Ward brothers carved niched in art world for wildfowl decoys
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of columns about the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
They never finished elementary school, never owned a car — almost never traveled — but two Eastern Shore brothers became self-taught artisans who helped to transform a sports accessory into fine art.
Lem and Steve Ward, lifelong residents of Crisfield, MD, who were practicing barbers most of their lives and almost never left their hometown, became world-renowned carvers of wooden waterfowl decoys which, by the end of their lives, were more recognized for their artistic value than hunting utility.
Their story — and the story of decoy carving in general — is preserved at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, MD, one of the growing number of sites belonging to the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
The museum is dedicated to showing how decoys in general, and those of the Ward brothers in particular, made the transition from the hunting shack to the mantlepiece.
“The thought was, this was a unique regional type of culture,” said Samuel Dyke, consulting curator with the Ward Foundation. “Although it was practiced in other parts of the country, it was best represented here.”
The museum traces the history of decoys to Native Americans, who made waterfowl replicas out of reeds to lure ducks and geese close enough to be caught with a net.
Waterfowl were not a major hunting focus of early settlers, though, as their flintlocks were ill-suited for the purpose: Point a flintlock into the air to shoot at a duck and the black powder would fall out of the pan.
That changed by the mid-1800s with the massive waves of European immigrants. Many were used to eating wild game, but by that time, deer, turkey and other potential foods were scarce in the Eastern American woodlands. But waterfowl were plentiful, migrating in such large numbers that they would darken the sky.
Demand — coupled with the development of railroads which could rapidly ship the birds to market — gave rise to the large-scale commercial hunting of waterfowl around the Chesapeake and other areas.
Low-lying boats — with names like bushwhack boats, sneak boats and floating coffins — were developed to float up to flocks, then unleash shot from whole batteries of guns. Waterfowl tolls could be counted in the thousands in a single day.
Concern about the loss of birds culminated with the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918, which banned the sale of game birds, essentially ending the era of commercial waterfowl hunting.
With birds in reduced numbers — and those that remained increasingly wary of humans — sportsmen found they needed better, more lifelike decoys to attract ducks and other waterfowl. “The impetus was to create more and better decoys,” Dyke said. “You couldn’t just throw out blocks of wood.”
Decoys varied by region. In Massachusetts, they were large to attract the eye of ducks that might otherwise pass by during migration, while in Louisiana, where hunting took place from small, canoe-like boats, decoys were often small. “A decoy collector can pick up a bird and say ‘that is Louisiana,’ or ‘that is Maine,’” Dyke said. “These distinctions were very firmly entrenched.”
The Ward Museum displays extensive regional collections of decoys, allowing visitors to compare their subtle — and sometimes dramatic — differences.
In the early 1900s, another part of the decoy story began. Not only did some people want carved birds for hunting, others wanted them for their homes. One of the first to begin selling such decorative decoys was Eastern Shore resident Ira Hudson, who around the 1920s began adding details such as wings and feet to his carvings.
For most, decoy carving was a sideline, not a profession. The Ward brothers’ father was a barber who carved decoys on the side. Lem and Steve, both born in the mid-1890s, followed that tradition. They operated a barber shop, but carved decoys from discarded telephone poles between haircuts and shaves.
Their carvings were especially lifelike. Unlike most decoy makers of the time, Lem and Steve gave unique expressions and poses to their birds. They took to studying the subtle coloration patterns on dead birds, and reviewed birds both in the wild and in books. As a result, no two decoys were ever quite alike. “Ducks,” Lem once explained, “are like people and fingerprints.” Some hunting clubs refused to use any decoys that didn’t come from the Ward brothers.
Although both brothers had dropped out of elementary school to help support the family, they took up poetry, often writing verses on the bottom of their decoys. Lem even took up painting. Neither learned to drive: they got around by bicycle. But they didn’t have to go far; visitors came to Crisfield to meet the singing barbers who carved such realistic waterfowl. National Geographic featured the brothers three times.
