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The North Carolina Wildfowl Decoy Tradition
Wildfowl-decoy carving has been a folk tradition since the middle of the nineteenth century, and many hands have contributed to it. In the antique collectors' scheme of things, however, North Carolina decoys fare poorly; William Mackey describes the regional decoys as "solid, crude, roughly finished and poorly painted." But hunters design decoys not for collectors, but as tools to lure passing birds within range of their guns. The decoys have specific functions within the busy lives of men like John W. Austin of Corolla, North Carolina.
Austin was born in Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1891 and moved to Corolla when his father became the lighthouse keeper. As a boy, Austin watched his father and older brothers make decoys. He also helped paint their decoys and accompanied them in hunting. While in the field, he watched and handled birds, slowly building a storehouse of practical knowledge. Austin told me that when he was fourteen he decided to hunt for himself and consequently had to carve his own decoys. He started by copying his father's decoys and remembers that his first few tries produced funny-looking results—birds that rode awkwardly in the water and failed to resemble the intended species. After a while, he "got pretty good at it" and through the years, refined his craftsmanship and expanded his repertoire.
Austin made decoys for use in three different hunting situations in successive phases of his life. As a young man, like many good shots, he worked as a market hunter, shipping his daily kill on steamboats to northern markets. In effect, he was a small businessman, having invested in a sailboat, large decoy rig, and armaments to harvest nature's bounty. When he returned from the First World War, however, Austin found that his occupation had been outlawed by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. He turned to the Lighthouse Club for employment and worked as a guide for "sports" who desired to shoot gamebirds, and during the slack season he made decoys for the sport market.
Austin guided until the Great Depression brought declining economic fortunes, changed leisure activities, and closed many hunting clubs. He then become the postmaster in Corolla and continued to fish and hunt in accord with the seasons. Even in his retirement, he continued to carve decoys and to hunt for pleasure and for the table. Looking back on his world, Austin observed that nature "was all there was here, you know, for people to live on for a livelihood. The natives come in, and our forefathers run the Indians out—and all they had was hunting raccoons, possums, and ducks. And they had plenty of oysters, clams, and fish, and they didn't have to worry about anything, except something to wrap up in. And, there was plenty of game, you know, all the time."
Crude or elegant, bird decoys have serious uses in lives like John Austin's, and the North Carolina decoys were shaped by an even longer and more complex history than his. They exhibit a diversity of forms arising out of the complexities of the hunt itself and out of an ever-changing local ecology and economy.
When the earliest colonists settled North Carolina, they had no need for decoys. An eighteenth-century traveler through this region, John Brickell, saw a flock of swans so large it appeared like "Land covered with Snow. About Christmas they are frequently so fat, that some of them are scarce able to fly." John Lawson, North Carolina's colonial natural historian, comments on the variety of local bird species and notes that redhead ducks were difficult to shoot: "They are very good Meat, but hard to kill, because hard to come near." However, hunters had little trouble finding easy prey within musket range. Instead of using decoys, Brickell records, hunters "frequently set Fire to these Savannas and Marshes, and as soon as the Grass is burnt off, these Fowl will come in great Flocks to eat the Roots, by which means they shoot vast Numbers of them."
Before 1700, colonial settlers streamed south from coastal Virginia, drove out the local Indians, planted crops, and harvested an ever-growing amount of wildlife. David Stick emphasizes that these colonists had several occupations: "Each of them was the same time a farmer, a fisherman, a hunter, and a wrecker." These folk built crofting communities along the banks in which they provided for virtually all their needs and exported their surpluses to Virginia's markets. A local historian, H. B. Ansell (1832–1920), describes the region during this era as a rustic paradise, with "fish, oysters, wild turkeys, pigeons, ducks, geese and other birds in abundance to replenish the tables of the new-comers with all necessaries except bread; and soon the corn and sweet potato patches made that want less."
Ansell also records the hunting methods of the 1830s through the 1850s as part of his social history of Knotts Island. Realizing that "it has ever been in evidence in all time that the young enjoy nothing more than tales told of the far past," he writes of the "details of the events, incidents and traditional stories," from his youth. In these recollections, he includes material about his boyhood adventures, old-fashioned hunting styles, and the transition from muskets to breech-loading weapons.
In his boyhood, Ansell and his cronies stole birds' eggs and hunted fowl, which they later sold for toys and candy. Boys "would hunt for birds' nests, and rob the innocent creatures of their eggs; the poor, chattering mother and mate, bewailing the destruction of their offspring in embryo, would be ruthlessly clubbed away.... Every boy had his myrtle 'birding club,' cross-bow and arrows, his springs for rabbits, his traps for birds, in every briery branch and fence-lock. By this means hundreds of strings of dead birds, even sparrows, were shipped to market by the boys, whence were obtained ginger-cakes, tops and chords, and other trinkets."
