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Havre de Grace Decoy Festival remains regional draw in its 37th year

Havre de Grace Decoy Festival remains regional draw in its 37th year
William Thurman, left, of Buckhannon, W.Va., listens as C. John Sullivan Jr. talks with Thurman's son-in-law, Robert Dawson, during the 37th annual Havre de Grace Decoy & Wildlife Art Festival Saturday. (David Anderson/The Aegis)

West Virginia attorney William C. Thurman has been a devoted fan of Havre de Grace decoys for more than 40 years, ever since he met legendary carver R. Madison Mitchell in 1977 while stopping in Havre de Grace on his way to law school in Massachusetts.

Thurman, who visited the 37th annual Havre de Grace Decoy & Wildlife Art Festival Saturday with his son-in-law, Robert Dawson, recalled wanting to learn more about local decoys while staying with a relative in Baltimore on his way to law school. He was pointed toward Havre de Grace, and once he arrived at a service station in town, he was directed to the Washington Street funeral home operated by Mr. Mitchell and his family.

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"That was the beginning of a lifetime friendship," Thurman said.

He carves decoys as a hobby and for use while waterfowl hunting, or for donations to support community organizations. He also won a series of prizes for decoys he brought to this year's festival.

Thurman has attended the decoy festival every year since its founding.

"I have a history [with] this show, as long as it's been, and I wouldn't miss it," he said.

The festival happened Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with displays of decoys and wildlife art, demonstrations and carving competitions at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum and Havre de Grace Middle School.

The festival is a major fundraiser for the Decoy Museum, Patrick Vincenti, the museum's board chair and a Harford County Councilman, said.

Mr. Mitchell, who died in 1993, was known internationally for his decoys, some of which have been placed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., according to his obituary in The Baltimore Sun.

He was strong supporter of the decoy festival and the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. The R. Madison Mitchell Endowment Trust supports the museum's "acquisition, preservation, and interpretation of decoys," according to the Trust's website.

Mr. Mitchell's carving shop, which has been moved from its original home on Strawberry Alley behind Mr. Mitchell's funeral home on Washington Street to the museum grounds off of Giles Street near the city's waterfront, was open to visitors during the festival.

People could see carving demonstrations in a wood shop in the same building that houses Mr. Mitchell's shop.

Carver Len Burcham, a Havre de Grace resident who lives a block from the museum and volunteers there, gave demonstrations Saturday. He showed tools such as a draw knife and spoke shaver, and he demonstrated using a spoke shaver to shape a decoy's body.

"Most people think these are pretty things to sit on a shelf," Burcham said. "That's not the reason we make them."

Burcham said he used to hunt waterfowl — hunters use the wooden decoys to attract ducks and geese flying overhead down to the water — but he does not hunt any longer because of strict federal and state regulations and the loss of waterfowl habitat.

"We gave it up," he said. "You talk about it now, that's it."

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Burcham said he had seen a lot of families during his demonstrations Saturday, many of them first-time visitors, "which is nice."

Tables outside the front entrance of the museum, overlooking where the Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake Bay, were laden with decoys that had been submitted for competition. Many bore blue, red and white ribbons.

Tom Benner, of Conestoga, Pa., has been carving for a little more than a year, and he won a first-place ribbon for his Canadian goose decoy, along with prizes for a number of ducks he carved.

"There's a lot of quality birds here today," said Benner, who made his first entry in the Havre de Grace decoy festival this year.

He said his son, Shawn, an experienced carver, who also entered decoys in the Havre de Grace festival this year, and a friend encouraged him to take up decoy carving in retirement.

He has spent about 50 years painting decoys, and he has hunted — including in the Chesapeake Bay off of Havre de Grace — for more than five decades.

"It's a lot of fun, and you can make them as fancy or not as fancy as you want to," Benner said of carving.

Bill Kell, of Red Lion, Pa., is a deputy with the York County Sheriff's Office, who has been carving for about 40 years. He won many festival prizes for his duck decoys, but none for a goose that he called a "confidence decoy," which attracts live birds "so you can get dinner."

Kell said carving is "extremely relaxing," and it gives him, as a hunter, an appreciation for waterfowl.

"It makes you focus on the birds that you kill, because you need to do your research in order to create by hand good gunning decoys," Kell said.

The festival drew people from around the Mid-Atlantic region, including visitors from Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and New York.

C. John Sullivan Jr., of Bel Air, displayed his family's collection of decoys carved by John "Daddy" Holly and his son, James T. Holly, who are credited with creating the Havre de Grace style of decoy carving in the 19th century.

Sullivan serves as a consultant to the Decoy Museum and is an author, collector and appraiser of decoys. He is also the Harford County Liquor Control Board chair and is retired from the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation. He is the department's former director.

Sullivan said the Holly style lives on, as modern-day carvers base their work on it.

"It's form and function, practicality and beauty that lives on today through these carvers," Sullivan said.

Cherie and Steve Christy, of Churchville, took their grandsons Emmett Fisher, 7, Braden Fisher, 8, of Airville, Pa., through the festival Saturday. The boys checked out displays in the middle school gymnasium. Steve Christy said they had seen demonstrations and talked with carvers, which he called "just great education for these guys, and us, too."

"There's just excellent work here," Christy said. "The Havre de Grace style is one of its own."



Harford County’s “Choose Civility” campaign kicked off with a breakfast event at the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp on Wednesday.
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