North American Regional Decoy Traditions and
DOWNEAST MAINE hunters concentrated on the common cold-water sea ducks
of the region, including eiders, scoters, red-breasted mergansers
and old squaws. Eiders and scoters were hunted on shoals miles
out in the ocean, and decoys for these birds had big, wide bodies
with flat-bottoms designed to ride the rough North Atlantic swells.
Heads were typically carved from a single piece of wood and inlet
into the bodies. Mergansers and old squaws frequented calmer
waters along the shorelines, and Maine carvers such as Orlando
Sylvester "Oz" Bibber of South Harpswell (1882-1971)
and George Huey of Friendship (1866-1947) crafted stylized decoys
that captured these birds' long, low profiles. Bibber, who worked
as a steamship engineer, added leather or horsehair crests to
his hollow mergansers and sometimes inserted a plucked pin feather
into the tails of his old squaws.
Maine's greatest carver, Augustus Aaron "Gus" Wilson
(1864-1950), made his living as a lighthouse keeper and worked
at stations up and down the Maine coast before settling in South
Portland. Wherever he served, he spent much of his spare time
whittling decoys as well as a wide variety of decorative carvings,
including gulls, flying ducks, crows, songbirds, full- sized
and miniature tigers and at least one snake. He shaped the heads
of his birds in many imaginative preening and reaching positions,
and often added such realistic touches as a carved mussel held
in the open bill of an eider or scoter decoy. Wilson's best work
is at once graceful and powerful, with a sculptural presence
seldom achieved by other carvers.
The small but geographically diverse states of southern New England
provided hunters with a wide variety of coastal and inland hunting
possibilities. Diving ducks such as old squaws, whistlers, redheads,
bluebills were common in the region's larger lakes, rivers and
coastal bays, while freshwater marsh ducks such as mallards,
pintails, black ducks, widgeon, and wood ducks frequented the
calmer waters of smaller lakes, ponds and streams. Perhaps because
New England hunting rigs were typically small, the region's decoys
are exceptionally well crafted, with great attention to detail
in both carving and painting. Indeed, southern New England may
have produced more first quality decoys than any other region
of the country. Massachusetts and Connecticut in particular were
home to a number of the decoy's greatest artists, including such
masters as Elmer Crowell, Joe Lincoln, Lothrop Holmes, Keyes
Chadwick, Charles Hart, and Shang Wheeler.
George Boyd (1873-1941) of Seabrook, New Hampshire was a professional
carver who made duck, goose and shorebird decoys as well as miniature
birds of many different game species. His shorebirds were sold
through the Iver Johnson sporting goods store in Boston in the
early years of the twentieth century. Boyd also worked as a shoemaker
and created a number of black duck and goose decoys with bodies
of canvas tightly stretched and tacked over a wooden slat frame.
All of Boyd's birds have distinctive, square head shapes, flattened
at the crown, while his floaters have flat bottoms, rounded backs,
and relatively long tails. He delineated crisp overall plumage
outlines and then daubed in softer feathery patterns with repeated
short strokes of his own handmade brushes.
Joseph Whiting Lincoln (1859-1938) was a life-long resident
of Accord, Massachusetts, a small town south of Boston, where
he made a living as a professional decoy carver and handyman.
In addition to carving birds, he also worked as a shoemaker,
upholsterer and clock repairman, and is said to have been prouder
of his prize-winning dahlias than of his decoys. Lincoln carved
decoys of virtually every species hunted in New England, including
brant, geese, ducks and shorebirds, and also made many miniature
decoys he called "toys." His birds are direct and deceptively
simple, the work of a consummate Yankee craftsman who was able
to capture the essentials of species form and plumage with a
remarkable economy of means.
