Decoys: old and older

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Old and older decoys will be featured.

“To the avid waterfowler, no moment of truth can match the instant when a flock first responds to his call and decoys, the time when this wild, free bird of unsurpassed grace begins a descent from the sky down to gun range. It is a stirring spectacle …”–Grits Gresham, The Complete Wildfowler, 1973

I have a collection of hundreds of duck decoys. Over 60 are antique used gunning wooden, cork or canvas working decoys.  Also, many of my collectible decoys are the early generation post World War II tenite plastic and paper mache’ models. The one pictured above is a Sears Roebuck J C Higgins model from the first 1/2 dozen decoys I ordered in 1954. It has some how survived the many moves I have made. I used it and several other old timers to take a limit of 8 green-heads in Alberta in September of 2013.

From time to time, I will feature one of my older decoys on this page and relate history and stories of them. See Decoy Magazine link for more information. 

                                                What’s in a decoy?

  By Jay Gore

 Waterfowl hunters often use fake replicas of the species of quarry pursued. These are commonly called decoys.

Before World War II, decoys were made of hand carved or lathe turned wood. These were heavy and if left in water too long absorbed water. Thus they did not float accurately to represent the birds they were to fool, and they were heavy to put out and take up. They often cracked or head parts broke.

In the late 1940’s and 1950’s, decoys made of paper mache’ were common. These too were fragile; they soaked up water and bills broke off. They were easily crushed by stepping on or tossing them in vehicle, boat or blind. Paper mache’ certainly was not hardy.

There was a period when a few makers constructed decoys of canvas skins and filled them with floating material such as kapok. These too turned out to be unsuitable for the rigors of waterfowl hunting conditions.

During the early to mid 1950’s, decoys began to be made of tenite plastic. These hollow decoys were strong/tough, light weigh, easy to mold, and were manufactured in an inexpensive fashion. Since then other types of plastic formulations have been use for decoys. They are the standard of the day.

For a time, various rubber formulations were experimented with to make decoys. Plasti-duk was one type and they were very durable, with colors molded in to the plastic. These are still in production and can be purchased today. Other types of rubber dried out and got brittle quickly and were not successful.

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 MY SPECIAL DECOY

 I started hunting when I was 10, in 1951. In 1952, my father took me hunting to a slough on the Missouri side of the Missouri River, one mile south of Brownville, Nebraska. It was overcast and just barely enough light to see when 10-12 ducks glided over our duck blind. Dad said shoot. I did and missed of course, not having any training about leading a moving target. The shotgun he had me use was a Stevens bolt action .410. Not much of a gun to hunt waterfowl. So thereafter, I blamed my miss on this puny shotgun!

The next year, 1953, when I was 12, my uncle loaned me a Model 17 Remington pump 20-gauge shotgun for bird hunting. That September I hunted mourning doves and was hitting birds fairly well. During fall, my classmate Greg and his dad, Dr. Curfman, our town Dentist, took me duck hunting on the Nishnabotna River near Langdon. Ducks flew by, I shot and one fell, a green-winged teal. I was sold on duck hunting.

During 1954, I was busy checking catalogs for guns, shell, and decoys. About that time I discovered Herter’s catalog and sales merchant. I had been saving a few dollars and mom and dad let me order some mallard duck decoys. In those days most rural folks shopped via the Sears-Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogs. These big boys were at least 2 inches thick, very heavy and had everything you’d ever want. You could even order baby chickens, which many neighboring farmers did. My dad was a rural mail carrier and I helped him deliver mail and chickens. I digress. From Sears-Roebuck, I ordered a half dozen paper mache’ J.C. Higgins mallard decoys. I guess J.C. Higgins was a brand name. They soon came and I used them during 4 years of high school on Missouri River backwaters. When I went to college, I loaned them, and other decoys, to classmate Danny Lahue. He stored them in a shed during off-season and it burned down. BUT, somehow one of my original six J.C. Higgins decoys survived! Not only did it survive the fire, but also it lasted thru several moves I have made and I still have it in 2014. Somewhere along the line it did suffer a broken bill.

In fact, during a duck hunt to Alberta in 2013, I took it and several other old paper mache’ decoys of various makes along and floated them again. They worked great as I bagged limits of mallards using those old guys. Photos following are of the last remaining 1954 purchased J.C. Higgins decoy in my collection.

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Sears-Roebuck, J.C. Higgins Mid-1950’s model mallard

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Back at work, 2013

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Ready to go to work again.

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                        OLD WOODEN DECOYS BY JOHN GLEN—1876-1954

 In my collection, I have two old decoys made by John Glen of Rock Hall, Maryland. He was a waterman, fishing on nearby Chesapeake Bay and did some farming too. His name for the property was “decoy farm”.  He was actually born on Piney Neck.

In 1943, he moved from the farm and became a neighbor of Capt. Jess Urie, another famous decoy carver. I have old decoys made by Mr. Urie in my collection too. Decoys made by Mr. Glen were hand chopped and finished with a spokeshave. The spokeshave left faint marks on the decoys, which he did not sand off.