In their hunting, these boys unself-consciously imitated their fathers, who hunted bigger game with muskets for food and for cash.
In the days of these old fowlers and from time immemorial the mode of duck-shooting was not as now. The ducks were shot sitting and at the rise. The crawling practice was then in vogue. Go into the marsh with noiseless care; look over the coves, creeks and ponds; see if any of the feathered tribe had ventured near enough to shore for a shot; if so, down on hands and knees, often in the mud and water; crawl to the water's edge; peep through the marginal marsh or galls; see where the ducks were thickest; Ready-aim-go bang. Fuss and feathers, what a scramble and chatter: There might be three or four or a score of ducks left dead and crippled. In went the hunter attending to cripples first, often chasing a wing-brake a great distance. He would then gather up his trophy and return to shore wet, at least, from waist down. When there were two gunners together, the procedure was the same except when ready to shoot, they would aim in the right and left wings of the thickest bunches—a bunch each, if more than one, and fire away at the word of command—Ready-aim-fire. Sometimes one would shoot at the sitting, the other at the rise or flirt.
The accuracy and type of weaponry influenced hunting strategy greatly. In Ansell's youth, local hunters used
English and French muskets; these were as large as the modern gun No. 8 I recond [reckon], and were of the flint & steel, cock & pan make. These guns often missed fire, especially in damp weather. The steel being damp the flint would fail to knock fire in the pan; even if it did, the powder in the pan might be moist or corroded about the touch-hole, then it would be a miss-fire—"a flash in the pan" as it was called. If this should happen when a good shoot of ducks were in the front, there would likely be some big cuss-words uttered or mumbled against gunlock and powder. To make sure the next time, the dry part of the woolen coattail or the under part of the sleeve was applied to that pan till it glittered; the flint was ragged with the Jack-knife; the touch-hole opened; dry powder put into the pan, with dry tow thereon, and all clamped down; then, with the gun lock part of the gun under his coat tail, the hunter was off for better luck.
To increase the odds of bagging wildfowl, local hunters frequently used other methods as well.
The marsh being interspersed with coves, ponds, creeks, etc, where, if permitted, ducks frequented at nights, to feed and rest. The mode of hunting this way: go on the East side of cove, creek, or pond, before night; build a blind so that the reflection of the departing sun glaze a path West; lie down and await the coming. Whir, down flat, pish-shu-u. If near dark the sun's glazed way was watched and if the duck or ducks swam across this glazed way—go bang. This went on from Sundown till dark. A chance shot might kill after dark. In this way, the people seldom went home without a mess of ducks.
In those days and until the 1920s, people would "raise wild geese from cripples, would tie them out for decoys, and in a strong westerly wind, when the tide was full, often killed a hundred in one day on the margin of the beach or on some conspicuous shoal. They also tied out for decoys, tame ducks along the margin of islands and marsh and often done well. This was before wood decoys came along." Another mode of hunting dating from this era is firelighting. To firelight, hunters went out at night and blinded game with lantern light, which immobilized them. In 1822 the North Carolina legislature declared firelighting "not [to] be lawful for any person whatsoever, to hunt with fire after fowl, on any of the waters of the county of Currituck." If caught and prosecuted an offender faced a twenty-dollar fine. However, law officials never enforced the law, and hunters frequently fire-lighted throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In these ways, local fowlers shot more than enough game for their tables and shipped their surplus to Norfolk markets. Ansell recorded the pre–Civil War prices as one dollar for a pair of canvasback ducks, seventy-five cents for a pair of redhead, and twenty-five to fifty cents for the "common ducks." Even though they sold for less, hunters usually hunted common marsh ducks; it did not pay for a fowler to gun for canvasback and "wade often to the armpits after them, when there were plenty of the common [ducks] to be had with less trouble." Freighters—small sailboats holding a cartload or two of goods— carried game north through the Dismal Swamp Canal, or teams of horses dragged heavily laden carts through mud and mire to market. Ansell counted thirty freighters that regularly sailed from Knotts Island carrying a cargo of mixed produce—fish, vegetables, meat, and fowl. On a good run, the round trip took thirty-six hours, and the transportation charge was a third of the load. Before the 1850s the prices were low, the transport charges high, the game abundant, and the wildfowl decoy never floated in local waters.
