The Decoy that Started it All
By Laurin Garland
We all have them in our collections, or at least most of us do. I suppose some have been sold or traded, but, I expect that the majority still sit on our shelves, though they may not be as valuable or as impressive as the later additions. These are the decoys that started it all, without which we would have more space in our houses, more money in our accounts and fewer friends.
In my case, I was living a life blissfully ignorant of decoys. Unlike many of you, I was never a hunter of ducks or birds, although canoeing and fishing took up a good part of my time and I enjoyed observing the wildfowl in their natural habitat.
One day my partner arrived home from a local auction with a bird on a stick. I was surprised that she had paid $150 for such an item, however, the engineering business was doing well and the shopper was teaching full time, so no negative consequences ensued and the bird sat happily on a display shelf along with other “stuff” for a number of years.
A bird on a stick
One day, on a business trip to New Orleans (not that the location makes any difference, I’m just trying to impress), I was walking in the French Quarter and passed a shop filled with contemporary carvings of ducks. You know the type – fashioned so finely and painted so well that the feathers look real. I was fascinated and entered to have a look.
Among the many ducks and geese, I was pleasantly surprised to see birds on sticks.
In discussions with the owner, I learned that these were shorebirds and that the birds used to be hunted using carved decoys. I was also referred to a couple of books on the subject. One was George Ross Starr’s Decoys of the Atlantic Flyway. The other was Henry Fleckenstein Jr.’s Shore Bird Decoys. The store owner, who was also a collector of antique decoys, was not trying to make money, as he did not have the books in his store. He was, as so many collectors have been since then, just trying to be helpful.
I ordered the books from the publisher and got hooked.
Since, in Fleckenstein’s book, a number of the shorebird decoys I liked came from Cape Cod and since Starr was from the area, I set out on a long weekend in the fall, in all innocence assuming I would be able to find many such birds in antique shops on The Cape. After all, that was where Starr amassed his collection. You may imagine how successful I was.
In addition to finding out that Columbus Day coincided with our Thanksgiving, that it was the traditional weekend for fall foliage viewing and that there was, as a result, not a room to be had on Friday evening between Ottawa and southern Vermont, I learned that I was not the only bright lad who had decided shorebird decoys would be nice to collect.
In one shop the owner suggested that, if I were interested in decoys I should head to eastern Maryland in November, where there was a huge show that took over an entire town. After I managed to sort out the accent and discern that the location was not eastern but Easton, Maryland, my progress towards obsession took a giant leap.
I attended the show later that year. Entering the local High School gymnasium, which becomes the set up location for dealers, I was confronted by Bud Ward’s table directly in front of me. Those of you who knew Bud can imagine how a soon-to-be collector of shorebird decoys felt at that moment. There were birds on sticks as far as the eye could see.
It turned out that the one at home was a Ruddy Turnstone, a relatively rare species. I know it to be at least twenty five years old, as I have had it that long. Beyond that, I am not sure. The form is unusual for a Canadian decoy and the bill is too large for the species. The paint is right for a Turnstone and shows apparent wear. It has been shot, but we all know that is easily accomplished as part of artificial ageing. In any event, it is unimportant in the end, as the bird will continue to sit on a shelf with my other decoys until my family has to dispose of the collection.
After the first Easton show, it was all downhill. That was in 1986 and, except for a few recession-induced slowdowns, I have been collecting ever since – because of the decoy that started it all.
In the first paragraph, the author makes the statement that we all have such first-off decoys. Why not share your recollections of “the decoy that started it all”. These are the stories we collectors love to tell and to hear. Send an e-mail and a photo of your first love (not the dog, not the wife) to Keith Avann for publication in the next issue of The Rig and/or to Pete Munger for inclusion on this web site.