The carving of wooden decoys used by hunters to attract ducks, geese and other waterfowl into shooting range started as a utilitarian pursuit that evolved into an art form, particularly around the Upper Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna Flats and along Maryland's Eastern Shore.
One of the world's finest collections of elaborately carved and painted decoys is housed at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, which celebrates its 30th anniversary Saturday.
The museum opened its doors in November 1986 and has gone on to spur a renaissance along the Havre de Grace waterfront that continues to this day and has made the city a must-visit destination in Maryland.
"I think it's done well; it's an unbelievable collection," Mitchell Shank, who was instrumental in the founding of the museum, said. "It's changed, evolved, along with Havre de Grace."
The Decoy Museum had humble beginnings in an abandoned building that had served as a combination heating plant and indoor swimming pool for the Bayou Hotel, a onetime landmark and reminder of Havre de Grace's so-called glory days as an East Coast sporting capital in the 1920s and 1930s, when horse racing, hunting and legal and illegal boozing thrived.
By the mid-1970s, when the Havre de Grace city government, using state Program Open Space funds, bought the two buildings and the seven acres on which they sit, the city had seen better days. Frank J. Hutchins, its then-mayor, was grasping at ideas to revitalize its downtown and waterfront, mindful that he would need liberal infusions of money from Annapolis and Washington to do it.
The original thought was to use the Bayou site for an extension of neighboring Tydings Park. By the time the city acquired the property, the former neo-colonial hotel building, constructed in 1917, was being used for apartments – it would later be gutted by fire, but eventually be renovated for condos. The former outbuilding was a candidate for demolition.
It took a lot of planning, cajoling and strong support from the city, Harford County and, most particularly, the Maryland state government to make the museum a reality, Shank recalled. He said the museum concept grew from a seed sown by a decoy festival he and others had organized in the early 1980s to pay homage to the carving art practiced by masters like his grandfather, R. Madison Mitchell Sr.
"Am I surprised it's been 30 years?" Shank, 61, asked Wednesday. "I told Jessica [Shank's wife], I actually can't believe it will be 35 years since we held the first Decoy Festival. That's what got us the start, after the festival was so successful right from the beginning."
The Decoy Festival is now called the Havre de Grace Decoy and Wildlife Festival and is held each May.
Funds were eventually secured to renovate the old building on the Bayou site and open the museum. In the intervening years, a second floor was added and an elevator.
Shank, a former Harford County Councilman and city councilman, said he feels Hutchins, who died just weeks after the museum opened, has never received the credit that he deserves for his role in the museum's formative years.
In addition to having the foresight to acquire the site, Shank said Hutchins, who went on to serve nearly eight years on the County Council from 1978 to 1986, used his connections among county officials and state legislators to help the fledgling museum project obtain grants that were essential to getting it off the ground.
"I do feel badly there's nothing recognizing Frank's contribution; maybe put his name on the conference room," Shank said.
Shank no longer serves on the museum's board, but does serve on the board of the R. Madison Mitchell Endowment Trust that was established by his family to benefit the museum.
"The thing about Frank was he got behind this, even though he wasn't a hunter, didn't collect ducks," Shank said. (The City of Havre de Grace did name one of the waterfront parks Hutchins was instrumental in building in his honor.)
Shank also recalled a propitious moment in 1981 during the city's annual seafood festival, when then-Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley came up to him and said she wanted the mayor of Baltimore, who was in attendance, to meet Shank's grandfather, who was in another part of town working at his funeral home.
"So, I went over and told granddaddy to put on his red sweater because he was going to have a special visitor; he said 'it's the middle of August, you have to be kidding.'"
The meeting with future governor William Donald Schaefer kindled a friendship that continued until Madison Mitchell's death in 1993. It also led to more state support during Schaefer's tenure as governor. Schaefer was present in 1987 when the shop where Madison Mitchell had carved his decoys was dedicated after it was moved to the museum grounds.
Shank said Schaefer was a good friend to his grandfather and to the museum, as were many other people who helped it along and then used the success of the museum to foster other projects in the city's so-called Heritage Area.
Since the museum opened, the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum has been built nearby, the city's popular promenade was constructed along the waterfront from Tydings Park to the historic Concord Point Lighthouse, where grants were used to acquire and restore the lighthouse keeper's home, and the city acquired additional parkland to extend the promenade farther north.
Shank calls it all "extremely positive" for his hometown and the contributions by his grandfather and many others who took decoy art to a higher form, as well as those who have worked to preserve that heritage.
Saturday's 30th anniversary celebration will include an open house from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., which is free and open to the public. Snacks and refreshments will be available.
The open house will be followed by a cocktail buffet and social hour at 6 p.m., during which a new exhibit will be unveiled, according to Kerri Kneisley, the museum's executive director. The RSVP date for the reception has passed, but anyone still interested in attending can contact the museum at 410-939-3739 to see if they can be accommodated.
Also on Saturday is the 10th annual Vintage Hunting and Fishing Collectibles Show at the Level Fire Hall, at 3633 Level Village Road, which benefits the museum and the Level Volunteer Fire Company. Admission to the show, which runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., is $6.
"We hope people will take the opportunity to visit again and see all the Decoy Museum has to offer," Kneisley said. "We have the largest collection of Chesapeake Bay decoys around – and the best view in town."