Easton wasn't always an arts destination, with one gallery after another lining its shady, wide-sidewalked streets. For most of its history, hunters would travel to the Eastern Shore town each autumn for a weekend of waterfowl hunting during the November days when the migrating Canada geese flew overhead.
Since they would often bring their wives and kids, it made sense to offer some activities for all the visitors. That's why, since 1971, the nonprofit group Waterfowl Festival Inc. has staged an annual event combining Easton's waterfowl hunting heritage with its newer role as a place to appreciate and purchase artwork.
"This has been the anchor that helped Easton become an art destination," said Rae Copper, who has organized the event since 2005. In those few years, "it's probably tripled or quadrupled in size," she said.
Cooper expects 15,000 people or more to visit Easton this weekend for the 40th annual Waterfowl Festival, lured by activities for families and pets, music, fly-fishing demonstrations, food, wine, art and the promise of perfect blue-sky autumn weather.
The event began as a way to "preserve the heritage of the Eastern Shore," while also raising funds to protect it, said Cyndy Carrington Miller, the festival's public relations consultant. That 1971 festival raised $7,500 for a group called Ducks Unlimited, and over the years, more than $5 million has been raised for habitat and wildlife restoration, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay. "It all goes to help the wildlife and the waterfowl," she said.
"It started with a handful of members of the community who had this idea, and it has stayed a community event throughout the years," said Miller, who noted it has "taken over the whole town of Easton." And it wouldn't happen without the work of some 1,500 volunteers.
These days, the event is less about the hunting and more about the artwork, said Copper, who noted that from the beginning, the art has had a waterfowl focus and includes decoys, sculptures, artifacts and wildlife paintings.
One major attraction this year is a museum-quality oil on canvas, painted by N.C. Wyeth in 1916, depicting a man on a black horse, with another man standing at a fence and a sweeping vista of plains and river behind them. The piece, originally created for Collier's magazine, will be on display at the Masters Gallery at the Academy Art Museum and is available for purchase.
The 2010 Waterfowl Festival began Thursday with a tasting tour and art preview for donors who had contributed at least $100. Today through Sunday, the focus will be on the work of some 300 wildlife artists, craftsmen and vendors. David Maass is the featured artist of the Masters Gallery, which showcases the work of renowned artists.
Also on display will be artifacts from private collections, including an exhibit on sharpshooters of the Chesapeake, arranged in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Vendors will sell wine and food, including oysters and crab cakes.
Dogs have always been an essential part of the waterfowl experience, and the festival encourages dog owners to enter their pets in competitions like the retriever demonstration, which is open to all dogs. As long as they're willing to jump into the pool, they are qualified to compete.
"Half the fun is watching the dogs who don't want to do it," Miller said.
The DockDogs competitions, held all three days, challenge intrepid Fidos and Spots to see how far they can jump from a dock into a pool of water.
Goose-calling and duck-calling competitions are also part of the weekend. Of note this year is a Champion of Champions competition, held once every five years and open only to world-champion goose callers (yes, it is possible to be such a thing).
Tickets for the event are $10 for all three days, with children 12 and under attending for free. A few events, like the goose-calling championships, cost a small amount more. Tickets can be purchased throughout town.
Parking is free in two lots — one downtown and one at the high school — and free buses travel to the various event sites throughout the day.
If you go
The Waterfowl Festival is today through Sunday in Easton. Events take place today and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The festival includes activities for children, stunt dog competitons, artwork demonstrations and sales, music, food and much more. Tickets are $10 for all three days, and are sold at venues throughout town. Children age 12 and under are free.
From Baltimore, head across the Bay Bridge and follow U.S. 50 east into Easton. Follow signs and blue arrows for free parking and shuttle buses to the events. The drive takes about an hour and a half.
Many hotels in Easton are probably already booked, so consider staying in St. Michaels, Cambridge or other nearby communities. Go to waterfowlfestival.org/accomodations.html to search by criteria including location and type of lodging.
Go to waterfowlfestival.org or call 410-822-4567.