Corrections or additions?
This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the August
18, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From the Decoys, the Real McCoy of the Delaware
When is a decoy more than a decoy? When it’s an artifact, a rarity, a
collectors’ item – some examples of which are bringing in $600,000 at
auctions. When it’s a carven, painted repository of a way of life –
both human and riverine. When it served as an indispensable tool and a
means of subsistence for hunters, market gunners, trappers, fishermen,
gatherers, and guides.
For an overview of the world of Delaware River decoys and their
carvers, time at Doylestown’s Mercer Museum (84 South Pine Street:
www.buckscountyhistorical.org/) will prove instructive – and
delightful. Few humans nowadays are privileged to hold a Delaware
River decoy in their hands. The next best thing is savoring the
Mercer’s extensive exhibit, "Ducks, Decoys and the Delaware," which
runs through January 2. Glass cases hold classic examples of the best
of the decoy carvers’ art. Many are presented alongside stuffed
specimens of pintails, black duck, canvasback, and other water fowl
lured gunsights by these working treasures.
The Mercer’s careful Delaware timeline details the rise, fall, and
second rise of the river as a home for water fowl during the period of
1850 to 2000. It details the effects on waterfowl of dredging and
other human activities. Yes, hunting took its toll; but limits were
imposed early on. More serious were pollution and dredging. Together
they nearly brought about the Delaware’s demise. Exhibits describe
Delaware pollution in the 1950s as among the worst in the world. The
waters, which yielded yearly catches of 16 million pounds of shad in
the 1900s, could sustain only 500,000 pounds by the 1920s. We’re down
to one shad fishery now, on an island off Lambertville. What’s bad for
the shad is bad for the ducks. (To learn entire story, read John
McPhee’s riveting "Founding Fish.")
Wastes and chemicals, now largely under control, overpowered the
Delaware’s freshness and clarity for decades. Significant for winged
creatures, Delaware tidal marshes were filled with waste spoils,
spelling the end of wild rice and wild celery. Changes in depth and
flow ravaged riverbanks, altering grasses, reeds, sedges, and rushes,
which had thrived along her flanks. Banks serve not only as granaries,
but also provide shade and shelter – especially in nesting season.
Riverine changes can be read in the shapes of decoys on display:
smaller, narrower, round-bottomed examples were carved for slow and
shallow waters. Post-Delaware dredging, flat-bottomed, keeled decoys –
more heavily weighted and larger in size – were necessary for
stability in forceful currents. River hunters needed decoys with high
rounded breasts to ride swifter Delaware waters naturally. Bottom
weights had to be shifted to the rear, to prevent decoy heads from
being pulled under. Therefore, 1950 decoy specimens appear larger than
species they were crafted to represent.
The use of decoys is so New World. Europeans had hunted birds from
boats and from the shore, even employing "beaters" to flush quarry.
Once on these shores, settlers encountered natives who hunted over
decoys of reeds, stick figures, and even stuffed skins. This was a
step up from trained or tethered birds. Hunting in what was to become
the United States of America was not the province of the privileged.
Plain and simple, the more effective the decoys, the more they put
food on the table. Most carvers took up knife because they needed
decoys to bag ducks.
The Museum provides information not only on the decoys that reeled in
the ducks, but also on how best to prepare the fowl. It displays
excerpts from "Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cookbook: A Manual of Home
Economies," which was published in 1886. Rorer is explicit on the
roasting of duck. "Cavities to contain only cranberries and butter,"
she writes. She was not a fan of stuffing, but concedes that, if any
stuffing is used, it should be potato stuffing.
In display cases and on continuous video, the museum shows visitors
that most decoys are hollow. Weight was a factor for hunters toting a
"rig" of 60 or more decoys to the hunting waters.
Today connoisseurs spend hours on fine points of distinction between
Delaware Bay decoys and Barnegat Bay decoys. Bob White, a carver from
Tullytown, Pennsylvania, talks about some of the differences and about
the shallow draft boats, called sneak boxes, favored by both.
Delaware Bay decoys are "smooth, not highly detailed, less carving,
with basic paint," he says. "Just enough to draw them near, you see.
The hunting was different on the bay. They’d go out in the sneak box –
grasses all over it, find a set of rushes to hide, or even sit in a
blind. They’d put those decoys in the water, and just wait ’til the
ducks would fly over to investigate. All that was needed was to get
’em in range – 30 yards was about right. Bay decoys didn’t need to be
"In the Delaware," White continues, "we’d use the sneak box, yes. We’d
set out those decoys right on the water, then go upwind, upcurrent –
say 300 yards. Give the birds time to see our rig, fall in with them."
White, an oldtimer who carves working decoys to this day, explains
that Delaware River decoys had "low heads, so they looked restful.
