This account has been transcribed Dec. 22th, 2019 from my sketchbook journal of 1978.
I came down from Pennsylvania in the pick-up and arrive around nine in the morning. Lem was feeling low; been sick a week. I found him in the shop. He was agitated. He was looking at a full-size eagle he was carving planted on a large chopping block in the center of the room. The block was huge and heavy. The eagle seemed too big for a man in his poor condition to be carving.
“Give up,” he said abruptly on my entering the room. “I’m too old to be doing a full-size eagle and I know it. Been fooling around though.”
He hands me a crude feather he’d carved with glue caked on one side where he’d attempted to glued it to see how it’d look, only to tear it off in disgust.
I didn’t know what to say. I just turned the feather over and over in my hand waiting for the right thing to say to pop into my mind. We wandered away from the conversation for a while and then he comes back to the subject of the eagle.
“My only reason for finishing it is so Ida (his daughter) can have something.”
I take that to mean he wants to do a really fine piece and sell it so Ida can have something to live on when he’s gone. Lem tells me he has had a premonition he would not see his 82nd birthday on Sept. 19th. (He lived for another five years.) He said that and I winced. The eagle came to mind. It just did not seem right that that eagle would go unfinished, so I suggested Lem paint it as a ‘smoothy’ without raised wings and forget trying to detail every feather as he wanted to do.
“No, no, no,” complained Lem. “I can’t do that. Eagles, of all birds, got to have them big wings a-sticking out there.”
So, I said, “Well instead of inserting each feather individually, why not make one big insert of the whole wing out of this two-inch board stock?” I held up a plank I found leaning against a wall.
“Can’t,” he said, “too much work for me.”
“OK, Lem,” I replied, and began thinking about the situation. I am beginning to see that if the eagle is to be done, I’m going to have to help him with these wings, and suggest that to him. He mulls it over in his mind and after a while agrees.
We went in the house for coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. Ida had the kettle ready on the stove. Ida brings coffee to the table. Lem in one gulp downs his coffee before Ida and I could even finish adding sugar and milk to ours. He gets up and ambles off to his easy chair in the adjoining room and plops down.
Out of the blue Lem says, “Yes sir, ain’t no man been so lucky as I’ve been to have had a good woman in my life. I had the greatest wife a man could ask for and I don’t believe there is another daughter as fine as mine.”
Adjusting his hat which he wears inside and out of the house, he stares off out the front window at some kids heading for the Jenkin’s Creek store.
Ida says, “Why thank you honey. I wish I could say the same myself.”
We all howled with laughter.
Lem’s a cripple and a burdensome and he knows it, yet in spite of the work he is for Ida, Ida attends to him lovingly and constantly.
I go out to the shop to work on the wings while Lem rests in his chair and Ida watches the morning soap operas. When she’s watching the soaps, you learn to let her be.
Out in the shop, I faced the confusion of the place; nothing had a place. Things were everywhere and only Lem knew where. Steve Ward had died two years earlier. His trusty hatchet was stuck in his chopping block as if he’d be back shortly.
“Steve,” I said to the ethers, feeling it was appropriate. “I need you help.”
Of course, I was talking to his spirit. I felt certain he could hear me. In that way we began working together. I pulled Steve’s hatchet from the chopping block and the wings took shape. It was as sharp as a razor. I was amazed how fast it could shape a form. I worked the rest of the day and after supper into the night, until 11:30 p.m.
In the night, outside in the woods and marsh behind the Ward shop, owls hooted, a distant dog barked, a Downnecker in his hot rod roared in the distance and mosquitos buzzed at the window. To these sounds the chopping hatchet supplied the beat. There was a thrill about being in that shop, helping out ole Lem. This is how it’s supposed to be; student helping the Master. What a gift!
The next day I arrived to find Lem already at work in the shop. It was just another day, but he was happy.
"Henry" is Henry Singer who lived nearby on a farm. I got to know him because he raised a wide variety of ducks, swan and geese, and other exotic birds on his farm along with cows, goats, sheep, mules and hogs. Henry was—he passed on maybe seven to nine years ago—considered one of the real characters in these parts. On my visits, I would take my sketchbook to draw his birds. He enjoyed it that I liked his birds. It wasn't too long before I discovered Henry was more interesting than his birds. His wife had left him long ago before I knew him when, as Henry told it, she said to him, "Its the birds or me?" You guessed it; Henry chose the birds.
