If Harford Countians had a mascot, it would be a duck. A wooden one.
Across the county, carved mallards, canvasbacks and buffleheads nest in offices, on mailboxes and in the back windows of cars. When officials needed a symbolic presence at the recent Maryland Association of Counties convention, they hired a decoy carver to work Harford's booth.
And in Havre de Grace -- which boasts a decoy museum and calls itself the "Decoy Capital of the World" -- one bride even registered for wedding gifts at a local decoy shop.
"She said, 'I don't need china -- but I do need more decoys,' " recalls Jeannie Vincenti, who owns shops in Churchville and Havre de Grace with her husband, Patrick. "She ended up getting about 22 different pieces."
Says Vincenti: "If you are in Havre de Grace and you don't have a decoy somewhere, something is wrong."
Hunting decoys have a rich history in Harford, a community shaped by life on the Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna River, where "gunning" for birds is a treasured part of the local heritage.
Hunters in shallow areas of the Bay bordering Harford, Cecil and Kent counties typically used as many as 200 to 600 small, rugged "Upper Bay" decoys at a time to attract birds, says Dan Brown, curator of the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury.
"On the Lower Bay, they hunted in much more protected areas, so they used much more fragile decoys," Brown said. "The carvers on the lower shores really don't do the working decoys as such. Their decoys are much more decorative."
These days, decoys can fetch thousands of dollars depending upon who carved them, their rarity and condition. A mallard drake carved by Ira Hudson of Chincoteague, Va., commanded $25,300 at an auction in 1993; a decoy by Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Mass., sold for $319,000 in 1986.
Many credit craftsman R. Madison Mitchell, who died in 1993, with bringing Harford decoys to the forefront.
In 1922, Mitchell started carving decoys as a hobby in Havre de Grace and carved thousands, now highly valued by enthusiasts.
Joey Jobes, 32, is a part of that tradition. He learned to carve from his father, Capt. Harry Jobes, 60, who worked with Mitchell for many years.
"It's nice to have something handmade around your home," says the younger Jobes, who has given decoys to the Ripken family and joined his brothers in giving decoys to President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. "How many things can you buy these days that are handcrafted?"
He demonstrates the intricacy of that craft in his shop, a converted garage behind his Havre de Grace home. Holding the carved wooden body of a bufflehead, he runs a sable-hair brush dipped in blue paint down the head and neck, working in perfect, clean lines.
"I make a lot of canvasbacks," says Jobes, who carved at the county's convention booth. "I only have 150 decoys in my personal collection, and that's not a lot for a carver."
His work is prominently displayed at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, an anchor of the historic town's downtown development efforts. It drew 26,000 visitors last year.
"We have a lot of people here who are carving for a living," says director Mary Jo Murphy. "We have an excellent network of carvers here, and people really enjoy the decoys."
In fact, say many enthusiasts, the love of decoys can become downright addictive. Just ask C. John Sullivan Jr., a Fallston resident whose home threatens to become a museum in its own right.
1,000 in his home
Sullivan, who has written a book about Harford County's waterfowl history, received his first decoy at age 13 from his maternal grandparents.
That led to a decadeslong quest for gunning items.
He now displays more than 1,000 decoys in his home, with a semi-submersible "sink box" used as camouflage by hunters, several gunning boats, historical photos and other items connected to bird hunting.
Sullivan even has the tool box and tools belonging to his favorite carver, Charles Nelson Barnard of Harford. "I feel like I have a connection with this man and his work," adds Sullivan, noting that Cecil County-style decoys generally have flatter tails and a "shelf" upon which the neck rests.
It's a mania Bob Hockaday, a former county official, knows only too well.
He got a tip late one Monday night that someone had thrown out a bunch of decoys -- and trash day was Tuesday. "So here I am at midnight, going through this man's garbage praying that he doesn't come out with a shotgun," he recalls.
After his midnight raid, Hockaday arranged to buy about 150 decoys from the homeowner, who was getting rid of them while cleaning out a shed.
In recent years, Hockaday has pared his stash of wooden waterfowl from 800 to just over 100. But his passion for decoys has not waned.
"With decoys, you've got sculpture, you've got heritage," he says. "It's a natural folk art that is definitive Harford County and Maryland."
Pub Date: 8/30/97