DECOYS AREN'T FAIR'S ONLY LURE Havre de Grace's annual duck fair offers as much kibitzing as carving


At any other duck decoy festival -- northern Maryland has plenty every year -- sponsors would be hoping for big sales, big crowds, big proceeds.

Havre de Grace's Sixth Annual Duck Fair, which ends its two-day run today, is different. The crowds of people who visit the free event at the Decoy Museum come as much to watch the sailboats on the Susquehanna as to stroll through the tables of duck decoys and waterfowl crafts. The exhibitors are here as much to kibitz with one another as to sell decoys.

Sure, the sales here could be big; some collectible decoys go for as much as $1,000. And the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, which sponsors the fair, could raise several thousand dollars from raffle ticket sales and proceeds from items auctioned.

But as Duck Fair co-chairman Bob Wilson says, big sales and raising money isn't the point.

Instead, the museum wants to show its appreciation for the decoy carvers and artists who help them so much. The best way to do that is to give them an informal showcase for their art.

"Many of our exhibitors are competitors at other shows and they win lots of awards," says Mr. Wilson, who also serves on the Decoy Museum board of directors.

"They'll win $300 prizes and donate them right back to the museum. That's the kind of support we get."

Mr. Wilson expects "several thousand" people to attend the fair. He knows that's not as many as attend some other festivals nearby, including the museum's own Decoy Festival in the spring, Northeast's Waterfowl Festival in the summer, and Harford Day School's Waterfowl Show in the winter.

Those festivals are most often held indoors and charge admission. They are also more subdued and serious affairs than the Duck Fair, held on the lawn between the Bayou Condos and the museum. Decoy carving may be a way of life in Havre de Grace, but that doesn't mean carvers are a serious bunch, especially at a summer fair.

Take "Cap'n" Harry Jobes, for instance. Mr. Jobes is a well-known veteran carver in his 60s. He owns Chesapeake Bay Decoys in Aberdeen.

But right now he is more interested in having fun with the visitors than discussing his craft.

"Want to see my muskrat?" he asks people as they pass by. They bend down to look in a box at his feet where a brown furry animal is resting.

When he has them enthralled, he pulls a string, the spring-loaded box door snaps open and the beast flies out. The visitors scream until they realize the well-worn animal pelt is harmless.

At the Head Whittling Contest, held both days, past honorary Duck Fair chairpersons sit together and whittle wooden duck heads as fast as they can, deriding each other's skills in good humor and inviting spectators to throw money at them.

Vendors offer food -- crab cakes, pit beef, snow balls and lemonade. Kids race rubber ducks and listen to waterfowl tales in the museum.

Would-be and real hunters show off their duck and goose-calling skills.

Linda Robinson of Bel Air, 1993 Duck Fair honorary chairperson, is at the fair to show off her delicately painted shore birds.

She only began carving waterfowl five years ago, she says.

Her husband, Dick Robinson, also carves waterfowl and learned his technique from Madison Mitchell.

Many people consider Mr. Mitchell, the famed decoy carver from Havre de Grace, the patriarch of the modern craft.

"We've also collected decoys for years," Mrs Robinson says. "It gets in your blood."

Howard Gaines, an exhibitor from Dover, Del., carves waterfowl and attends shows as a summer hobby. During the school year he is a shop teacher.

He is also an avid duck hunter. After spending thousands of dollars on guns, boats, waders, other equipment and a bird dog he trained himself, Mr. Gaines wondered why he should compromise by using a $2 to $3 decoy. He has been carving his own and selling to others since about 1980.

He pays special attention to the "attitude" of calm birds: how birds that would attract other birds sit in the water. "You want to make the rig as real as you can. Anything a carver can do to help attract birds, you do it," Mr. Gaines says.

Plastic decoys, which may cost a few dollars apiece, have erect heads. Such an attitude in a duck can alarm other birds, frightening them away. Mr. Gaines carves his working decoys with heads down, signifying calm, or heads tucked under their TC wings, to let the real ducks know it's safe to land nearby.

Few of his carvings are as elaborate as some other exhibitors', who sell their decoys more as decorative pieces than as working decoys.

Mr. Gaines insists on function first.

"I like to keep the designs simple," he says.

"A decoy is a hunter's tool. It's what decoys have always been, much like a shovel is to a farmer."

The Duck Fair will be open from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. today at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, 100 Giles St. An antique boat display and antique show are being held adjacent to the museum grounds.

For more information, call 939-3739.

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