Henry was definitely all about his animals, but in a disarmingly charming and innocent way. He knew he was totally unfit for human co-habitation, but enjoyed those who would visit if they would not be critical of the way he lived. Each animal having a name is not so unusual on a farm, but considering them full-fledged members of his family, as if they were human, was unique. He was especially fond of a goat named "Nanny". They were inseparable. Henry drove Nanny around with him in his beaten up rust bucket truck as others drive their dogs. Interestingly, Henry did not have a dog. Nanny had the run of the farm but, as far as I could tell, had one restriction. She was not allowed to sit on his antique heirloom sofa. I asked him about the sofa, since it was the only thing in the house he attempted to protect. He said it was a family heirloom from his parent’s home.
Once I was visiting and he invited me into the kitchen. It was summer so he had taken the door off so his animals could come in without having to knock. I walked in and the goat Nanny was sitting comfortably on his couch. Henry was always excited when I came. Some how I being an artist made me a special guest in his eyes. Seating me at the kitchen table, he offered coffee. "Sure," I replied, without knowing the implications.
Henry sets about looking for a clean pot to boil water. Not finding one quite clean enough, he looked around in his tool box at the foot of the table and eventually found a piece of sandpaper and began sanding the inside of the pot. Next, he handed me a cup. It looked like it had never been washed. Unsuccessful in hiding my dismay, he quickly reached back in the toolbox until he found a suitably clean piece of 80 grit sandpaper. Handing it to me, he suggested with his eyes I use it to clean the cup. In view of the hardened coffee rings, it seemed like an appropriate solution. While I sanded the cup, he dumped out the coffee in a pan, added water and soon had the mixture bubbling happily. It was then he milked Nanny the goat and served the warm milk with the coffee. It was delicious!
The idea for "Henry Overboard" came when he reminisced about his youth growing up on the Chesapeake Bay, something we shared in common. He told me about an incident he had had while courting a girl. He was 18 and she was 17. He had taken her sailing in his skiff one Sunday when the skiff began leaking. Having forgotten to bring a scoop it soon became apparent the boat was going to sink. He knew the waters well, so he steered to where the water was shallow over a sandbar. He jumped in the water to lighten the boat in an attempt to keep the lady dry. She sat on the steer while the boat finished sinking up to the level depicted in the piece. With his feet barely touching bottom, he was able to walk the boat to shore without having the lady to swim. As he walked along in dead silence, he'd look back once in a while and saw that attempting a conversation with the woman would not be a good idea.
I got thinking about the story and asked him if he would sit for me so I could sculpt him around the sinking boat story. Henry thought that a great idea. I have always wanted to do the companion piece to Henry Overboard with the lady sitting in the stern.
I gave him the first edition of the sculpture. When Henry died his only relative, a lady cousin, called to say Henry had bequeathed the sculpture I had given him to the Carroll County Maryland historical society museum. The heir of his estate said she would only do this if I would do another edition of the piece so that she could give that piece to the museum and keep could keep the original, to which I agreed.
So that is the story of "Henry Overboard". Peace be unto that dear old man.
At the age of 13 my parents let me hunt by myself and that Christmas I got a 410 gauge bolt-action Mossberg shotgun. In Crisfield, Maryland, where I grew up, duck hunting was the big sport—beginning in the fall and extending into the winter. To hunt for ducks you have two choices: either “walk the marsh” and hope to “jump up” a duck, or put out a string of decoys and wait for the ducks to find you. Walking the marsh is tiring and dangerous. There are countless “potholes”, guts, ditches, and rivers everywhere, mud to sink in and water to fall in.
Don Briddell and Lem Ward in 1976.
Hunting over decoys is by far the more gentlemanly way to do things, but you need a boat and motor to get to the best hunting areas. When you get there, you have to have a rig of decoys. And that is where the story begins for me. I had the boat and motor, but no decoys. Decoys were hand made by the watermen in their spare time. At the time I was growing up, there were two full-time decoy makers, and three part-timers. One old fellow named Lloyd, bought, sold and traded decoys as well as guns.
I took an old French gun to Lloyd in hopes he would make a trade for decoys. I had found the flintlock musket in my Vermont grandmother’s attic and she had given it to me. It was a very old musket. My uncle said he had used it to hunt bear as a boy in the 1920s. The barrel was paper thin at the muzzle and was probably too dangerous to shoot. Lloyd, however, was pleased to have it. So I got a collection of a dozen old beat-up cedar decoys made by the old timers in Crisfield. Years later those decoys would be worth a dozen new shotguns each, had I had enough foresight to see that they were collectable Americana works of folk art. But as the story usually goes, I saw them only as useful if floating in front of a duck blind.
