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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Duck Towns

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Wulff also recognizes that nature often has the last word. "Hurricane Audrey, back in 1957, caused terrible damage," Wulff says. "We found bodies in our marsh two years later. There were houses, roofs, freezers out in the marsh."

One of the few buildings surviving the storm was the Cameron Parish Courthouse. It dates to around the turn of the century, and was built, in part, thanks to the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, another hunter. nWOODEN BIRDS While Louisiana is known for having more decoy carvers than any other state (more than 300 documented), few came from the Lake Charles area. Most lived near New Orleans.

Havre de Grace, Maryland

In its youth, the Bayou Hotel played host to well-to-do sportsmen from up and down the Atlantic Flyway. The Great Depression eventually muffled the jazz musicians who trumpeted their stuff here, and the former Market Street inn has been converted to residential condominiums. Just to the north, built on the site of the hotel's former service area, lies the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum.

This is a natural connection. The city has often been called the Decoy Capital of the World, or the Cradle of Carvers. The assertions are one and the same. Historians agree that tremendous volumes of wooden birds were produced, painted, and shot over on Chesapeake Bay. Individual livelihoods, and the well-being of entire families, were once at stake. The museum lends credibility to the legends by providing an extraordinary look at representative works by some of the Upper Bay's most accomplished artisans. Decoys, tools, boats, guns, and more are all in residence. The workshop once occupied by the late R. Madison Mitchell is located behind the museum.

"The decoy museum is one of the highlight attractions for the community," says museum director Debra Pence. "It's an important aspect of visiting here."

The facility received prestigious American Association of Museum accreditation status last year. From humble beginnings, the museum has flourished, and now attracts up to 25,000 visitors each year.

"Its evolution has been amazing," Pence says. "The museum was started by a group of decoy collectors and carvers. It took an incredible amount of dedication on the part of the volunteers to get the building up, fill it with decoys and, over a 20-year span, professionalize it."

When originally established nearly 20 years ago (opened to the public in 1986), the museum's primary mission was to preserve the historical and cultural legacy of waterfowling and decoy-making on Chesapeake Bay. This has been expanded to document decoys as a uniquely American folk art, and to foster public awareness and support for the conservation and preservation of waterfowl and their natural habitats.

"It's an educational tool and we work with many age groups. I view all museums as extending well beyond collections behind glass," Pence says. "This is a blend of history and an artistic aspect of history. Really, the museum goes into investigation of a lifestyle of a group of people."

Situated at the headwaters of the revered Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in America, Havre de Grace in its heyday once helped feed a growing human population throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Many watermen who fished, clammed, and crabbed supplemented their incomes by hunting waterfowl for the market and by guiding. Because this was big, open-water hunting, huge rigs comprising hundreds of handcrafted decoys were deployed. The makers were a diverse lot, and for every Mitchell and John "Daddy" Holly, both highly respected for the quality of their work, dozens of other local carvers died in relative obscurity.

But the sporting legacy they left behind remains strong. In addition to the museum, Havre de Grace also is home to the annual Decoy, Wildlife Art and Sportsman Festival the first week of May; a Duck Fair the second weekend of September; and a Carver's Celebration, held in conjunction with a Candlelight Tour the second Sunday in December.

And why not celebrate ducks and geese? Waterfowl hunting at one time was as good here as anywhere in the world. Canvasbacks reigned as the Kings of Chesapeake Bay and made for enduring memories. They would arrive by the tens of thousands during fall migration. Sport and market gunners alike would await the magnificent flights, often in sinkboxes, which were locally favored tools. The sinkboxes would be towed out to the Susquehanna River Flats, where the birds dined on wild celery and eel grass.

Hunters still flock to Chesapeake Bay, even though the shooting is far less than what these waters once offered. Tradition, you know. In duck-centric Havre de Grace, that still means something. nNOT SO SECRET President Grover Cleveland was known to hunt ducks at the Charter Hall Gun Club near Havre de Grace. The club, it's told, had special quarters for accompanying Secret Service agents.

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