Former Harford County Executive and Havre de Grace Mayor David Craig talks about the importance of the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. (Allan Vought and Max Simpson / BSMG)
David R. Craig recalls the time more than 30 years ago when the Havre de Grace City Council, of which he was then a member, was considering a resolution to authorize the demolition of a vacant building on city-owned property near Tydings Park that had once been the heating plant and indoor swimming pool for the old Bayou Hotel.
"I argued against, voted against," Craig said, as he stood near the entrance of the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, signing a copy of his latest book, "Greetings from Gettysburg," about the national battlefield park and the history behind it, that he co-authored with Mary Martin, also of Havre de Grace.
The old building didn't get torn down. Instead it was renovated to become a renowned museum paying homage to and educating about Havre de Grace's role in the sport of waterfowl shooting and the market waterfowl hunting industry that thrived on the nearby Susquehanna Flats from the post-Civil War Era through the first decades of the 20th century.
The museum observed its 30th anniversary with a public open house during the day Saturday, followed by a cocktail reception that evening, during which a new exhibit featuring waterfowl decoys made by a group of New Jersey and Delaware River area carvers was unveiled on the museum's second floor.
The turnout for the public open house was excellent, according to Kerri Kneisley, the museum's executive director, who along with the staff was hustling to get set up for the evening reception.
Despite the chilly temperatures, a sometimes stiff breeze blowing off the nearby waterfront and a mostly cloudy sky, a number of people came through the museum during the afternoon, stopping to look and listen to its interactive exhibits or to study its thousands of artistically crafted ducks and other waterfowl, as well as the tools of the decoy maker's trade.
Attracting ducks and geese into shooting range is why the decoy exists. The emergence of the working decoy as the folk art form it became didn't really emerge, like many other things that became collectible – and valuable, until the post-World War II period. The museum explains that evolution and the role played by the Susquehanna Flats and Havre de Grace, and why things happened the way they did.
One visitor Saturday, David Thompson, from Chestertown, said he hunts waterfowl actively and has been carving decoys for 20 to 25 years.
Thompson said he has known a few of the celebrated carvers and decided to try his hand at it, because "I wanted to be able to hunt over decoys I carved," which he called "beautiful."
He'd been hunting that morning on the Choptank River near Cambridge and said he was "lucky" to shoot three blue-winged teal.
He also recalled a story he had been told about two of the greatest carvers, Charles "Speed" Joiner, of Chestertown," and R. Madison Mitchell Sr., of Havre de Grace, both of whom have extensive displays at the museum.
"So, Mr. Joiner took some paint thinner cans and painted them to look like black ducks and told Mr. Mitchell he was going to hunt with them, but of course Mr. Mitchell thought they would never work [as decoys], but sure enough, they went hunting with them that day and killed black ducks," Thompson said.
The 35th annual Havre de Grace Decoy & Wildlife Art Festival again brought out more than 140 artists, exhibitors and vendors to promote and celebrate the art of decoy carving, even as organizers continue to wonder about the event's future.
Craig, 67, who is serving as executive director of Maryland's World War I Centennial Commission, has had much of his adult life entwined with the Decoy Museum.
In addition to being a city councilman when it was conceived, he was the city's mayor when it opened in November 1986 and later, as a member of the House of Delegates, was instrumental in securing state grants used to expand the museum. He would go on to also serve in the Maryland State Senate, do another stint as Havre de Grace's mayor and then serve nearly 10 years as Harford County executive. Prior to taking his position with the World I Centennial Commission, he was state planning secretary for about two years.
He was a longtime member of the Decoy Museum's board of directors and remains a life member of the museum.
He brought with him Saturday a 1987 edition of The Aegis with a front page photograph of then mayor Craig, Harford County's legislative delegation and R. Madison Mitchell, being welcomed by then Gov. William Donald Schaefer at the governor's office in Annapolis. Schaefer and Mitchell, whose body of work was the inspiration for the museum, forged a strong friendship, and the governor became a supporter of and frequent visitor to the museum.
The carving of wooden decoys used by hunters to attract ducks, geese and other waterfowl in shooting range started out as a utilitarian pursuit that evolved into an art form, particularly around the Upper Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna Flats and along Maryland's Eastern Shore.
"We thought it was important to be able to educate the younger people about decoy making and the part it played in the city and region's history," said Craig, who recalled reading an old newspaper article from the late 1880s that reminded residents it was not legal to discharge a firearm inside the Havre de Grace city limits, unless someone was on the shore gunning for ducks.
The museum was also conceived as a potential tourist draw, and has more than met those expectations of three decades earlier, Craig said.