Some had their bills buried. They might look sleepy-eyed, so those
overhead birds would nestle down. They had to relax." He explains that
"ours have to look real convincing, finely detailed. Because those
ducks’d be right in there with ’em." Delaware River Decoys sport
characteristic raised "Vs" at the wings and deep tail feather
incisions. White now paints the speculum, the brightly colored patch
tucked under wings, also called secondaries, partly for collectors.
Originally, the only eyes to be pleased were avian. Decoy eyes were
formed of tacks, shoe buttons, or beads.
White grew up along the river, in Trenton. "The marsh was one of my
favorite places," he says, "still is. We called it the Brickyards
then. I rowed in there, loved it there – especially at super high
tide, even hurricane tides. That’s when we could get in among the wild
rice. Everybody hunted and fished and trapped. I started as a kid,
watching my brother, learning from the oldtimers. I needed decoys.
This wasn’t considered sport, no sir! This was to get food on the
Exhibits at the Mercer Museum’s show on these food-lures, which have
turned into hot collectors’ items, include archival photographs, a
sneak box painted for hunting, a mat of rushes to render hunters more
vegetable than human in their quest, letters and postcards, shad
fishing account books, recipes, instructions to budding hunters – and,
of course – rows of sleekly evocative wooden ducks-all-in-a-row.
Hardware in the exhibit includes heavy metal: weights strategically
attached to the wooden birds, as well as circular metal anchors with
stout cord threaded up to the decoy. There are double-barreled
shotguns of unexpected beauty, shot bags, silver flasks, and a dented
gunpowder can. Drawknives, rasps, pocket knives – tools of the tooling
trade – can cause human hands to itch to take up carving. A venerable
gunning box, to hold shotgun shells, is meticulously inscribed, "SamL.
ARCHER, BORDENTOWN, N.J."
Only one decoy belonged to the Museum’s founder, Henry Chapman Mercer.
Wise before his time, this world-traveler realized the impact of the
Industrial Revolution on hand tools. Archaeologically inclined, Mercer
saw that these discarded, even despised, tools could someday
resuscitate a way of life. In addition to creating some of the world’s
handsomest clay tiles, he set about preserving hand tools. Mercer’s
turreted museum – seemingly carved of molasses cooky dough – was
opened in 1916, and was named to the National Register of Historic
Places in 1972. Mercer’s well-worn Delaware River decoy rests humbly
in a solitary case, "heavily worn from use on the river." It sports
holes that could well be from misdirected shot of a temporarily
Barbara and Ray Nyman, of Marlton, New Jersey, are carvers in the
Delaware Valley tradition. He began – self-taught and observant – in
1961. Gradually, the fame of Ray’s work increased, and we became a
full-time carver in 1981. Barbara joined him 10 years ago, shore birds
triggering her talents. Her three dimensional decoys reveal her
passion for the birds themselves.
Barbara insists that "there are a lot of Delaware River-style carvers
still around." Ray’s work garners $225 and up, per bird. He doesn’t
exactly teach the art, but he does coach. "You’ll find decoy carvers
very open to sharing," he says.
The repeated theme of "Ducks, Decoys and the Delaware" is the absolute
usefulness of decoys as tools. Only in recent years has the folk art
aspect of this craft come to the fore, esthetically and financially.
Bob White says,"I’m just a decoy maker. I call myself a wildlife
artist for the IRS, because they wouldn’t probably know what it was if
I wrote the other. You can call it an art, if you like. It’s really
two forms – sculpture and painting." But White takes great pride in
seeing to it that his birds float realistically enough to bring in
relaxed prey. "I add to my own gig every year," he says. "It’s just a
joy to see them out there, on the water, doing what they’re supposed
White’s highly sought after collectible decoys bring $300 to more than
$1,000, but he makes it clear that his art is about much more than
money. But his voice ignites as he hearkens back to river days outside
Trenton, especially in autumn. "I just love that time of the year," he
says, "pushing through that rice. If I get me some birds, fine. If
not, fine. Just to be out there, other seasons too. Well, I’ve played
on the river all my life."
Tradition, Mercer Museum, Doylestown, Mondays through Saturdays from
10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays until 9 p.m.; until January 2. Cost:$7 for
adults, $3.50 for children. Call 215-345-0210 for more information.
- Craft Demonstration, Saturday, August 28, 2 p.m. to 4
p.m. George Shrunk demonstrates techniques for carving Delaware River
decoys. Free with admission.
- East Coast Treasures, Saturday, September 25, 1 p.m. to 4
p.m., John Frank, a former Sotheby’s appraiser, who was involved in
the sale of a $811,000 decoy, talks about decoys and decoy valuation.
Free with admission. From 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Frank gives verbal
appraisals of a decoys brought in by visitors for a $10 fee.
- Craft Demonstration, Saturday, September 25, 2 p.m. to 4
p.m., Bud Miles demonstrates skill at hand crafting the sneak box
boats favored by duck hunters. Free with admission.
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