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THE CLARION The Museum of American Folk Art 49 West 53 Street, New York, New York 10019 Number 5

THE HUNT FOR THE DECOY by Adele Earnest Reprinted from LITHOPIN ION, Volume 9, Number 3, Issue 35.

Fall 1975

DIRECTOR'S LETTER In the past eighteen months the Museum has reduced its total deficit by $47,787.00 — a remarkable feat considering today's economic situation. At the same time we did not have to cut back our services or the number of exhibitions. At this rate, there will be no deficit next year and it will be easier to raise money for a permanent building. I am happy to announce on behalf of the Board of Trustees that three new trustees have been elected to the Board. Mrs. Ronald Lauder and Mr. Peter Nicholls joined in May and Mr. Andy Warhol became a trustee in July. Mrs. Lauder is heading a committee to organize a house tour of prominent folk art and antique collections in New York City. This event is being planned for early November. Mr. Nicholls has been appointed Chairman of Communications. He is presently working with the Museum to produce a television series on folk art as well as being active in the Museum's current corporate sponsorship campaign. Mr. Warhol is, like many contemporary artists, very interested in American folk art, as well as American Indian art. In memory of Edith Barenholtz, a beloved trustee of the Museum, who died May 30, 1974, we are planning a yearly symposium of collectors who are members. It was always Mrs. Barenholtz's wish that the Museum become a center where collectors would gather and share their experiences and talk about their collections. This symposium could grow and be a means of organizing trips to see the many fine collections our members have. It would also help the Museum learn more about pieces that could be shown in future exhibitions. If you have a collection, please write us about it. Let us know if you have slides or would be willing to have other members to your home. The New York State Council on the Arts has awarded the Museum a grant for the purpose of hiring a fund raiser. Dianne Butt, an experienced fund raiser who has worked with philanthropic organizations in New York and Boston, joins the staff this month. She will not only raise funds for the Museum's operations, but also will be working on membership development and public relations. She will edit future editions of THE CLARION. All this will help the Museum greatly, however, you, the members, are our great strength. It is your loyal support that has helped us to continue and to bring down the deficit. More people have joined, renewals have greatly increased, and many members have raised the amount of their support. Please bring your friends to see our shows this year and encourage them to join. Tell them about the benefits of being a member — free admission, advance notice of exhibitions and coming events, newsletters, and discounts at the Museum shop and on fees for workshops, lectures, and concerts. And remind them that all gifts and contributions are tax deductible.


Tramp Art From September 9th through November 21st we will exhibit TRAMP ART. Helaine Fendelman is the guest curator. Her book about Tramp Art, published by E.P. Dutton, will be released in conjunction with the exhibit. Tramp Art is the work of itinerant craftsmen who chip carved cigarbox or vegetable box wood and then assembled the pieces to make an amazing variety of items from small jewelry boxes to large roll-top desks. Following its New York presentation, TRAMP ART will travel to the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan and then to the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Mrs. Fendelman's book can be obtained through the Museum's bookshop for $6.95 (price to members $5.56 + tax and postage where applicable).

Cat Show Banner Show Community Environments is an organization that has gone from neighborhood to neighborhood in the metropolitan area and inspired community groups, such as scout troops, school classes, and senior citizen organizations, to design and assemble banners to commemorate their community history and the Bicentennial. In December the Museum will display a selection of these handsome and personal banners honoring such areas and sites as Fort Washington and Morris-Jumel Mansion, the boroughs of Queens and Staten Island, and the Museum of American Folk Art. Yes, during the past month, members of the Museum worked every Monday evening on a banner commemorating the Museum and folk art. We will unveil our masterpiece at this exhibition.

Paper of the State PAPER OF THE STATE is the fifth and final exhibition in our New York State folk art series, and will be exhibited next spring. Rather than paper as surface, we will focus on the use of paper as a primary medium of the folk artist in papercuts, silhouettes, hatboxes, wallpapers, papier mAhe,and even card houses. Like the cat show, this exhibition is in the planning stages and we would be grateful for information on pieces that will enhance the show — remember, from New York State only.

In January the cat becomes the focus of attention. Many paintings, drawings, rugs, quilts, carvings, pieces of pottery and other forms of folk art depict the cat. Sometimes abstract, sometimes sublime, sometimes merely comical, the omnipresent cat is finally being honored for its contribution to folk art. This exhibition is still in the planning stages. Please inform the Museum of any pieces you might have or know of. We are not only interested in pieces that are of cats alone, but also those with cats in the fore or background.

RECENT EXHIBITS Hooked Rugs Another successful and very popular exhibition presented by the Museum was HOOKED RUGS IN THE FOLK ART TRADITION, assembled by Kate and Joel Kopp. Documented by a handsome catalogue, this exhibition opened up a whole new field for the Museum, drew great crowds, received extensive publicity (three reviews by the New York Times alone), and was so popular that it was held over an extra two months. Then it went to Boston for a two month exhibition at the University of Massachusetts.

Calligraphy CALLIGRAPHY: WHY NOT LEARN TO WRITE?, like the hooked rug exhibition, tapped a whole field of interest heretofore unexplored. The fan letters for this show were enthusiastic and beautifully scribed. They should be displayed in a future exhibition on calligraphy. CALLIGRAPHY was made possible with the help of the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.