A gifted amateur carver and dedicated outdoorsman, Shang Wheeler
(1872-1949) lived in Stratford, Connecticut at the mouth of the
Housatonic River, and worked as manager of the Connecticut Oyster
Farms in nearby Milford from 1912-46. Wheeler gunned over birds
made by Albert Davids Laing (1811-1886) for many years and was
strongly influenced by his work as well as that of Laing's neighbor,
Benjamin Holmes (1843-1912). Laing codified a style of carving
peculiar to Stratford, with hollow, two-piece bodies, protruding
chests and varied head positions. Wheeler carried the Stratford
style into the twentieth century, creating both working birds
(including some with solid cork bodies and inset wooden tails)
and fancier show birds intended solely for exhibition. (He took
the Grand Prize at the first decoy show ever, held in 1923.)
NEW ENGLAND SHOREBIRDS
thousand miles of winding and mostly sandy coast attracted many
species of shorebirds, from curlews to tiny sandpipers. Yellowlegs,
black-bellied plovers, and dowitchers were among the most commonly
encountered species. Golden plovers and the long presumed extinct
Eskimo curlew flew together over open ocean as they migrated
south in late August. Gale-force Nor'easters sometimes blew immense
flocks of these birds in over the outlying coasts of Cape Cod
and Nantucket island and provided local gunners with a literal
windfall of birds.
Shorebird hunters set out small groups of decoys and then
hid behind a sedge grass blind or dune to await their prey. Many
called the birds with tin snipe whistles or pursed lips. Shorebirds
travel in closely packed flocks and their gregarious nature made
them easy marks. The gullible little birds often circled over
decoys again and again, allowing hunters multiple shots into
the midst of the flock. Dozens or even hundreds of birds could
be killed in a short time.
Massachusetts' craftsmen created a wider variety of shorebird
species and forms than were produced in any other region, including
lightweight birds balanced to rock in the sea breezes, birds
with attached wings or detachable heads, and birds made of papier
mache and cork. The carvers of many Massachusetts decoys have
never been identified, but masters such as Charles W. Thomas,
Joseph Lincoln, Elmer Crowell, George Boyd, Elisha Burr and Lothrop
Holmes are well known to all shorebird connoisseurs.
Lothrop Holmes (1824-1899) came from a family of shipbuilders
and made his living as a cemetery superintendent in Kingston,
Massachusetts, on the state's South Shore, He is remembered today
for his merganser and old squaw duck decoys and for his shorebirds.
He was an avid gunner who apparently carved only for his own
use, and surviving examples of his work are consequently rare.
Holmes produced representations of three major shorebird species-yellowlegs,
black-bellied plover and ruddy turnstone, the last a great rarity
among New England shorebird carvings. Holmes was a masterful
painter and the sinuous, stylized lines of his plumage paint
patterns perfectly complement the flowing forms of his carvings.
A. ELMER CROWELL
Anthony Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) was one of the most versatile,
prolific and consistent of all professional bird carvers. As
a young man, he worked as a market
gunner and cranberry farmer on his native Cape Cod. Crowell apparently
carved a few decoys for his own use early on, although he strongly
preferred to use live decoys, tamed birds tethered to deceive
their wild kin. In 1900 Crowell was hired by Dr. John C. Phillips,
a wealthy Boston physician, to manage his hunting camp at Wenham
Lake, north of Boston. Crowell worked for Dr. Phillips for about
ten years and while in his employment he sold a number of extraordinary
one-of-a kind decoys and decorative carvings to Phillips and
his influential friends. The fifty year-old Crowell turned to
carving full-time in 1912, working out of a small shop outside
his home in East Harwich, Massachusetts. Assisted by his son
Cleon (1891-1961), Crowell turned out an unparalleled variety
of high quality decoys, decorative carvings and miniatures before
rheumatism forced his retirement in 1943.
Elmer Crowell's best work was done before 1925 and is unsurpassed
for its combination of sculptural power and subtle brush work.
Of special note is the preening goose decoy made for Cohasset
businessman Harry V. Long in 1917, pictured above left . Long commissioned many pieces
from Crowell over the years; this bird and its two companions, a standing spread-winged
hisser and a second goose in decoy form with a twisting forward head, are arguably Crowell's supreme works. Crowell's
paper pattern for the preening goose is in the collection of
Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, Massachusetts.
