There’s been a war going on — man against duck — since the beginning of time. Ancient Egyptian tombs were decorated with paintings of men in marshes, trying to catch ducks in traps. Native Americans made decoys out of cattail, bulrush and tule in an effort to lure the birds close enough to be bow-hunted, netted or snared.
Early American colonists had an enormous appetite for duck. By the 1800s, the seemingly limitless flocks of ducks and geese in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways of North America became the basis for a thriving commercial waterfowl hunting industry. Rather than simply lying in wait with a spread of decoys and a shotgun, boats mounted with massive can-
non-like punt guns began to prowl the waterways, hurling a half pound of shot into the air at a time and bringing down dozens of birds. Still, even as this dubious technology improved, it was the decoy that remained a key part of any hunt. The better the decoy, the better the chances of luring the big fat birds within range of the guns.
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At about this time, a young boy name Elmer Crowell began to take notice of the duck. Born in the Cape Cod village of East Harwich in 1862, he was given his first shotgun at the age of twelve. By the time he was 14, he was the owner of a prime tract of land on the south shore of Pleasant Lake where he spent countless hours guiding wealthy hunters and honing his skills as the carver of decoys. Before long, he was selling his birds for $2.00 each. Crowell decoys were known for the detail of the carving. His “wet on wet” blended painting technique made the birds look realistic and almost alive. Before long, the decoys were sought after as much by tourists as by hunters.
Crowell started carving full-time in 1912, working out of a small shop at his home. He was a savvy businessman as well as an exceptional artist. Unlike many other decoy carvers of his time, Crowell put his name on his pieces. This helped spread word of his work beyond Cape Cod and build his fame as an outstanding craftsman. It was also said that he sent, unsolicited, the gift of one of his birds to the wealthy and famous of his day. The result was often an order for more decoys.
Crowell met the nearly insatiable demand for his decoys by keeping his shop open six days a week and, eventually, employing his son, Cleon. His hands crippled by rheumatism, he retired in 1943. He lived on for another nine years, long enough to see his legacy change from manufacturer of quality duck decoys to key figure in an important form of widely admired folk art.
On February 15th, 2013, one of Elmer Crowell’s much sought-after duck decoys goes up for auction in Charleston, South Carolina. A blackduck with oval brand, this particular piece is one of the working ducks as opposed to a later “mantle” or purely decorative duck. According to Gary Guyette of the auction firm Guyette, Schmidt and Deeter, it comes from the period just before World War I. “This was from 1905, when Crowell was first starting to mass produce his decoys,” says Guyette. “Most of his decoys at this time were blackducks and bluebills or scaup.”
The underside of the blackduck decoy has Crowell’s brand, an oval with the words, “A. Elmer Crowell Decoys, East Harwich, Mass.” Though one pair of Crowell life size ornamental carvings, a pintail drake and a Canada goose, sold for a record 1.13 million, this working duck will bring considerably less, says Guyette, “The paint has a little wear and it’s a little dark,” he says. “If the feather painting was better, it would bring in $6,000 to $8,000.” As it is, this blackduck will probably fetch $3,000 to $4,000.
Dick Hoyer, a Harwich resident, remembers Crowell from his childhood. According to the CapeCodTimes, Hoyer’s father was good friends with the carver and bought many of his decoys. “It was quite an experience to sit there with such an artist,” Hoyer is quoted as saying of Crowell. “He was an easy gentleman, he didn’t seem to be in too much of a rush, and he loved and knew his birds.”
Several years ago, the building in which Crowell worked was carefully taken down and stored with the idea that it would someday be reassembled. Recently, it’s been reported that the carver’s hometown is planning to turn it into an Elmer Crowell Museum. The town hopes to open it this summer.
Joe Miller, AtticExplorer.com
Thanks to Gary Guyette of Guyette, Schmidt and Deeter for permission to publish the photos of the Crowell blackduck decoy and for his his kind assistance with this article. Thanks also to Desiree Mobed of the Harwich Historical Society and to Ted Harmon, President of the A. E. Crowell American Bird Decoy Foundation, for permission to reprint the photo of Mr. Crowell.
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