Carver of decoys mourned Mitchell regarded as dean of craft

January 17, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

All afternoon and into the evening yesterday, hundreds of the people R. Madison Mitchell had touched streamed into a waterfront museum full of wooden ducks and geese to say farewell to the dean of decoy carvers.

Surrounded by glass cases full of decoys, including a wall dedicated to Mr. Mitchell's finest work, more than 500 friends and family members turned out to celebrate one of the area's best-loved chroniclers.

Mr. Mitchell, who died Thursday at 91, wanted people to say their goodbyes to him here in the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum he made famous, his grandson recalled.

"He spent so much of his time here, he cared very much about the museum's future," said R. Madison Mitchell III.

Red roses, including a basket from Gov. William Donald Schaefer, flanked the coffin.

On one side sat a lifelike, polyurethane model of Mr. Mitchell. The figure, one of two of Mr. Mitchell, is part of an exhibit demonstrating decoy carving.

Standing inside the museum, surrounded by exhibits of the decoy carver's craft, Robert G. Litzenberg Sr. wiped his eyes and shook his head.

"This," the 84-year-old decoy carver said, "is the end of an era."

He remembered not only his longtime friend's works but also his kindness and generosity.

"Madison used to laugh that he never thought the day would come when folks would be putting his decoys on mantelpieces or coffee tables," Mr. Litzenberg said.

Indeed, Mr. Mitchell, who ran the family's funeral home on Washington Street until 1981, once told a reporter 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 was born outside of Havre de Grace in March 1901, carved more than 100,000 decoys in a span of 60 years and inspired over 40 artists to take up the trade. His meticulous attention to detail, including lifelike painting and intricate carving, elevated humble, everyday hunting tools to national treasures, some of them now displayed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Another grandson, Mitchell Shank, said his grandfather was bemused by his success. "He enjoyed the publicity, he loved talking about decoys, but he never let it go to his head," he said.

"Mr. Mitchell was a gentle man, he was kind and he treated everyone fairly," said Duane A. Henry Sr., owner of the Susquehanna Trading Co. in Havre de Grace, which specializes in Mr. Mitchell's decoys. "He was a father figure for most of the community. To know him was to really enrich your life."

Mr. Henry said the value of Mitchell decoys has increased considerably: A decoy that sold 15 years ago for $85 would now go for $450.

But those who came to celebrate the carver's life, including county executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, remembered the man as much as his art.

"The real legacy is not so much his own work but the knowledge he imparted to other people. The lives he touched, the men who learned carving from him -- that's his legacy," Mr. Henry said.

Jim Pierce, one of Mr. Mitchell's students, agreed. "He was a master, and what he taught us, we are teaching each other," he said, praising Mr. Mitchell for his patient instruction.

"I've never met anyone like him. He gave so freely of his time and knowledge," said Patrick Vincenti, a local decoy carver.

Mr. Vincenti, 39, said he met Mr. Mitchell in 1968 when he bought a hen pintail duck decoy for $3. That decoy would be worth about $700 today, he said.

The appeal of Mr. Mitchell's decoys transcends their physical beauty. "The decoys are part of our history, part of a folklore that is unique to this country," said Mr. Pierce, the carver. "At one time hunting was a

part of life. That was the way you put food on the table in the early days."

Mr. Mitchell, who stopped carving around 1985 when his eyesight dimmed, remained active in the 7-year-old museum, his family said.

Mr. Mitchell, who was born outside of Havre de Grace in 1901, was licensed as a funeral director in 1922.

Another viewing will take place today from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Mitchell Smith Funeral Home. Services will take place 11 a.m. tomorrow at Havre de Grace United Methodist Church.

Mr. Mitchell is survived by a daughter, Madelyn Mitchell Shank, and a son, R. Madison Mitchell Jr., both of Havre de Grace; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. In 1926, Mr. Mitchell married Helen Maslin, who died in 1973.

The family asked that contributions be made to the R. Madison Mitchell Endowment Fund, care of the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. The endowment fund is a nonprofit corporation that raises money for the museum.

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