LONG ISLAND SHOREBIRDS
Long Island was a hunter's paradise in the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. The aptly named island juts 118 miles out
into the Atlantic and teemed with migratory birds of all kinds.
Its proximity to New York made it a favorite haunt of wealthy
city sportsmen, who traveled by rail to shoot at its myriad resorts
and private gunning clubs. Native gunners who lived off the land
and knew it best supplied these city "sports" with
decoys, boats and guide services. Long Island was also probably
the earliest region in the country to be commercially hunted,
and the demands of the game markets and restaurants of New York
provided steady income to Long Island market hunters as early
as the 1840s.
Unlike any other area of the country, shorebirds are Long
Island's dominant decoy form. Curlews, black-bellied and golden
plovers, yellowlegs, dowitchers, robin snipe and many other shorebird
species frequented the marshes and beaches of Long Island's south
shore in great numbers, and the birds were avidly hunted from
the Great South Bay to Montauk Point. They were popular home
fare all over Long Island and were also a staple of the game
stands in New York's Fulton and Washington markets, where they
were purchased by city restaurateurs.
Long Island was home to a number of the acknowledged masters
of the shorebird decoy, including Obediah Verity, Bill Bowman,
John Dilley and Thomas Gelston. Unfortunately, while their styles are well known, the exact identities of all four men remain shadowy and elusive. Verity (poss. 1813-1901) of Seaford,
Long Island was a bayman, remembered by his neighbors as a lifelong
bachelor who spent his days following the sea—hunting, oystering,
clamming, fishing, and making decoys for himself and his friends.
The Verity clan was extensive, and while this carver's name is
known, he has not been positively identified among the six Obediah
Veritys who lived in Seaford during the nineteenth century. Whichever one he was, he
carved both ducks and shorebirds, all of which have full, rounded
solid bodies, s-shaped wing contours, v-shaped primaries carved
in low relief, and carved eyes. The backs of his plump shorebirds
carry stippled daubs of paint which suggest the light and dark
pattern of feathers.
Oral tradition holds
that Bill Bowman (poss. 1824-1906) was a cabinetmaker from Bangor,
Maine who traveled to Lawrence, Long Island each summer to work
as a market gunner and decoy maker. While he carved a few ducks,
brant and geese, Bowman focused primarily on shorebirds, producing
the full range of species hunted on Long Island in the late 1800s,
including long-billed and Hudsonian curlews, black-bellied and
golden plovers, dowitchers, yellowlegs, and ruddy turnstones.
Bowman was a masterful observer, and he captured the contours
of his subjects' faces and bodies more precisely than any other
shorebird carver. Looking at a Bowman, one senses the bird's
skull, skeleton and taut or relaxed muscles below the well-painted
feathers. His best works rank among the finest bird portraits
created by any American artist.
John Dilley is a cipher, little more than a name reportedly found on
a single box of expertly carved and exquisitely painted shorebird
decoys made in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.
The box was also marked "Quogue," a town on Long Island's
south shore, near Eastport. Since many other birds by the same
hand have Long Island provenances, it is assumed that their maker
worked nearby, but no more substantial proof exists. Whoever
he was, Dilley painted a wider variety of seasonal plumage variations
than any other shorebird craftsman. He painted dowitchers, for
example, in breeding, eclipse and fall plumage, each rendered
with meticulous attention to detail through hundreds of delicate
brush strokes. A few of his birds are signed "Dilley" on the bottom and many carry species names as well. A few are stamped Squires, the name of a prominent New York sorting goods store that apparently sold Dilley's work. Dilley's paint is highly refined and skillfully
controlled, the work of a master of the brush, while the forms
he created as his canvases are also careful representations of
the species they imitate.
