Decoy festival is a big lure

Ducks: The event is one of the largest on the East Coast and one of the most important in the country for decoy aficionados.

May 09, 2004|By Joe Eaton | Joe Eaton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As Charlie "Speed" Joiner tells it, there's not much to making a duck decoy.

"You just cut away everything that don't look like a duck," the 82-year-old Chestertown man said with a wry smile.

Joiner is modest about his work, but the decoys that he once made for hunters - like the thousands of decoys on display this weekend at the 23rd annual Decoy and Wildlife Art Festival in Havre de Grace - are considered folk art and cost thousands of dollars each.

"It's mind-boggling," Joiner said of the decoys he used to sell for less than a dollar each.

Joiner was among the more than 150 exhibitors selling decorative and hunting decoys yesterday at the Havre de Grace High and Middle schools, and the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. There are carving competitions, duck call demonstrations and duck-retrieving contests for dogs. Proceeds from the festival will help fund the decoy museum, which contains one of the largest collections of duck decoys in the country.

Margaret Jones, a festival organizer, said she expects up to 6,000 people will attend the festival before it ends tonight.

The event is one of the largest on the East Coast and one of the most important in the country for decoy aficionados, Jones said. "Decoys and Havre de Grace are almost synonymous anymore," Jones said.

Perry Hargis, a Decoy Museum volunteer, said that before the 1930s, the Susquehanna Flats, which the museum overlooks, were a celebrated commercial hunting ground for canvasbacks - considered the "filet mignon of ducks."

Locals hunted them for restaurants and hotels in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia. The ducks are now an endangered species.

"I can remember when I was a kid, the ice houses would be packed clear to the ceiling with ducks," said Hargis.

Crafting the decoys used in the hunt became a cottage industry in the early 1900s. The most famous local decoy maker was R. Madison Mitchell, a funeral director who developed what became known as the Susquehanna Flats style, a heavy decoy that worked well in the high winds off Havre de Grace.

His daughter, Madelyn Mitchell-Shank, now a funeral director in Havre de Grace, said her father never made money off his decoys because he gave away more than he sold. "And when they started calling it folk art, he laughed about it," she said.

This weekend's festival features tens of thousands of duck decoys in various regional styles from across the country and Canada.

The world of decoys has its rivalries, and the rivalry between the Cecil County decoy and the Harford County decoy is running strong, even today. Although the two styles look almost the same to the uninformed, decoys from Cecil County decoy have a pointed tail, called a "paddle tail."

Jim Trimble, a Virginia collector, said that difference in the tail is a point of pride for craftsmen. "They were competing to see who could best capture the likeness of a duck," he said.

Ron Zelnick, who drove to the festival from his home near Orlando, Fla., was exhibiting decoys. "See this?" he asked, pointing to a clunky, square-sided blue duck decoy. "It's a working bird that got the job done. You can kill birds with it, but to me it's just not sexy."

Zelnick picked up the second decoy, which looked almost alive. "But this one is the work of a craftsman who took pride in his work," he said.

The festival continues from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. The cost is $6. Children younger than age 12 are admitted free.

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