Decoys lure admirers to museum

September 12, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Back when the ducks in the skies over Maryland were as plentiful as the leaves on the trees, Harry Jobes, a waterman and duck hunter, began carving his own wooden decoys to lure the birds into shooting range.

His son, Bob Jobes, recalls the old-timers swapping hunting stories and whittling as they sat around the stove after a day out on the boats. So he took up the pastime, too.

Today the water holds no future for the Jobeses, but their hobby does. Carving has replaced crabbing as the mainstay for the Jobeses -- father Harry, 67, and sons Bob, Joey and Charles -- whose nationally known work has become symbolic of the Havre de Grace wooden decoy tradition.

The men joined about 30 other local artisans and retailers yesterday displaying their handicrafts during the 17th annual Duck Fair in Tydings Park near the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum.

The nonprofit museum was established in 1986 to preserve the Chesapeake Bay custom of carving wooden replicas of waterfowl. Havre de Grace, museum officials boast, is the decoy capital of the world.

"What we're preserving is a way of life," said special events coordinator Margaret Jones.

The fund-raising event began as a bake sale for the museum, but over the years it ballooned into a fair with children's games, a silent auction, an ugly-duck contest, retriever dog demonstrations and exhibitors.

It pales in comparison to the Decoy and Wildlife Art Festival that the museum has held in the spring for the past 23 years, which draws hundreds of exhibitors. But museum officials hope to double the traffic -- to 2,000 visitors -- at the Duck Fair this year and draw in about $10,000, she said.

In the first two hours yesterday, Jones said, more than 600 people had already passed through the gates.

"I've always heard about it," said Walter Venator, 66, a hobby carver and electrical engineer from Wagontown, Pa. "It's opened my eyes to the techniques of these people."

Havre de Grace, Bob Jobes, 44, said, is known for its canvasback ducks, which have slightly upturned tails.

Historical use

Evidence of the use of decoys in North America goes back thousands of years. In 1924 researchers found decoys in Nevada's Lovelock Cave that are believed to be 2,000 years old. Native Americans fashioned decoys from cattails and rushes and taught the skill to European settlers, who hewed decoys from wood. No one considered them art, museum docent Perry Hargis said.

Over the years, duck hunting made up a large part of the Chesapeake regions' economy. In the 1800s and early 1900s, commercial duck hunters supplied restaurants from New York to Washington with the coveted canvasback and redheads that swarmed the bay, and that discerning palates considered delicacies.

Ducks were so plentiful that The Sun reported in 1893 that one man shot 235 ducks one afternoon from his sinkbox, a flat hunting boat laden with decoys. Over time, Havre de Grace's reputation for hunting attracted President Grover Cleveland, financier J.P. Morgan and baseball legend Babe Ruth, who each paid as much as $1,500 to rent a local sinkbox to shoot from.

Hunting dwindles

By 1935, the millions of waterfowl had dwindled to about 250,000, Jones said, and the federal government severely limited hunting them. The Chesapeake hunting economy -- along with the decoy-making cottage industry -- dried up.

After World War II, fewer than a half-dozen decoy craftsmen remained in the area, Hargis said.

By then, plastic decoys could be stamped out quickly and they nearly replaced their hand-carved cousins, he added.

But a few Havre de Grace carvers stubbornly clung to tradition and gained national recognition. Among them: Robert McGraw, Lou Klair, Paul Gibson and Robert Madison Mitchell. Mitchell, said to be the most prolific Susquehanna carver, is known as the "dean of decoy-making."

Although these men made decoys for hunters, Delaware carver William Veasey explained, some of them would save a few for mantelpieces.

"The whole decorating thing grew out of that," Veasey, 72, said. Veasey, who grew up in Elkton, has been carving ornate ducks and birds for 33 years.

About 35 years ago, he said, the craft gained legitimacy after shows and contests began to be arranged.

"Since then, the work has gotten better," he said.

Most carvers cater to collectors, although some hunters still look for wood decoys.

Simple to elaborate

Simple decoys take about three hours to carve and paint. Elaborate birds with glass eyes and feathers can take weeks.

Antique birds, battered by use, command thousand of dollars at auctions, and some newer, collectible pieces have sold for hundreds of thousand of dollars, carvers said. Records show that in 2000, one Massachusetts carver sold a goose decoy for more than $684,000 at auction. Veasey said he recently sold a commissioned eagle for $15,000.

Harry Jobes sells his ducks for about $60 each.

"At a show like this, you make enough to pay for a bad hotel room," Jobes said.

Still, he said, he has made enough to live by carving full-time since the 1970s.

Some hunters who use wood decoys said they don't disregard the artistry of the newer decoys, but seek something more simple, like the lifestyle of yesteryear.

"If these guys could only talk," said Steve Allen, 48, a Carroll County hunter, pointing to the hundred-dollar vintage decoys he was considering buying.

"Man, I'd love to hear what they saw flying high over the Susquehanna, the stories they heard the old guys tell sitting out there in their blinds."

The duck fair continues from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at the Havre de Grace Duck Museum, 215 Giles St., Havre de Grace. The event is free and open to the public. Information: 410-939-3739 or www.decoymuseum.com.

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