Thomas Gelston (1851-1924) was born into a prominent Bay Ridge,
Brooklyn family. Gelston undoubtedly gunned for ducks and shorebirds
in the salt marshes of nearby Sheepshead Bay as a boy. As an
adult, he summered in Quogue where he led the life of a independently
wealthy gentleman sportsman. He carved brant, black duck, merganser
and shorebird decoys for his own use and apparently sold some
cork-bodied shorebirds through New York's Abercrombie and Fitch
in his later years. Gelston's Hudsonian curlews and yellowlegs
are notable for the flowing lines of their lively body forms
and their simple but effective paint. The breasts of his shorebirds
are speckled with dozens of tiny dabs of paint.
THE DELAWARE RIVER
The Delaware River provided a rich and varied habitat for freshwater
ducks such as pintails, mallards, teal, widgeons and black ducks.
Hunters on the upper Delaware River, above Trenton, New Jersey,
developed a unique hunting style that required a specific type
of decoy. Upper Delaware River hunters anchored small rigs of
decoys facing upstream and then rowed their camouflaged sculls
above the decoys to wait in hiding. When the birds came in to
the decoys, they carefully sculled back within gunning range.
Because this approach took considerable time and stealth, the
hunters needed highly realistic birds that could hold their prey's
attention as boats approached decoyed wildfowl.
John English (1852-1915) was the patriarch of a decoy making
family based in Florence, New Jersey. English's influential decoys
set the style followed by succeeding generations of upper Delaware
River carvers. He added detailed feather paint, carved tail feathers
and relief-carved primaries to his hollow-bodied lures, and also
occasionally created birds with high or nestled heads to vary
the look of a rig. A number of John English's decoys were repainted
around 1920 by John Dawson (1889-1959) of Trenton. Dawson's detailed,
stylized paint proved a perfect match for English's forms, and
these English/Dawson's have long been among the most highly regarded
of Delaware River decoys.
John Blair, Sr. (1842-1928), a carriage maker and sportsman
who supplied vehicles to prominent Philadelphians in the years
following the Civil War, was the style setter in the lower Delaware
River area. The crisply painted, smooth-bodied decoys that apparently
also came out of his shop are more closely related to the New
Jersey coastal tradition than to the raised wing carving of the
upper Delaware River. Three different grades of related decoys
are attributed to the Blair shop, but family members have confirmed
that John Blair owned and used only the finest birds associated
with his name. These have rounded, hollow bodies that are joined
with dowels and weighted with a beveled lead rectangle attached
with tiny nails; the heads sit on a raised shelf and have tack
eyes. Some of Blair's decoys are carved with their necks extended
forward to suggest a swimming bird.
Coastal New Jersey is a meeting ground of fresh and salt water,
replete with small bays, rivers, and salt marshes that have always
teemed with wildfowl. Wild celery and eel grass grew abundantly
in the brackish coastal waters and attracted huge flocks of black
ducks, bluebills, brant, geese and other species. Many residents
of the state's tidewater villages supported themselves off the
bounty of the land by hunting, fishing, boatbuilding and guiding,
while New Jersey market gunners could ship birds to Atlantic
City, Philadelphia or even New York by rail as early as the 1850s.
Early New Jersey carvers developed what has come to be known
as the dugout, the state's predominant decoy style. The dugout
style was formed by 1850 and remained largely unchanged for a
century. Designed for use in the narrow hulled sneak box boats
favored by coastal gunners, dugout decoys have small, hollow,
two-piece cedar bodies with round bottoms, and upright pine heads
which almost invariably face straight forward. The smooth, rounded
bodies are made of equal halves of cedar hollowed out with a
gouge and laminated together. Like saltwater lures everywhere,
the decoys were painted simply and economically, with plumage
patterns broadly outlined in solid colors.
Harry Vinucksen Shourds (1861-1920) of Tuckerton was New Jersey's
most prolific and influential decoy maker.
Shourds' well-made lures have graceful rounded forms and rectangular
lead weights he poured into a chiseled hole in their bottoms.