AVAILABLE AT THE MUSEUM BOOKSHOP New Publications — Jean Lipman's Provocative Parallels Herbert Hemphill's Twentieth Century Folk Art Robert Bishop's American Folk Sculpture Helaine Fendelman's Tramp Art, An Itinerant's Folk Art (see coming shows) Catalogues — An Eye on America, Folk Art From the Stewart E. Gregory Collection Metal of the State Pottery of the State Hooked Rugs in the Folk Art Tradition Calligraphy: Why Not Learn To Write? Wood Sculpture of New York State

$ 7.95* 27.50* 28.50* 6.95*

2.00* 2.00* 1.50* 4.00* 2.00* 2.00*

'Plus tax and postage where applicable



Wood Sculpture Marna Brill, a recent graduate of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, assembled WOOD SCULPTURE OF NEW YORK STATE and AMERICAN FOLK SCULPTURE IN WOOD, the first part of our summer CELEBRATE AMERICA program. These two shows displayed the creativity and showed the variety and quality American woodcarvers have achieved. During the second exhibition, carvers demonstrated their skills. Bob Brophy, a decoy carver from Massachusetts, demonstrated the various stages of carving a decoy, from a block of raw wood to the final, finely carved and painted piece. The first show, SCULPTURE OF NEW YORK STATE, was partially funded by the New York State Council on the Arts. The second show, AMERICAN FOLK SCULPTURE IN WOOD, was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and was made possible with the cooperation of Rockefeller Center, Inc.

Mrs. Gerald Ford has decided to give a new look to State Dinners at The White House by using American folk art. Having heard about our famous decoy collectino, The White House asked us to make a selection of forty decoys to be used as centerpieces at a State Dinner honoring Prime Minister Harold Wilson on January 29. The display was very well received by all who attended. Among the guests were William S. Paley, Cary Grant, Beverly Sills, Danny Kaye, Warren Beatty and Nancy Hanks, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The dinner was featured in the April issue of Vogue Magazine.

Nautical Folk Art


The second part of CELEBRATE AMERICA, NAUTICAL FOLK ARTISTS OF TODAY, was one of our most challenging exhibitions to assemble. Starting last fall Nancy Karlins began contacting the various maritime unions, sailor church organizations, and old age homes in search of sailors who are folk artists. We had no idea how much work existed or what the quality was like. After many letters, phone calls, and false leads, we assembled a very interesting and unusual exhibition of artwork by forty contemporary seamen. Two of them, Joseph Rinkowski and Joseph Villegas, demonstrated at the site. This exhibit was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, McGraw-Hill, and the National Maritime Union, and was also organized with the cooperation of Rockefeller Center Inc. The first CELEBRATE AMERICA exhibition was in Rockefeller Center's International Building, the other in the McGraw-Hill Building. Thanks to outside sponsorship both were free to the public and drew large crowds of New York City workers, tourists and crafts enthusiasts.

In the fall, the Museum will again present a series of folk music concerts by the Pinewoods Folk Music Club. If you are interested in these concerts please call in the fall when the schedule is set. This year we will add rug braiding to our workshop classes. These now include rug hooking, needlepoint and quilting. Please let us know what other folk crafts you are interested in so we can add these in the future. A seven lecture folk art course is being offered at the Museum in conjunction with Hofstra University's adult education program. Lectures will be given by Bruce Johnson (Introduction To Folk Art), Helaine Fendelman (Tramp Art), Adele Earnest (Decoys), Barbara Johnson (Scrimshaw), William Ketchum, Jr. (Furniture), Micki McCabe (Quilting), and Herbert Hemphill (20th Century Folk Art). The series begins on October 6th. The first lecture in the series will be given at Hofstra. All the remaining lectures will be given at the Museum on successive Mondays at 11:00 a.m. Those interested in enrolling should write to Hofstra University, Adult Education, Hempstead, Long Island, New York. Members get an enrollment discount!

We recommend the new Liberty Village in Flemington, N.J. Be sure to see the glass blowers.

The Georgia State Council is presently searching for Georgia Folk Art for an exhibit in 1976. Anyone knowing of pieces should contact Anna Wadsworth, Georgia State Council for the Arts, 225 Peachtree Center, Atlanta, Georgia, 30303. Michigan is searching for Michigan folk art. Anyone knowing of pieces should write Kurt Dewherst at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 48824. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is showing the famous M. and M. Karolik Collection for the Bicentennial. Herbert Hemphill is assembling American folk sculpture for an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum next year. It is scheduled to travel to Los Angeles after closing in New York.

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection is seeking information leading to the location of a portrait entitled, "Young Girl With Music Book," attributed to the itinerant New England portraitist, Zebakiah Belknap (1781-1858). This information is being sought in connection with a study of the life and works of Zebakiah Belknap, in preparation for a proposed exhibition. Correspondence should be sent to Miss Betsy Mankin, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection, South England Street, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185. Two miniatures were reported stolen from the Stamford Museum on July 16th. Both are watercolors on paper. The first, unsigned and undated, is entitled, "Portrait of a Young Man". It is in a wooden frame 8-1/2"x11-1/2". The subject is wearing an 18th century costume, blue satin cape, breeches and stockings. He is resting on a pillar with red drapery above. There is a landscape in the upper right hand corner. The second, "Portrait of an Archduke", signed Ernest Lafite in the lower right hand corner and dated 1858, is 7-1/2"x10" and is framed in brown velvet covered board.