In the late 1940s, a friend encouraged Lem to go to New York City to participate in the National Decoy Makers Contest. Lem swept the event, winning Best Marsh Duck, Best Diving Duck and Best of Show, but declared upon his return that “There’s not enough money in the world to persuade me to give up these marshes and go live in a city like that.”
The brothers remained rooted in their unpretentious Crisfield life. Even as their fame began to grow, they resisted raising prices on decoys, reasoning that only wealthy hunters — and not their Eastern Shore neighbors — would be able to afford them.
But in the 1950s, with the advent of plastics and other lightweight materials, the production of decoys began shifting from hand-carving to mass production. Meanwhile, the Ward brothers increasingly emphasized decorative carvings. By the end of the decade, they had stopped cutting hair altogether and become full-time carvers, or — as their sign stated — “wildfowl counterfeiters in wood.”
They continued their work to the end: Steve died in 1976, and Lem in 1984. By then, efforts were under way by Salisbury State University and the Ward Foundation to ensure their legacy would survive. The museum — established and operated by the nonprofit Ward Foundation, which is affiliated but separate from the Salisbury University Foundation — preserves a “romanticized” replica of their carving shop, as well as many of their carvings, poems and paintings.
It also has an extensive display of contemporary carvings. The Ward Foundation sponsors the annual Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition. (This year’s competition takes place April 27-29 in Ocean City.) Many past winners of the event, which draws competitors from around the world, are on display at the museum.
Besides viewing nature artwork, visitors can also view the real thing. The museum is located on the headwaters of the Wicomico River, and a nature trail takes visitors on a walk around a waterfowl-filled pond and marsh just outside the building.
Steve’s handwritten draft of the “The Drifter,” written in 1971, is on display in the Ward Museum, which received it as a gift from Ida Ward Linton. It also appears in the published collection of his poetry, “Closed for Business.”
I’m just an old has-been decoy,
No ribbons have I won.
My sides and head are full of shot
From many a blazing gun.
My home has been by the river,
Just drifting along with the tide.
No roof have I had for a shelter,
No one place where I could abide.
I’ve rocked to winter’s wild fury
I’ve scorched in the heat of the sun.
I’ve drifted and drifted and drifted
For tides never cease to run.
I was picked up by some fool collector
Who put me up on a shelf.
But my place is out on a river
Where I can drift all by myself.
I want to go back to the shoreline
Where flying clouds hang thick and low.
And get the touch of rain drops,
And the velvety soft touch of snow.
— Steve Ward
Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art
The Ward Museum is at 909 S. Schumaker Drive in Salisbury, MD. Signs starting on Route 50 direct visitors to the museum, which is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for senior citizens, and $3 for students. On Sunday, a whole family is admitted for $8.50.
For information, call the Ward Museum at 410-742-4988, or visit its web site at www.wardmuseum.org
4 Sites Added to Gateways Network
The National Park Service recently announced the expansion of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network to include four new sites. By highlighting its more than 30 member sites, the network strives to create a broader commitment to Bay restoration and conservation efforts throughout the watershed. Like the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, the three other new sites offer unique Chesapeake experiences:
- At Historic St. Mary’s City, visitors can experience what it was like to be a settler in the Bay region in the 1600s. The outdoor museum is at the site of the fourth permanent English settlement in North America, and Maryland’s first capital.
- The lighthouse at Piney Point Lighthouse Museum and Park, built in 1836, is one of only four that remain on the Potomac River. The park and museum feature exhibits on the building and early 20th century life in the area.
- Solomons Visitor Information Center Áas been established as one of the Gateway Network’s “Regional Information Centers.” As such, it will assist visitors in learning more about the Chesapeake Gateways they can visit in the area.
Nominations for new Gateway sites are reviewed on a monthly basis by the National Park Service and a working group established by the Chesapeake Bay Program. Additional Gateways will be added in coming months, and a new map and guide will be published later this year.
To promote the network, the Park Service provides technical assistance and a matching grants program to enhance interpretation, visitor information, public access and conservation projects at designated gateway sites.
For information about the network, including all of the Gateway sites, or how to participate, visit its web site at www.baygateways.net
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