In addition to ducks, geese and brant, Shourds also crafted several
species of solid-bodied shorebirds. His two known floating gulls,
featuring long and precisely symmetrical lines, hooked bill sand
split tail carving, were clearly labors of love and rank among
the finest birds ever made in New Jersey.
Nathan Rowley Horner (1881-1942) lived in West Creek, New
Jersey, near Tuckerton. Although he was far less prolific than
Shourds, Horner consistently produced decoys of the highest quality
and refinement. The lines of Horner's carvings are generally
sleeker than Shourds', and his paint is more subtle, employing
a wider range of colors and techniques, including blending and
stippling. In further contrast to Shourds, Horner weighted his
floaters with a bevel-edged sheet of lead which he attached to
the bottom of the decoys with brass screws.
NEW JERSEY SHOREBIRDS
The New Jersey coast drew a wide variety of shorebird species,
including long-billed and Hudsonian curlews, black-bellied plovers,
yellowlegs, red knots, and ruddy turnstones. The turnstone was
more common here than anywhere else on the Atlantic coast, and
it was a particular favorite among Jersey carvers. These active
little birds have a slightly upturned bill with which they flip
over rocks and shells in search of food, and their vivid breeding
plumage inspired and tested the skills of many Jersey painters.
While New Jersey's shorebird carvers include such well known
figures as Harry V. Shourds, Taylor Johnson and Daniel Lake Leeds,
many other equally skilled craftsmen are anonymous. Johnson (1863-1929)
of Point Pleasant was a professional carver who made both ducks
and shorebirds, while Dan Lake Leeds (1852-1922) of Pleasantville
concentrated solely on shorebirds. Their work defines the wide
range of the state's shorebird forms. Johnson's quickly but surely
carved birds have elongated body profiles and very simple monochromatic
paint. Their small heads and long thin bills must have invited
breakage. By contrast, Leeds' work is far more careful than Johnson's,
with raised-wing carving, split tails and detailed plumage paint
patterns with complex lines that bear comparison with the work
of Massachusetts's Lothrop Holmes.
THE WARD BROTHERS
Stephen W. (1895-1976) and Lemuel Travis Ward (1896-1984) of
Crisfield, Maryland were professional craftsmen who advertised
themselves as "Wildfowl Counterfeiters in Wood." The
brothers worked closely together throughout their lives, both
in the barbershop they ran and in making the wooden birds that
eventually made them famous. The Ward brothers began carving
professionally in 1926, shortly after the death of their father.
Steve preferred carving and Lem painting, so they divided these
tasks accordingly, producing a wide range of working goose and
duck decoys throughout the 1930s and '40s.
Crisfield had its own decoy making tradition, completely different
from any other part of the Chesapeake Bay. Like other Crisfield
decoy makers, including their father and various members of the
Sterling and Tyler families, the Wards carved solid-bodied lures
with flat bottoms and bold, dramatic forms.
They changed styles constantly, experimenting with different
body shapes and painting styles throughout their long career.
Whether made for sale or for their own use, a rig of Ward decoys
always included a variety of life-like head positions.
After World War II, economic changes and Lem's artistic inclinations
led the brothers to focus increasingly on decorative work, made
for competitions and mantelpieces. The Wards became major figures
in the transition from working decoys to decorative bird carving
that took place in the 1950s and '60s. The Ward Foundation, a
non-profit institution dedicated to perpetuating the work of
the Wards and other American wildfowl carvers and artists, was
founded in Salisbury, Maryland in 1968, and Lem was honored as
a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the
Humanities, Folk Art Program in 197?.
THE SOUTH ATLANTIC
The sandy barrier peninsulas of Virginia's Eastern Shore and
Carolina's Outer Banks provided a rich habitat for swans, geese,
brant, ducks and shorebirds. Thousands of geese wintered on the
protected bayside of the barriers and provided residents with
food and sport. In the second half of the nineteenth century,
the region was also discovered by affluent sportsmen and became
home to dozens of private clubs and resorts.