PASS ONE ON TO A FRIEND If you know of someone who might be interested in the museum, consider giving him/her a copy of our newsletter. We will be happy to supply you with an extra copy upon request. Editors note: The Museum welcomes original articles on folk art to be considered for the newsletter. We are particularly interested in articles dealing with new discoveries and research that might be the basis for future exhibitons. If you have an article you would like to submit, please contact Dianne Butt. Please accompany articles with self-addressed, stamped envelopes if you wish their return.

VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES If you are in the area and have some time, consider becoming a museum volunteer. As we increase our services, we need more help specifically in membership drives and the Museum shop.




Greater Yellowlegs. Maryland. C. 1910.

Yellowlegs. Orleans, Mass. C. 1880

THERE IT WAS, a bird of wood standing at the edge of the salt marsh. At the time, I didn't know it was a yellowlegs decoy left by some hunter, years before. The Cape Cod beach I walked along that fall day in 1957 had welcomed many explorers for many years, including some Englishmen from a ship named "The Mayflower." In the old days, the hunt was for the bird. Today, the hunt is for the decoy. Sportsmen, antique collectors and folk art enthusiasts have joined in the quest. They are intrigued by the bird carvings themselves and by the fact that here is a unique heritage, an indigenous American folk art all our own, For 23 years Adele Earnest has been co-owner (with Cordelia Hamilton) of the Stony Point Folk Art Gallery, in Stony Point, N.Y, which is a primary source of American folk art, craft and sculpture for museums and collectors. She is the author of the definitive work on American bird carvings, "The Art of the Decoy," published by Bramhall House in New York.

not imported from Europe like most of our arts and crafts. Our own hunters, fishermen, sea captains, farmers and trappers, who lived along our shores from Maine to Louisiana, carved and painted these extraordinary decoys, which include practically every species of bird that flew up and down the continent: geese, ducks (divers and puddlers), plover, yellowlegs, curlew, sandpipers, gulls, heron. Together, they make up a sculptural Audubon. The idea for these hunting tools probably came from Indians, for the native Americans had learned that birds shaped by hand in the image of goose, duck or shorebird, and placed invitingly at the water's edge, could lure the wild creatures out of the sky and down within range of bow and arrow. A wary bird, seeing one of his own kind already enjoying "safe shelter," would not be afraid to land nearby.

If the lure worked; if the migrating flocks saw the decoys, broke and swung low over the marsh; and if the hunter's aim was sure, a savory duck roasted on the fire that night — a welcome change after a long winter's diet of smoked fish, corn and beans. The white man from Europe learned from the Indian. He also needed food. There were no farms or even cleared land —much less supermarkets—at Plymouth or Jamestown, only the woods and sea. Wild game— deer, turkey, pig, fish and fowl—was abundant. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the greatest bird migrations in the world passed over this continent. In the spring, geese heading north to their summer nesting grounds could take all day to pass, and, at night, actually darkened the face of the moon. Passenger pigeons traveled in flocks of a billion, their wings sounding like distant thunder. The Indian made the simplest kind of decoy. He used what was handy. He might scoop up a pile of mud and insert a dead root for a head. Or, in the Plains where wood was scarce, he folded grasses (tule) into a provocative shape and painted the bundle with earth colors to resemble a duck. Archeologists from the Heye Foundation of the Museum of the American Indian digging in Lovelock Cave, Nev., unearthed Indian canvasback duck decoys that date as far back as 1000 A.D. The ancient decoys had probably been hidden for safekeeping until the next season's flight of birds. The colonists who first settled along our Eastern shores used wood for their decoys.There was plenty of it, and with the help of metalworking tools unknown to the Indian, colonists were able to turn out a "coy" that was better crafted and varied in design and structure. The development of firearms provided a killing instrument superior to the primitive devices of the Indian. Early in the 19th century, the Kentucky rifle was invented, and later the ever-popular 12-gauge shotgun. These assets, plus a network of bays and waterways open to everyone, encouraged hunting—and thus the making of decoys. SKYROCKETING VALUES Today, most colonial arts are gone or seen only in museums. Decoys were notably perishable. They got shot up, or simply thrown away when gunning for food became less necessary and more restricted by law. Until quite recently, few collectors thought the decoy worth looking for or saving. As a result, the examples we find today are rarely over 100 years old. Thousands were made, however, and inasmuch as the craft has continued, splendid examples can still be found. In fact, both interest in and value of decoys have skyrocketed, even during the last year, and today the hunt for the decoy is hotter than ever. So the search isn't as easy now, in 1974, as it was when I started in the early 1960s. I remember a day in 1961 when I stopped at a roadside restaurant in Virginia. The sign said "Oysters on the Half Shell." I was barely through the door when I

saw a pintail duck decoy on a shelf along with ketchup bottles and clam shells. I was sure it was a "Ward," which was exciting, since Lem and Steve Ward are considered the most famous living old-time decoy carvers. My bill for the oysters—and the decoy—came to $18. Today, that pintail is worth around $500. Also at about that time, at a farm auction on Long Island, two bushel baskets of sandpiper and plover decoys went as a "lot" for 50 cents, along with other stuff dragged out of the shed. Most of the birds were headless or otherwise broken up, but a couple dozen were "mint." Today, each mint-condition bird is worth about $300. My "swan" song is well-known to my friends. I had been scouting along the Eastern shore of Maryland