In the 1850s, however, this fowling tradition slowly began to change. One catalyst was the introduction of the breech-loading shotgun to Knotts Island. Young Wilson Cooper bought the first of these new guns seen on the island and amused local crowds by shooting hats thrown into the air. After destroying many hats, he started to shoot "ducks on the wing, and soon took them down as easily as he ragged old hats. This mode was a great innovation on the duck-killing of that day; indeed, there were protests against introducing this radical departure from the old method, mainly on account of waste of ammunition." But the younger generation ignored their elders' protests and followed Cooper's lead.
Cooper and his partner, young Timothy Bowen, also took the lead in using wood decoys and in market hunting. "At first they tied live decoys beside marshy islands and points or on shoals; after being deprived of the marsh by owners, they resorted to wooden decoys and bush-blind placed in deeper waters." Although Ansell fails to describe the introduction of the decoy, others do. A traveling preacher, Richard Randolph Michaux, judges that "the men of wealth and leisure, who came to the North Carolina coast to shoot game, do not practice the methods employed by the natives." Instead, northern sportsmen set rigs of live and wooden decoys before their blinds. Soon market hunters—spurred, no doubt, by the opening of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal and by the beginning of rail service from Norfolk, both in 1859—began to use decoys. Edmund Ruffin, another chronicler, watched gunners tie a line of live decoys on either side of the blinds and set a rig of wood decoys between them. When a hunter prepared to fire, his live decoys would "speedily swim apart on either side, as far as their confining lines permit, from the central space, which is swept by deadly shot." This proved so effective that in "some cases, the wild fowls continue to come so fast, that the gunners do not leave their blinds until near sunset, when they go to pick up and save all the dead birds that have not floated off." One businessman, Edgar Burroughs, even hired thirty gunners who in one winter spent four tons of shot, one ton of gunpowder, and forty-six thousand percussion caps.
The hunters of the mid-nineteenth century carved sturdy decoys that still typify the regional tradition. John Austin's craft offers a sharp focus on many aspects of this folk tradition. In the slack time between corn harvest and the arrival of migrating waterfowl, Austin worked on his rig of wildfowl decoys, preparing it for each upcoming hunting season. He made new decoys, repaired old ones, and usually repainted his entire rig. Decoy making began with the selection of thick juniper planks. Using a hatchet, Austin roughed out the decoy body, starting at the decoy's breast, and methodically shaped the form toward its tail. He never needed a pattern: years of experience taught him the size, shape, and expressions of each species. Holding the decoy body firmly between his knees, Austin then trimmed and smoothed the form with a spokes have and finished the body with sandpaper. Sitting under a shade tree, Austin enjoyed passing leisure hours chatting with friends and whittling decoy heads. These heads, also of juniper, took hours to carve to catch faithfully a bird's expression. After he accumulated a pile of decoy bodies and a batch of heads, Austin nailed the pieces together with three eight- or ten-penny nails. He once estimated that working flat out he could carve three decoys a day. But he never did. Decoy making was a gradual process of accumulation—in his heyday Austin owned and used several decoy rigs totaling hundreds of decoys.
Each fall Austin or his children repainted the entire rig. Abuse from the hunting season and neglect during the remainder of the year always wore off a coat of paint. No one cared much about the quality of the paint job. All that mattered was that the right colors were on the proper locations. After all, "if a bird was close enough to tell the difference, it was close enough to shoot."
At this time, Austin rigged the decoys for the water. He screwed a one-pound lead keel to the decoy's underside to steady it in open water and nailed a long anchor line to the decoy's prow. Usually Austin bought both the keel and anchor from a foundry in Elizabeth City. The decoys now became part of a hunting rig and were ready for the hunt.
Most other decoy carvers also preferred red juniper, which sold for about twenty cents per decoy in six-inch-thick planks during the years just before the First World War. At the same time, carvers in the Hatteras area commonly bought their lumber as fence posts for fifty cents each—posts were four feet long and typically yielded three or four decoy bodies. A few found cheaper but far more arduous ways of acquiring timber. In the summer, when the water was low, they poled skiffs into freshwater swamps that lumber companies had already logged, and they pulled the juniper stumps left behind. These were floated home and dried before carving. Others let the sea supply their wood. Fred Waterfield remembers that one year his father salvaged a redwood mast and turned it into over two hundred decoys. Along with driftwood, men in the Hatteras and Ocracoke communities used abandoned cypress telephone poles—especially for the larger brant and geese bodies. Cypress, in fact, was a distant second to juniper in popularity, and many carvers used cypress knees for decoy heads mounted on juniper bodies. During the First World War, balsa wood and cork drifted ashore inside life preservers. Local carvers experimented with these woods, praised them for their lightness, but preferred the harder woods. Today little wood drifts ashore, and the supply of juniper is dwindling. Many now buy juniper boards and glue them into the proper thickness.
Excerpted from Arts in Earnest by Daniel W. Patterson, Charles G. Zug III. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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