The Cobb family owned and operated Virginia's best known hunting
and fishing retreat, located on Cobb Island, Virginia, just off
the Eastern Shore. The Cobbs hosted many prominent visitors over
the years, to whom they supplied fishing tackle, decoys and guide
services as well as outstanding food and accommodations. Nathan
Jr. (c. 1825-1905) is believed to have carved the majority of
the decoys used on Cobb Island, many of which are marked with
a carved N. His output includes geese and brant, a variety of
ducks, and several species of shorebirds. Cobb employed naturally
curved roots and branches gathered from seaside holly trees to
create the animated, twisting necks of his geese and brant decoys,
and carefully fitted carved oak bills through the back of his
shorebirds' heads. In addition to their expressive sculptural
possibilities, both materials were readily available and able
to withstand hard use in the field.
Ira Hudson (c. 1873-1949) was a prolific professional boatbuilder
and carver who lived on Chincoteague, an isolated island just
south of the Maryland line. Hudson carved an extremely wide variety
of species and forms, including geese, brant, ducks, and shorebirds
as well as life-sized decorative birds and fish. As a commercial
craftsman, he produced decoys in several different grades and
price ranges and experimented throughout his life with different
carving and painting approaches. While all his birds are well
made, Hudson's finest decoys, probably crafted for the wealthy
sportsmen who occasionally visited Chincoteague, are distinguished
by their carefully rendered forms and detailed paint patterns,
which often include scratched feather outlines.
Hucks Caines was one of five brothers who lived on an enormous
tract of coastal South Carolina purchased in 1905 by the financier
and statesman Bernard Baruch. Baruch dubbed his 17, 500 acre
purchase Hobcaw Barony and developed it into a private hunting estate, which he shared with visitors as distinguished
as Winston Churchill. After run-ins with the new owner, who did
not appreciate what he considered poaching on his land, Hucks
eventually turned his skills to Baruch's advantage and became
his favorite guide. He is said to have carved Baruch's own personal
decoy rig and is also believed to have made the serpentine necked
mallard decoys used on the estate.
These unique birds have elongated heads and necks nearly as
long as their bodies, which are set back over their chests in
an undulating double curve that somehow succeeds in both defying
and capturing nature. While the most refined of the Caines birds
may have been made for the mantelpiece rather than the marsh.
the mallard at right, originally in the McCleery collection,
is clearly a gunning bird. The decoy's simple, weathered paint
and rope line markings attest to its life on the water, while
its direct sculptural power elevates it to a category all its
Southern Louisiana's regional culture and natural environment
are unlike any other in North America, and the state's decoys
are equally distinctive. The quiet isolated backwaters of the
bayous at the mouth of the Mississippi River harbored thousands
of migratory birds that stopped over or wintered in this last
landfall on the way south. Hunters in the bayous used small rigs
of decoys to attract the pintails, mallards, teal and other fresh
Bayou carvers-a rich ethnic mix of Cajuns, French, Germans,
Yugoslavians, Italians and other nationalities-brought influences
from their native cultures to the art of the decoy. Because they
needed only a few decoys at a time, many carvers spent extra
time fashioning birds with flamboyant head and body positions,
raised wing carving and vivid paint patterns. They fashioned
their unusual decoys from the wood of native tupelo gum and bald
cypress trees. Both woods approach tropical balsa in their extremely
light weights, but unlike balsa they are ideal carving woods,
densely grained, durable and resistant to rot.