Black-breasted Plover by A. Elmer Crowell, East Harwich, Mass. C. 1910

when I saw a bonfire in a farmyard. The blaze was a stack of old swan decoys — the rarest of the rare. I rushed from the car, grabbed one that was still smoldering and handed the farmer a $5 bill. He was flabbergasted. Why would anyone be crazy enough to want an old decoy that you weren't allowed to shoot over anymore? I hope he never realized that he burned up $5,000 that morning. Of course, all decoys are not valuable or even worth saving. Most are not. Most are "clunkers," good for nothing but firewood. One must learn, study, travel and apply the same judgment used in other areas ofcollecting. In general, decoys are divided into two categories: floating decoys and "stick-ups." The floating decoys include those that ride the surface of the water and are weighted and anchored so they can't get away. The most numerous of these are the ducks, which include

mainly the sea ducks: canvasback, whistler, bluebill, redhead, bufflehead, scoter, coot, eider, old squaw and ruddy.There are also the marsh varieties: mallard, black, pintail, widgeon and teal. The stick-ups are mostly the shorebirds such as plover, yellowlegs, curlew, sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, willet, dowitcher and knot. Holes are drilled in the base of these decoys and they are mounted on sticks and placed

Yellowlegs. Cape Cod, Mass. Nails show where feathers were attached.

in the sand, tidal flats or marshes where these "peeps" habitually congregate looking for edibles. Everyone who has walked the beach at low tide is familiar with the little birds that dart back and forth at the edge of the waves. Any serious collector of decoys wants examples of these species in his or her collection. REGISTER YOUR INTEREST Today, you may search for the decoy in antique shops and art galleries, but it's more fun and more rewarding to go into the field on your own search. The best place to start is the state of Maine. Drive down the coast and stop wherever you might pick up news of a defunct hunting camp or an old-time carver. In that part of the country it's better if you know someone, or have "kin." Otherwise, no one has ever heard of decoys! If you are a

stranger, though, and no one knows you there, it's a good idea to drop in at the local general store and buy something — some food or a pair of socks. It's surprising how the ring of the cash register will ease the conversation. In Maine, large eider ducks and white-wing scoters predominate. These are large, handsome and vigorous working "stools" characterized by a flat bottom, wide beam, and low head mortised into the body. Such construction allows the decoys to ride well on rough water, where tides run high and winds are brisk — and the stormier the weather the better the hunting. A special fascination of the search for decoys is the noticeable change of style and construction that results from changes in the locale and in the native wood available— pine, basswood, cedar, cottonwood, cork, balsa. By studying structural'characteristics you can tell where a bird originated, even if you find it far from its original home. In Massachusetts, because of protected waters of bays and ponds, the decoys are (and were) smaller and lighter than the Maine birds. Massachusetts —where craftsmanship was always a tradition — produced much of our finest folk art, including decoys.The mergansers (hen and drake) by Captain L. T. Holmes of Kingston (1824-1899) are supreme. The elegance and sophistication of these decoys is unbelievable,especially since the man had no artistic or even academic training. He was a ship's captain. But he knew his boats and his birds. He understood the rhythm and balance of natural phenomena. Some people call this instinctive sense "naiveté." I call it art. One other such pair by Holmes was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — the first wildfowl decoys to be acknowledged there as "fine art." Fortunately for posterity, Holmes branded his name on the bottom of his work, and so there is no doubt about authenticity. Most carvers did not sign their work in any fashion; if a name or initial does appear, it usually indicates the owner rather than the carver. Stamping helped prevent decoys from being pilfered if they washed ashore during a storm. STAMP OF EXCELLENCE The most revered name among all decoy carvers is Anthony Elmer Crowell (1862-1951) of East Harwich, Mass. In 1914, the Boston GLOBE stated flatly that Crowell's birds were "the best decoys produced by hand in any workshop." Elmer stamped all his floating decoys, except the very early ones. He made hundreds. But don't pay extravagantly for just any Crowell duck. He made birds in various grades, and some were poor. After all, he did serve as guide and wholesale supplier for many Boston sportsmen, who might use 100 decoys in one rig for sea-duck gunning.(Pond-duck shooting required only a dozen or so.) Crowell also whittled songbirds and miniatures for the wives of his hunting companions. These "decora-

