standard of excellence that the other carvers followed.

 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption: A hollow mallard hen in a sleeping pose by Charles Perdew of Henry, Illinois

Michigan

When it comes to water, Michigan has plenty. The state's interior features thousands of lakes, ponds, and marshes, complemented by miles and miles of rivers and streams. If that's not enough, consider that Michigan borders four of the Great Lakes. Duck hunting flourished here for years, and with it, decoy carving. A large number of the most celebrated decoys were used in the St. Clair Flats region, northeast of Detroit, the city in which many of the carvers resided.

Tom Schroeder carved decoys for nearly 70 years, including one creative design featuring a tin box that served as the keel and anchor line holder. Among the region's best-known carvers was Ben Schmidt, who began his career crafting decoys out of cedar telephone poles. Schmidt's work garners special notice because of its distinctive feathering. Others recognized for their special talents include John Schweikart, Ferdinand Bach, Nate Quillen, Walter Struebing, and Ed "One Arm" Kellie.

 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption:
An exceptional pair of wood ducks by Michigan's Ben Schmidt

Minnesota

When the topic of conversation turns to Minnesota carvers, one artist almost always takes center stage: John Tax. Of particular interest are Tax's stickups (decoys mounted on a stake), which were designed to be used on frozen ground. Tax carved both ducks and geese, never making any two decoys exactly alike. His stickup decoys were made of hollowed-out pine planks that were laminated together. Because Tax strove for realism, he gave each decoy an expression (or attitude) and developed a lifelike painting pattern based on the lithographs of John James Audubon. Tax was in good company in the Gopher State, which nurtured a number of other excellent carvers. The Gresser family, which consisted of four carvers, certainly deserves mention, as does Ole Gunderson. And then there are the folk-art Heron Lake canvasbacks, carved in what has been dubbed the "horsehead" style. Tracing any of these decoys back to a particular artist can prove difficult, but at least some have been attributed to A.D. Sontag and legendary carver Abe Nelson.

 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption:
Minnesota's John Tax fashioned this striking pair of standing Canada geese.

Wisconsin

Long before the Packers arrived in Green Bay, sportsmen were carving decoys 40 miles to the south, along the banks of the Winnebago Lakes. With all due respect to the state's Mississippi River carvers, it must be said that the Winnebago area qualifies as the heart of the Wisconsin vintage decoy-carving community. During the 1800s, this was waterfowl nirvana, made up of shallow marshes, an extraordinary amount of natural food, thousands of acres of accessible habitat, and ducks aplenty. Duck hunters took notice. At least four Wisconsin decoy factories were in operation as late as the 1930s, but individual carvers were confident they could make a better decoy. One of the earliest decoy makers was August "Gus" Moak, whose somewhat whimsical canvasbacks were definitely unique. Frank Resop's decoys were distinctly stylized and quite folksy. Big-water divers were a specialty of Frank Strey. And Gus Nelow, DeWitt Wakefield, Fritz Geiger, and Warren Dettman also excelled in this region's carving craft.

 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption:
Wisconsin carver Warren Dettman crafted this beautiful drake wigeon decoy.

Louisiana

Those seeking folk-art decoys need look no further than Louisiana, where residents pulled out all the imaginative stops to create unique yet functional rigs for use in the waterfowl-rich marshlands they called home. Classic Louisiana decoys were made of wood that was near at hand, typically cypress and tupelo, which were found in abundance throughout the region's forested swamps. Many were carved in an animated style that featured sweeping backs and bold, colorful paint patterns. More than a thousand artists (the most in any state) fashioned working decoys across a wide geographic range, though the hub of the carving community was almost certainly New Orleans. With so much talent spread far and wide, it's difficult to name even a few carvers as the best of the best. Nicole Vidacovich, however, ranks high on collectors' lists. And decoys made by members of the Whipple clan, which included more than 20 carvers, are also highly collectible. Mark Whipple was among the most skillful of these talented artists.

 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption:
Louisiana was once home to more decoy carvers than any other state. One of the best was Mark Whipple, who made this interesting coot decoy.

California

While serving as host to millions of wintering waterfowl for eons, California has amassed a rich duck hunting history that includes a number of talented decoy carvers. Perhaps the best known is Richard Ludwig Janson, a free spirit who slept on the deck of his houseboat whenever the weather allowed. Nicknamed "Fresh Air Dick" for his slumber preference, Janson created thousands of well-crafted decoys out of redwood. His pintails remain in a class of their own and are highly prized by the state's decoy-collecting fraternity. Other makers are also worthy of note, including Amiel Garibaldi, Horace Crandall, John Luedtke, Luigi Andreuccetti, and Ed Snyder. Most of their decoys were built for their personal use. Among the state's earliest carvers were Frank Hale, Peter St. Clair, and Joseph Roesling. San Francisco and Sacramento were the state's decoy-making centers.

 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption:
This calling hen mallard was crafted by Horace Crandall of Westwood, California.

Oregon

Although Oregon can claim only a relatively small number of decoy carvers, the fine quality of their work deserves recognition, particularly the efforts of the Astoria group. Located at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River, Astoria was home to Charles Bergman, Charles Pice, Frank Bay, Oscar Hendrickson, and Jim Titus. Bergman is perhaps best known for the hollow duck decoys he carved in the Mason Decoy Company (Premier) style, and for his rig of whistling swans. Some authorities estimate that he carved more than 4,000 decoys, all the while building popular double-bowed duck boats on the side. Bay is famous for his stylish canvasback decoys. And upriver, in Portland, Jerry Mastin is celebrated for his rig of stickup Canada geese with removable heads and necks. Columbia River gunners also enjoyed unique accommodations in the form of floating duck camps, which were anchored in the river's many bays.

 
Credit:
Decoy Images Courtesy of Jon Deeter/guyetteanddeeter.com

Caption:
These finely crafted green-winged teal decoys were produced by Charles Bergman of Astoria, Oregon.