Nicole Vidocavitch (1853-1945), who is widely considered Louisiana's
greatest carver, lived in Sunrise for many years, where he worked
as a market gunner and as a guide at the Delta Duck Club. The
club was frequented by wealthy sportsmen from New Orleans, who
provided a ready market for Vidocavitch's decoys. In 1915, a
major hurricane decimated Sunrise and the destitute 62 year-old
Vidocavitch relocated to New Orleans, where he survived by selling
his carvings. His solid-bodied mallard and pintail decoys are
carved from cypress roots and have dynamic, elongated forms with
The Toronto and Lake St. Clair area was home to many exclusive
hunting clubs frequented by wealthy sportsmen from all Canada
and the United States. These men could afford the best-made and
most attractive decoys money could buy, and Toronto's many skilled
craftsmen supplied them with decoys of the highest sophistication
and refinement. Made for use on the region's quiet, shallow marshes
and bays, the finest decoys made by the region's masters had
extremely thin body shells set on a bottom board. The delicate,
lightweight bodies were often covered with detailed feather lines,
achieved by drawing a fine graining comb through wet paint.
John R. Wells (1861-1953) of Toronto, Ontario worked for over
forty years at the Aykroyd Boat Building company, where he made
sailing skiffs. His best decoys include a rig of around 300 birds
commissioned for the Prince of Wales' hunting party in 1919.
David K. Nichol (1859-1949) of Eastern Ontario's Smiths Falls
was a master carpenter and boatbuilder who added relief carved
wings to his meticulously made decoys. He may have been influenced
by French Canadian carvings from nearby Quebec, which have the
most extravagantly carved surfaces of all North American decoys.
MASON'S DECOY FACTORY
Mason's Decoy Factory of Detroit was by far the most successful
of the many commercial decoy making operations which supplied
wooden birds to hunters by mail order in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. Founded by William James Mason
in 1896, the company remained in business until 1924, and shipped
tens of thousands of its well-made decoys to every corner of
North America. Masons are by far the most commonly encountered
of all decoys today, and their ubiquity speaks to their durability
More a cottage industry than a factory in the modern sense
of the term, the Mason company divided labor among its employees
to increase production. Apprentices began the process by roughing
out decoy bodies on a lathe. Skilled master carvers then added
hand carved heads and finished the details of the body before
turning their work over the paint shop for final detailing.
The Mason factory offered duck, goose and brant decoys as
well as shorebirds, crows and doves, all sold by the dozen. It
also accepted special orders, lending its style to patterns or
models sent in by hunters with particular needs. Mason's ducks
were offered in five ascending grades, with prices matching the
degree of carving and painting detail. The company's top grade,
called Premier, featured hollow two-piece bodies, elaborate bill
carving and swirling, stylized paint patterns; a dozen Premiers
cost $12 in the early years of this century.
Illinois hunting was defined by the state's two major rivers,
the Mississippi and the Illinois. Both rivers supported large
populations of marsh ducks, especially mallards, pintails, blue
and green-winged teal, widgeons and black ducks. While Mississippi
River lures were often flat-bottomed, Illinois River decoys were
typically boat-like in form, with hollow two-piece bodies and
v-shaped bottom hulls. Illinois River decoys were painted more
elaborately than lures in other regions of the country, with
highly detailed comb and feather paint. Most also carried imported
German glass eyes that further enhanced their bright, alert look.
Charles Schoenheider, Sr. (1856-1924) of Peoria was a carpenter
and market gunner who made decoys primarily for his own use.
While he also made a number of floating lures, Schoenheider's
most distinctive works are his standing mallards, pintails and
geese, made for winter shooting near air holes in frozen lakes
and rivers. Made following the same elongated forms as his floaters,
Schoenheider's standing mallards and pintails each balances on
a single cast iron foot. The iron foot could be heated to melt
into the ice, which would quickly refreeze and secure the decoy.
All of Schoenheider's standing ice decoys were painted by Jack
Franks, a Peoria decorator.
Robert Elliston ((1849-1915) of Bureau was a professional carver
whose work set an early standard among Illinois decoy craftsmen.
Elliston's birds were painted by his wife Catherine, whose detailed
grain and feather painting was as influential as her husband's
carving. Charles Perdew (1874-1963) of Henry was Illinois' most
prolific and versatile carver. Like Elliston, Perdew worked in
tandem with his wife, Edna, a talented painter. In addition to
duck decoys, decoratives and miniatures, Perdew also produced
superb duck and crow calls. Perdew decorated the barrels of some
of his calls with tiny relief-carved and painted birds, elaborate
hunting scenes and owner's initials.