tives" are in great demand today. But the real prizes, as folk art, are the Crowell shorebird decoys, beautifully sculpted and painted. A fine black-breasted plover sold in 1973 for $6,250. In Connecticut, the hunt is for birds by the "Stratford School," which includes "the big three": Albert Laing (1811-1886); Benjamin Holmes (1843-1912); and Charles (Shang) Wheeler (1872-1949). Historically, Laing is the most important, because he revolutionized the local carving practice. Before his day, Housatonic River "coys" had been shapeless blocks hewn with little care and called "old rocking horses." Laing, a perfectionist, created a neat, hollow, low-lying bird with a prominent breast to buffet the slush ice that clogs the river in March. Laing lived at the very edge of the estuary. His house still stands, next to the celebrated Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford. But the pilgrim-visitor to this decoy shrine never notices the crowd next door at the theater, any more than the drama enthusiast sees the adjacent charming Victorian house. During my last visit I learned that Laing had left a diary, a "Farming and Shooting Record," in which he noted pertinent statistics and observations about the coming and going of the birds, the weather, the crops, his shooting score, etc. In the summer of 1886, he was plagued by a series of illnesses. He became desperately impatient with his infirmities, and one October afternoon, he shot himself. The last entry in the journal reads,"Today the martins left..." Long Island, across the Sound from Connecticut, has for generations attracted fowlers. The natural saltwater marshes, inlets and bays offer an ideal habitat for birds. Today, two organizations,"The Great South Bay Waterfowlers Association" and "The Long Island Decoy Collectors Association" meet regularly to research and compare notes, in an effort to record what can be known of their regional history. The members — fishermen, clammers, boatmen, scientists and just plain "decoy nuts" — have come up with fascinating data about oldtime carvers and have discovered a variety of decoys Duck from Lovelock Cave, Nev. C. 1000-1400 A.D.

Photograph by Carmelo Guadagno Courtesy of Museum of the American Indian, Heys Foundation, N.Y.C.

Curlew by Mason Decoy Co., Detroit, Mich. C. 1890.

rarely found in other areas. The Long Island decoys most avidly sought are those by Obadiah Verity,Thomas Gelston and Bill Bowman.The chase today is most frantic for birds by Bowman, because one of his curlew decoys sold at auction for $10,500. Bill Bowman was a bum, but he produced beautiful shorebirds. In the spring, when the beach birds were due, he appeared on the south shore of the island, near Brosewere Bay. He set up camp and he hunted, fished, carved and drank whiskey until the birds left. Then, he left. His only trips to town were to replenish his stock of grog, and his only way of getting it was to carve and sell decoys. And so, when his thirst drove him to it, he carved. Recently, we have learned that in the 1890s he hibernated in Bangor, Maine, where he worked as a sometime cabinetmaker. Don't expect to pick up a Bowman on your next jaunt to Fire Island or at the next antique shop. Few have ever been found,although his ducks, less distinguished, do turn up occasionally. But his shorebirds! I have seen strong men tremble at the mere thought of finding one. Following the coastline, you eventually come to the New Jersey bays and waterways which are more sheltered and shallow than Long Island's. Jersey ducks, therefore, could be lighter in weight, even hollow, and still ride the waves without toppling or "drinking." This meant that because of the lighter portage the fowler could tote larger rigs to boat or duck blind. Harry Van Nuckson Shourds (1861-1920) is one name to conjure with in New Jersey. He produced the most and the best, both in floating ducks and geese, and in stick-up plover, yellowlegs and dowitcher. His son, Harry M., followed his father's patterns but made slightly larger "coys." And the grandson still carves, in the family tradition.

Shorebirds from Long Island, N.Y. Greater Yellowlegs by William Bowman Lesser Yellowlegs by Thomas Gelston Sandpiper by Obadiah Verity

As to the actual mechanics of carving and the tools, several instructional books are available, including Joel Barber's "Wild Fowl Decoys," now reprinted in paperback by Dover Publications, Inc. Barber's book was the first to present the decoy as a unique American hunting tool — and an art. That was back in 1934, and few people paid any attention. "TAKE ONE FENCE POST..." The necessary tools are few: an axe, a pocketknife, a drawknife and a gouge, plus sandpaper for finishing. It was customary, early in the game, to take a log, fence post or ship's spar and split it down the middle. This provided wood for two decoy bodies. Each could then be pointed at one end for a tail and rounded at the other for a breast. The head was often a "found" root, picked up on the beach and inserted into the body. The oldest decoy in my collection, which dates around 1790, is made this way. It's a primitive merganser, but it is far from crude. It says everything a decoy should say, with no extraneous detail. The more particular carvers, such as Shourds, started out with a prime block of seasoned wood about 12 inches long. He secured it in a vise and roughed out the general form. If the bird was to be hollow, he cut the block in half horizontally. He then gouged out both sections and rejoined them with white lead and pegs. For the heads, he made cardboard patterns which he saved from one season to the next, after trial and error had produced the most satisfactory shape. New Jersey decoys can be recognized by the distinctive oval shape of the body, the rounded bottom and the perky head. In the Tuckerton Bay area a special weight is characteristic. The bottom "lead," always applied in some fashion to keep birds on balance, was poured

