Havre de Grace honors decoy-carving heritage


To some, duck decoys evoke images of bullets and birds, hunting and Hemingway.

But decoys have grown considerably more fashionable -- and elaborate -- since the turn of the century, when the first rough-hewn wooden ducks floated on the Chesapeake near Havre de Grace.

At this weekend's 12th annual Decoy Festival, the refined art of ++ carving decoys for the display shelf rather than the bay is expected to draw some 5,000 -- the collectors, the craftsman, the curious -- who travel to Havre de Grace to admire the craftsmen's handiwork or swap secrets.

Just inside the entrance to Havre de Grace Middle School, a row ofT-shirts boasted the historic town's distinction as "Decoy Capital of the World." The Havre de Grace High School gym, the middle school auditorium and the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum each offered a bounty of attractions, with most attention focused on the carvers' craft. They'll display their art form again today when the festival continues from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Richard Mortez, 16, carries on the tradition and proudly showed off the products of his labors to turn blocks of wood into art. But he carves nontraditional shapes, giving the ducks big, puffy cheeks. Yesterday, his work-in-progress was a wooden duck head whose neck had been tied in a knot.

"I like to carve them a little different so they don't look like all the others," he explained.

His knife carved a wooden head, and brown curly shavings fell to his feet. He made the intricate carving process look natural, fluid, easy. With his young hands busy, he told stories he heard from his father about the old carvers who used cork wood stripped from the insides of railroad cars in the early 1900s.

He's not the only youngster to get involved with the floating tradition of folk art. Eight-year-old Joseph Laber, whose work shares a table with his father's at the festival, carved his first bird at age 2.

"I still have it," he said, scanning some of his more recent accomplishments. "It's a crazy bird I made with all kinds of wood scraps."

While most 8-year-olds are forbidden to wield knives, Joseph has become quite proficient with the sharp knives and band saws used in decoy carving. The young artist collects and trades the wooden ducks and has gained a knowledge that sets him apart from his classmates.

"Some of my friends don't really know what a duck is," he said. "I mean, they don't even know the colors!"

Elsewhere at the festival, Bruce Appell detailed a mallard's wings. The bird will be painted at least seven times. The neck featured pale shades of yellow, the breast a chestnut shade.

Charles Fish of Chincoteague, Va., has been hunting since he was "a small kid." He sat behind his display table, a duck's head embroidered on his shirt.

A charter boat fisherman for 47 years, his hands are rugged from working the water and carving the rough wooden bodies of decoys used for hunting.

Today, he is is a rarity among carvers -- the demand for decoys now comes almost exclusively from nonhunters.

He carves the ducks in two pieces. The head and the body are glued together and fastened with a 5-inch groove screw. They are lightly sanded, then painted by his wife, Vesta.

"But everybody calls us Pop and Granny," he said.

While kids ate hot dogs and admired decoys with price tags reaching into the thousands, the men who learned from the legends of duck carving traded stories and secrets among the rows and rows of carved wood and paint.

Bill Schauber, honorary co-chairman of this year's festival, along with his son Allen, has been carving since 1965.

Mr. Schauber's carving has influenced generations of artists up and down the East Coast. As collectors and carvers talked shop from table to table, names like Schauber came up again and again.

So did R. Madison Mitchell's.

Many remembered and celebrated the legacy of Havre de Grace's native son, who elevated decoy carving to an art form before his death in January at 91.

Now, his works fetch up to $10,000, and you can find many of them at the town's decoy museum -- not to mention the Smithsonian Institution.

The decoy festival began in 1981, organized by carver John Pierce to honor Mr. Mitchell's work and to raise money to start the decoy museum, which opened in November 1986.

"Mitchell was a legend in his own time," said Gary Narewski, a carver from upstate New York. "When you come to a certain area, you bring decoys that are indicative of that area. Havre De Grace is steeped in its tradition of carvers."

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