Charles Walker (1876-1954)
of Princeton was a professional house and sign painter who turned
to carving fairly late in life. His decoys, primarily representing
the Illinois River's most common species, the mallard, were commissioned
by well-to-do members of the exclusive Princeton Game and Fish
Club. While most Illinois River decoys had smooth, rounded bodies,
Walker's lures were flat-bottomed, and many had relief carved
wings. All have high heads and detailed swirling feather paint.
Walker bought professional decoy painting kits and apparently
followed the kit patterns, adding feathering and combing details
of his own invention. In addition to his mallards, he carved
a few canvasbacks and pintails. His few long-necked pintails
are considered his finest work, a felicitous marriage of species
form and personal style.
MINNESOTA AND WISCONSIN
Minnesota and Wisconsin are lands defined by fresh water. The
states are divided by the Mississippi River, touched at their
northern borders by Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes,
and dotted with thousands of smaller lakes, ponds and seasonal
potholes that have provided critical habitat for migrating and
breeding wildfowl for centuries. Wisconsin alone contains nearly
9000 lakes more than twenty acres in size.
Minnesota' s most
important carver, John Tax (d. 1967) of West Union, was a harness
maker who made a large rig of goose decoys for his own use in
1917. Since he intended to use them in the corn fields that the
geese frequented in the fall and winter, Tax mounted all the
birds on iron poles which he could push into the ground for stability.
The rig included decoys of Canada, snow and blue geese (a color
phase of the snow goose) with laminated bodies carved in a variety
of forms-alert watch ganders with their necks stretched up to
full length, standers with their heads cocked in different directions,
feeders with their necks arching and bending toward the ground,
and resting birds with their heads tucked close into their chests.
No two birds in the rig were exactly alike.
Enoch Reindahl (b. 1904) of Stoughton, Wisconsin was a conservationist
and semi-professional nature photographer whose decoys reflect
his life-long love of nature and wild birds. Reindahl was a perfectionist,
and his decoys feature carefully carved body and head contours,
heads set in reaching, sleeping and turned positions, raised
wing carving, and highly detailed comb and feather paint. Reindahl's
fastidious attention to detail extends to the eyes of his birds,
which he insisted on carving and painting because he did not
find glass eyes realistic enough. His article " How to Make
Decoys" was published by Field and Stream magazine in 1949,
and he coached several younger men, including Ferd and Mandt
Homme of Milwaukee, in his techniques.
THE WEST COAST
Wildfowl were so abundant in the West Coast's immense stretches
of marshland that few decoys were crafted there before the beginning
of the twentieth century. Populations were sparse and the supply
of game far outran demand in the early years of settlement. The
region's dominant species were geese, canvasbacks, pintails,
mallards, teal and black brant, a species peculiar to the Pacific
coast. All were avidly hunted and eventually elicited decoys.
William McLellan (b. 1900) of Eureka, California, on Humbolt
Bay, made a rig of black brant in the mid-1930s that included
sixty floating lures and nine flyers with articulated wings.
McClellan carved all the birds from redwood, and included straight
and swimming head forms among the rig.
Charles Bergman (1856-1946) of Astoria, Oregon was a Finnish-born
seaman who carved professionally after his retirement from the
boatyards in 1929. He was an avid hunter, and sometime before
the shooting of swans was outlawed in 1918, he carved a rig of
twelve whistling swan decoys for his own use. The birds have
hollow two-piece red cedar bodies and unusual heads and necks
made in three pieces. Only two survivors of the rig are known
Horace Crandall (1892-1969) of Westwood, in north-central
California, was an amateur taxidermist who carved delicate, solid-bodied
decoys with raised wings. His highly detailed plumage painting
reflects his life-long interest in oil and watercolor painting.