neatly into a rectangle chiseled out of the base and cleaned flush with it. The anchor line was usually a seine cord attached at one end to the breast and weighted at the other with a chunk of lead, an old horseshoe or a railroad spike. It was quite a trick for the hunter to toss his decoys out of the boat so that the cord unwound without tangling and the decoys settled upright, in a lifelike position. Some birds were not painted at all, simply creosoted or charred as a preservative against water and sun damage.Where paint was deemed necessary, a prime coat of good white lead was usually applied first, then the soft, naturalistic colors. Feathers were suggested by a variety of painting techniques: stippling, flacking, scoring, scratchcoating or graining with a comb. Detailed featherwork was not necessary, but it pleased the painter. Birds, like people, react mainly to the key characteristic that identifies an object; the rest is lost. Therefore, the decoy painter needed only to accent that key characteristic. Birds, being gregarious, seek out their own to fly with, eat with and sleep with.The Shourds whistler decoy, for example, accents the distinctive white spots on the head and the dramatic black and white flashes that reflect the whitecaps of the sea. The bird's eye might be a circle of paint, a gouge mark, an old button — or a fine glass eye from a taxidermist's shop. RARE "STICK-UPS" Shorebird stick-ups, because they are very simple in structure, may look easier to produce than the big ducks and geese, but the delicate modeling and painting of these charming birds are not easy to emulate. Fine old shorebird decoys are difficult to find today. (Fakes abound.)A smaller number were made in the first place, and almost none were used in the Middlewest and Far West. After 1918, when legislation prohibited the shoot-

Pair of "Peeps" (Sandpipers), Cork, N.J.

ing of shorebirds, most men threw their snipe decoys away. One old gentleman in Barnegat, N.J. said he used his to fill up a woodchuck hole under his barn. I am often asked why anyone would want to shoot the tiny shorebirds. Although plover pie was delicious, cooked with carrots and onions under a flaky crust, mostly, the shooting was for practice, and occasionally for feathers. In the fall the small birds migrate first, and the trigger finger got itchy. On the other side of the state of New Jersey on the Delaware River you will notice an interesting change in the carving pattern on ducks. Delaware birds are recognized by detailed wing apd tail carving, a prominent breast line and a low, snuggling head.This change to a more realistic, relaxed pose was the result of a specialized local gunning technique. On the Delaware, the hunter liked to scull up on the birds while they rested on the water, instead of following the more usual practice of wing or point shooting while the birds were in the air. The masters of this region are John Blair and John Dawson. Farther on,in the Chesapeake Bay area,the hospitable waters of the Eastern shore of Maryland .provided the best canvasback shooting in the world. (And some of the best dining. The wild duck loved to eat wild rice, and man loved to eat the duck.) Lem and Steve Ward of Crisfield, Md.,reign supreme here. It is generally agreed that these brothers rank first among all living decoy carvers. Their early work (1920-1940) cannot be faulted. The pintail was a favorite. Today, these men, in their late 70s, are a joy to know when they talk about old times. But they have become captives of publicity and now make only decorative, realistic, ornamental birds. I am sure they were happier when they were barbers, hunting guides and whittlers. I have explored little in Virginia, but I buy every "Cobb" decoy I can find and afford—or even those I can't afford. A bold, hissing goose is typical of the dynamic decoys made by the Cobb family. It all started with Nathan F. Cobb. In 1837 he set sail, in his own sloop, from Massachusetts to take his ailing wife south to a warmer climate. Off Virginia, they ran into a storm and were driven ashore, the ship lost. Full of Yankee enterprise, Cobb built a shelter, then a house, then a store. Within a year he had saved enough money to buy an island. He paid $100 for it and got a hunter's paradise. Cobb's Island abounded with game —with deer, birds and fish. Wealthy Southern sportsmen, including Jefferson Davis, visited the island. All prospered until 1893, when a hurricane washed the island off the face of the earth. Ever since, Cobb decoys have been turning up in other places. THE PRICE OF ANONYMITY All this talk about known carvers does not mean that birds made by unknowns have less quality. Most decoys are anonymous, as is most folk art. But in any category it adds to the value (and to one's pride) to be able

to state the provenance, date and maker of the object. The Shelburne Museum in Vermont exhibits the largest collection of decoys to be seen anywhere in a public museum. Most are anonymous. The superb collections at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection in Williamsburg, Va., and at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City are now being re-indexed and reevaluated, because so much new information has surfaced in the last few years. The William J. Mackey Jr. auctions of 1973 and 1974 at Hyannis Port, Mass. revealed new information and escalated values, much to the pleasure of old collectors and the agony of young hopefuls. Mackey had spent some 40 years building up the greatest and most representative private collection in the country—about 3,000 birds. After his death, the estate auction dispersed this unique, historic collection. There is one intriguing category that I have barely mentioned—the "plumage" decoy. The shocking practice of taking birds for their feathers produced many of our most spectacular specimens: the heron decoy, the swan, egret and gull. Women must take the entire blame for the plumage craze. Toward the end of the last century,fashionable millinery featured feathers and plumes, tier upon tier. A pair of gull wings went for eleven cents at Macy's. Many "plumage" decoys also doubled as so-called "confidence" decoys. A heron or gull placed strategically by a quiet pond looked reassuring to a flight of ducks that circled overhead in search of safe shelter for the night. Today,we shudder at the thought of any wild creature being shot when we realize how the bird population has been decimated over the years. But the cutting of our forests, the mushrooming growth of our cities and suburbs and the loss of shoreline to landfill, cement, tourism and pollution have taken a greater toll than the gun. Actually, an organization of sportsmen, "Ducks Unlimited," has done more to reactivate bird life than any other group. Through their membership they have purchased and reconstituted sanctuaries and feeding grounds in the United States, and nesting grounds in Canada. Another grim aspect of our story was the practice of market-gunning. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the taking of birds for food was no longer a necessity, or a private pleasure, the birds were killed to sell for profit. Eventually, the practice was stopped by law, but too late for the passenger pigeon, the most abundant bird on this continent. Before the ban, 100 barrels of squab a day were shipped to Boston, to St. Louis, to Baltimore. The last member of the species died in a zoo in 1914. The handmaiden of the market was the factory. Market gunners and sporting clubs demanded more decoys than individual carvers could supply and in the 1890s small decoy factories -appeared, mainly in the Middle West and upstate New York. The birds were turned out on a duplicating lathe and finished and painted by