A John Glen Redhead
A John Glen Redhead

I purchased the male Redhead, above, from Bayside Antiques, Rock Hall, Maryland during the spring of 1978. Information on this decoy from the seller, Edgar Legg follows: I purchased the decoy 27 February 1977, from Splint Downey, a guide at the Cedar Point Gun Club at Easter Neck Isl., Maryland. Mr. Legg said the heart shaped painting on the back, as seen from above, was a common pattern for Mr. Glen. The decoy has been repainted.  Photo below.

The top of the back, near the neck, appears "heart" shaped.
The top of the back, near the neck, appears “heart” shaped.

 

My second Glen decoy is a male widgeon, sometimes called a baldpate. It is in vary poor shape paint wise. It was purchased at auction at Hunter’s Sale Barn in Rising Sun, Maryland. I made that buy May 2, 1993. See the  photo below.

A John Glen Widgeon with badly worn paint.
A John Glen Widgeon with badly worn paint.

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The Gift

Tis the season of gift giving. Many believe a gift needs to be new or expensive. I don’t. Old things cherished, and having value to someone, passed on to a loved one can be the best gift of all. My story:

The decoy was old. The grace of the curves and contours of the head and neck are pure artistry. The sleek body, a joy to hold in ones hand. Who made this folk art piece of history? It’s made of wood, that’s for sure. Likely made before World War II; since most duck decoys after the war were made from paper Mache’ or plastic. A black duck decoy, it was found sitting lonely in a small insignificant tidal salt marsh on coastal Maine. The fake was made to lure wild ducks for the hunter’s harvest. Did the hunter make this decoy? Was it crafted nearby in the local village of South Thomason? Or did the coming and goings of the tide, or frequent coastal storms float this driftwood to this marsh from afar?

Weskeag marsh black duck
Weskeag marsh black duck

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Why did the maker take the time to engrave the outline between bill and forehead?  Time too, to carve out the bill’s nail and nostril? The body could easily have been painted just plain black, as many were. But this artist detailed feather patterns in brown paint upon the black base coat. Also the final black coat was put on over a grey primer coat over the raw wood.

Bill carvings
Bill carvings
Feather detail painting
Feather detail painting

 

Real black ducks have a dark blue wing speculum. The decoy has green! Why?  Perhaps green paint was readily at hand on the craftsman’s workbench, or this Maine waterman was just out of blue paint.

One wonders why the green painted speculum appears to have been slapped on as an after thought whereas the rest of the artful painting was meticulously applied with due diligence. Why then the haste to sloppily apply the green paint? Was the hunting season soon approaching and the hunter needed to quickly finish his set of decoys? Was this decoy one of only a few blocks; or did the hunter make hundreds?

For use in salt-water is evident. Copper nails that resist salt-water corrosion were used to mount lead strip ballast and the anchor line ring on the bottom. It certainly was not made in some inland factory where non-copper hardware would have been used. Also, why the two green painted dots under the tail? Did this mark a particular hunter’s group of decoys similar to a rancher’s branding a cow? The dots are too removed from the speculum to be merely brush stroke mistakes.

Were these 2 dots a branding mark?
Were these 2 dots a branding mark?

The finder was the author, a graduate student at the University of Maine at Orono.  The antique decoy was found in the summer of 1964 on the Weskeag salt marsh about 4 miles south of Rockland. This marsh was ditched and drained in the early 1900’s thus reducing tidal influence. A study was devised to see if damming the drainage ditches would provide a more prolonged tidal influence and thus increase the production of invertebrates that are food sources for ducks. Population changes for Macoma clams, Gammaris spp. of amphipods and Hydrobia salsa snails were measured. The decoy was found during fieldwork.

The decoy will be gifted to my son, Brook. Brook was 2 years old when I was doing this field research. He often accompanied me in the marsh riding in a trappers pack basket. This basket was made of ½ and 1-inch strips of wood (ash I believe). It was made at the Basketville plant in Putney, Vermont (stamped on the bottom of basket), and is still in the family. Brook would stand up in the basket, hands on the rim, and peer out to see the surroundings. The beginnings of a family heirloom, perhaps Brook will one day re-gift the decoy to my grandson, Jordan.

But is the decoy the real gift? I think not. To me the real gift is my son Brook. A bright, responsible youngster, he had a high interest in camping, scouting, music, rock climbing, and tinkering. An Eagle Scout at 13, he would go on to earn advanced degrees in electrical engineering and Business. He has had responsible, productive jobs and raised two motivated children. A proud father am I.

There are no rules or requirements that gifts have to be new or expensive. A valued family treasure can have great meaning. Great meaning, especially if the recipient knows or understands the story and history, behind the gift.

Enjoy the holidays ahead. And may your soul be at peace during this time of haste, tension and stress. A mug of hot chocolate may help. And please remember to hug your loved ones and say that you love them.

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I’m only responsible for what I say, not for what you understand!

Know when to give up and have a Margarita.

Stop trying to fit in when you were born to standout!

 

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