Mitchell, noted carver of duck decoys

R. M.

January 15, 1993|By Karin Remesch and Sherrie Ruhl | Karin Remesch and Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writers

R. Madison Mitchell once said he just wanted to be a good funeral director and carve wood when things got slow.

But it was the ducks and geese he fashioned in his spare time -- some of which fetched $10,000 -- that made him famous.

Mr. Mitchell, who died of a stroke yesterday at 91, carved tens of thousands of decoys in a span of 60 years. His work won international praise, and he inspired dozens of artists to take up the trade.

"Because of him and his willingness to share the art form, the legacy will continue to flourish," said his grandson, E. Mitchell Shank.

Harry Jobes, a respected carver, said, "Everything I know about decoy-carving I learned from him. I began working with him when I was 13 and stayed for 28 years."

Mr. Mitchell's decoys are showcased in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, but most of his work is immortalized in the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum.

In the small house, tucked behind the family's funeral home business, are more ducks -- photos of them covering paneled walls, decoys lining shelves, stained-glass ducks, even a wind sock decorated with ducks.

In the modest white bungalow, Madelyn Shank fondly remembered her father yesterday.

"Everyone who knew him collected ducks for him wherever they went," Mrs. Shank said, laughing.

On a table, in what Mrs. Shank called her father's private museum, was an 87th birthday gift from Gov. William D. Schaefer -- a pewter cup emblazoned with the Maryland Seal.

The man who would become the undisputed dean of decoy-carvers began carving as a hobby in 1924 when business was slow at the funeral home.

Mr. Mitchell stopped carving in 1984 when his eyesight began to fail. He continued to be active in the decoy museum, however.

Every Sunday afternoon he would sign decoys or books in exchange for a donation to the museum, raising $3,000 to $6,000 a year, his family said.

Charles Lee Robbins, in his book "R. Madison Mitchell: His Life and Decoys," wrote that Mr. Mitchell's decoys were world-class because of their lifelike detailing, including carefully carved feathers and intricate painting.

Mr. Mitchell, who was born in March 1901 just outside Havre de Grace, was licensed as a funeral director in 1922. He was director of the family's business, still in operation on Washington Street, until 1981.

He attended Havre de Grace Elementary School and Havre de Grace High School and in 1918 began attending the Baltimore Business College at Baltimore and Light streets.

In 1926, Mr. Mitchell married the former Helen Maslin. She died in 1973.

He is survived by his daughter and his son, R. Madison Mitchell Jr., both of Havre de Grace; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

The viewing will be 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Mitchell Smith Funeral Home. Services are at 11 a.m. Sunday from the Havre de Grace United Methodist Church.

The family asked that contributions be made to the R. Madison Mitchell Endowment Fund, care of the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, P.O. Box A, Havre de Grace 21078.

The fund is a nonprofit corporation that raises money for the museum.

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