Pintail Drake by Lem and Steve Ward, Crisfield, Md. 1925.

hand. These did not resemble a Ford assembly plant: Only three or four people were employed, perhaps all members of a single family. The chief supplier of these wares was the Mason Decoy Company of Detroit, which sold decoys in four grades: Premier, Challenge, Detroit and Fourth. They were shipped all over the country. Their catalogue said that Mason was "the largest exclusive manufacturer of decoys in the world." And they were.Top-grade Masons are collector's items today. The Mason curlew that sold originally for 50 cents now commands a price of $2,000 —if you can find one. The decoy companies took a place similar to that offered by the 19th century weathervane companies. As the towns prospered and money jingled, the people could afford to buy. Catalogue reading and ordering was fun during the winter months. But the individual carver, the do-it-yourself man, continued to make his own wooden birds, even in areas where the factory decoy was easily purchasable. MIDWEST RENAISSANCE Collectors of old decoys started later in the Midwest than in the East, but now that the mania has struck,they are making up for lost time and building up their own galaxy of star names such as Perdew, Elliston, Walker and Graves. Even more impressive, this renaissance of interest has spurred not only the hunt for old carvings, but has activated hundreds of camp followers into the pleasures and skills of contemporary carving. Annually, the National Decoy Contest at Davenport, Iowa, and the Midwest Decoy Collectors at Oakbrook, Ill., draw thousands of enthusiasts. About 150 contemporary carvers exhibit their own work,each with a display table of his own. Judges preside, and competition is

Eider Drake (with Mussel in beak) by Hans Berry, Cross Island, Me. C. 1880.

heady for the blue ribbon and Best of Show. The prize decoys are usually bought up immediately, if the carver is willing to sell. These contemporary examples are usually realistic and ornamental rather than working decoys.The carvers wouldn't think of shooting up their own handiwork, especially since an efficient and expendable brand-new rig of ducks in plastic or papier-mâché can be purchased at any good shop,like L. L. Bean or Abercrombie & Fitch. But all corners are inspired by the early decoys, and a main event of the convention is a brisk trade, swap and sell session. The whole scene has opened up a new life and new friends for many outdoor enthusiasts, craftsmen and retired businessmen across the country. Hardly a Sunday passes that I don't get a phone call from a collector somewhere. He says it's Bill, or Don or Torn. Some of these men I have never met, but we know each other. We talk about the birds we've found, the gossip, the latest auction prices. Sometimes, we mail birds back and forth, trading, selling or giving. Last month in the mail I received a charming duck decoy from an Indian in Santa Fe, N.M. He had read my book in the local library and wanted to thank me. And so he made a duck for me! There is a Texan with whom I have corresponded for several years. Often, he phones just to talk decoys. I have always known that the birds meant a great deal to him, but I never knew how much until I met him last summer. He was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. He couldn't know, then, the joys of hunting and of scouting in the field and of finding stick-ups in the marshes. But his hands and eyes had discovered the world of decoys. That—and he can vouch for it—is joy enough. •


Corporate Member E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc.

Benefactor Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd

Contributing Members Montgomery L. Byers Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Lauder Bates Lowry Paul L. Oppenheimer Nancy Weber H.C. Westermann

Family Members Mr. and Mrs. James P. Baxter R. DiGia Mr. and Mrs. Asher B. Edelman Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Fisher Mrs. K. Evan Friedman Mr. and Mrs. S. Neil Fujita Jay and Gail Furman Mr. and Mrs. Grossman Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert W. Hales R. Robertson Hilton Mr. and Mrs. Elliott Kamen Mr. and Mrs. Gerold Klauer Dr. P. Marshall Matz John P. Meade, Jr. Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Monet One & One Studio Ernest S. Schwartz

Reba H. Scoblionko Mr. and Mrs. James Seibert Mr. and Mrs. George F. Shaskan Mr. and Mrs. William E. Smyth Mr. and Mrs. Gary Turndorf Eleanora Walker Thomas K. Woodard Mr. and Mrs. Martin Wright

New Full Members Laurie R. Abramson Betty B. Alderman Mrs. Albert Amos Betty Anderson Gail C. Andrews Dan Bailey Mary V.C. Baily Susan Baten Mrs. Nat Bauer Lynn Beaumont Marie Belden Mrs. Wendell Bell Cynthia Beneduce Pamela L. Benvento Martha Bialick Wendy Birkemeier Mr. Louis H. Blumengarten Eleonora M. Boggiani Mrs. Peter Bohlin Bowling Green State University Mrs. John Braganza Marna Brill

Mrs. Louise D. Brown Mrs. B. Bu!lark Martha McMaster Bushe Mrs. R. B. Cadwallader Catherine G. Cahill Jeff Camp Mrs. Richard Caro Mr. J. W. Chapin Mrs. Barbara B. Chiolino City Folk Art Leta W. Clark Carol L. Cohen Nanina Comstock Betty Cooke Anne D'Antonio Albert Davidson M. M. Davison Dr. A. J. DeFalco Alvin Deutsch Ms. Betty Dobbin Marchall Dodge Dorothy Paul Interiors Margaret R. Eddy Mrs. Henry Elliott Mrs. E. Stewart Epley Sheldon Evans Cecelia Felcher Michael Fisher Mrs. John Fitch Charlotte Franklin Robert J. Franz Mrs. Carol Freidus Ms. Randy Fried Mrs. Joseph G. Gavin, Jr. Mrs. E. Gerver Merle H. Glick Arthur Goldberg, M.D. Mrs. Elaine Gordon Dr. Suzanne Goren Joyce R. Graziano Richard G. Hadley Joyce Halpern Mary F. Hamann Jean R. Harris Katherine Hartt John D. Hedges Jacqueline Herships Mrs. Ernest L. Hicks Mrs. Herbert Hinrichs Geoffrey R. Hoguet Ms. Ailsa Hubner Henrietta Humphreys Gail Illman Emogene B. Johnson

James F. Kelly Mrs. Chester B. Kerr Irene Kovacs James Kronen Dr. Lila Lasky Winifred I. Laubach Bud Lee Kathleen M. Leifels Dee Lewis Yvonne S. Lifshutz Dana Lipsig Gloria List Joseph Mallon Betsy Mazursky Janet C. McCaa Carole McCabe-Cohen Patricia McManus Ms. Deanna Metcalf Ken Miller Mrs. Leigh M. Miller Steve Miller Bernard Mindich Phillida B. Mirk Mr. Jan S. Mirsky Elke Kuhn Moore Eudorah M. Moore Elizabeth J. Musheno Mrs. Denore Mushkin William Olcott Ruth 0. Olen Bess Olenik L. Oppenheimer Suzanne Paterson Marilyn A. Pfeifer Mrs. Walter Pflumm Nancy Playle The Pole and Cap (Mat and Phyllis Tavares) Marie DeCarmine Quinn Kitty Reed Joseph A. Rinkowski Florence C. Richardson Carrie Robbins

Emily Rose Eliot A. Rosen Phyllis Rosner Norma Salop Milly Salwan N. Savage Jack Savitsky Nancy P. Scheerer Miss Patricia Schilbe Mrs. John Schoemer Mrs. Sarah E. Schultz Mrs. Ulrich Schwetzer Babs Simpson Fay Stanley Linda B. Stillman Ms. Joann Tagliaferro John Kenneth Taylor Clifford Thompson David Thompson Gerald Tuchow Mrs. Joseph L. Tyron Pamela Udis-Kessler Ron Van Lieu Mrs. John M. Wallace Mrs. L.C. Washburn J. B. Weller Jonathan M. Weisberg Douglas E. Whidden Robert P. White Robin F. Whitten Patricia A. Wiles Tom Williams Wilton Historical Society Anita Winchester Mrs. Priscilla Zinty

New Friends Marie Alpert George Axler Mrs. Morton Bailey Kathleen Baiter Mrs. J.F. Bowen Mrs. Laurence C. Cadman

The Hon. William T. Cahill Marie Cheatham Bill Collins Dorothea Davis Lois H. Davis Edward Deniega Mrs. Jill Esposito Mrs. Harold L. Frank Stephanie Freivogel Albin E. Friedman-Klein, M.D. John A. D. Gilmore Jane Golden S. B. Haldane Karen E. Higgins Luise N. Hoffman Dale S. Kocen Alice Macklen Mrs. K. C. McGee, Jr. Mrs. Sophie H. Minkoff Seymour S. Mintz Wayne Morgan Linda Morgenstern Margaret Murray Cora Natzler Joan M. Oury Ken Rineiam Frieda Sacco E. K. Schmeding Constance Schrader Leon F. Siuta Mrs. Helyn Ruff Slovak Wallace Todd Mrs. Allen Weiner Ms. Lybia Wilson Harry Wright

Board of Trustees Barbara Johnson, President Adele Earnest, Vice President Ralph 0. Esmerian, Treasurer Kenneth Page, Secretary Mrs. James Burke Lewis Cabot Dr. Louis C. Jones Mrs. Norman LassaIle Mrs. Ronald Lauder Hon. Helen S. Meyner Cyril Nelson Peter Nicholls Mrs. Richard Taylor Andy Warhol emeritus Stewart Gregory Marian Johnson Bruce Johnson, Director MUSEUM OF AMERICAN FOLK ART



The Clarion (Fall 1975)  

In Search of a Unique American Folk Art: The Hunt for the Decoy

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