In my school class was a boy named Tommy Linton whose grandfather was Lem Ward. Lem and his brother Steve were nationally known decoy carvers. Famous as the fathers of decoy carving, they were nonetheless humble men who still kept barbershops. Lem’s wife, right up to the day she died, did not believe that the “boys” could keep food on the table by making decoys. She was probably right about everything else, but on this particular issue she got it wrong. When they finally quit hair cutting, they could not keep up with the decoy orders. I recall names and addresses written on scraps of paper nailed to the wall with a long list of species the customer wanted to have made. These orders on their “do list” were often years old, waiting often in vain, to be made.
Before they stopped barbering, I got my hair cut from them. It was always a thrill to go to their barbershop. When they had no customer, they’d sit in the barber’s chair themselves and carve decoys. Their shop was an intoxicating mix of turpentine, Jerkin’s Hair Oil, and incense cedar wood smells. To this day, 50 years later, I can still recall that wonderful smell.
Since, I knew the Wards informally as barbers, I asked my classmate Tommy, if I could come to the Ward’s workshop. Entering for the first time left indelible memories. The shop was divided into two parts, the bandsaw room and the workroom. The workroom was divided into a carving and a painting section. Shelves ringed the walls with decoys and decorative carvings, all in one stage of completion or another. Lem did the painting and carved the decoratives, while Steve did the decoy carving, roughing them out with a sharp hatchet. He made on average a dozen decoys a day and had done so since 1920. The day I visited the shop with an old decoy I had gotten from Lloyd was in the late summer of 1957, and he was still going strong. I was a very impressed thirteen year-old.
Explaining I wanted them to tell how to fix up my “stool” of decoys, with no reservation, they agree to help me. Though I did not know it at the time, my apprenticeship had begun.
In 1975, to celebrate the upcoming bicentennial of the United States Declaration of Independence, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. decided to hold an art show called “Craft Multiples.”
The idea behind this show was to feature crafts that were reproduced over and over again. At the time America was declaring its independence in 1776, this was the way that people created goods.
Responding to the call for submissions to this show, Don Briddell produced two Mallard decorative decoys—a hen and a drake pictured below. Out of the approximate 13,500 entries, only 125 pieces were chosen and Don’s decoy pair was one of them.
The show was displayed in the Renwick Gallery, across the street from the White House. The Smithsonian purchased the pieces in the show for their permanent collection, but they also required artists to be willing to take at least six orders if anyone wanted to buy a “multiple” of the craftwork. In Don’s case, six people did, and so he made six more replications of this Mallard pair.
Another interesting outcome of these Mallards occurred a few years later when Don got a call from the private secretary of Vice President Mondale. She had seen the Mallards at the Vice Presidents’ house, which is located on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington DC. The Mallards in the Smithsonian collection had been selected to be the centerpiece of the Mondale’s dining room table.
The Smithsonian Institution only displays a small percentage
of its collection at any given time in their museums that line the National
Mall. When not on display pieces are stored carefully in the Institution’s archives.
The Smithsonian does loan pieces out to decorate public government buildings however,
such as the White House and the Vice President’s House. This is how they came
to be on Vice President Mondale’s dining room table.
The private secretary had liked them so much, that she ordered a pair for herself.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is, or was one of the world's largest woodpeckers with an impressive 20-inch length and 30-inch wingspan. It got the nickname the "Lord God Bird" apparently because the people who did see this elusive bird couldn't help but exclaim, "Lord, God! What a bird!" The species once ranged the swampy lowland forests of the southern United States from East Texas to the pine forests of South Carolina, and from Florida up the water ways to Kentucky. As a side note, the Ivory-billed has the distinction of being the model for Disney's Woody Woodpecker.
Because of vast habitat destruction and hunting during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Ivory-billed was feared extinct by the 1920s. But in the 1930s, in one last remaining tract of virgin swamp forest in Northeastern Louisiana, the bird was sighted again. Both film and photographs were taken of nesting Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Cornell University Ornithologist, James T. Tanner managed to crawl up to a nest hole and band a young bird, which then proceeded to jump out of the nest and fall to the ground because it couldn't yet fly. Before they got the bird back in the nest, they snapped close up pictures of this chick (above), where you can see the striking white wing markings and ivory-colored beak (really bone, not ivory) that distinguish it from the smaller and much more common Pileated Woodpecker. Unfortunately, that tract of forest was logged in the 1940s—despite pleas from four Southern governors and the National Audubon Society to spare it—and the last uncontested sighting was a lone female in 1944.
Since then, many people have reported sightings of the bird across its range, some more trustworthy than others. Until recently, the closest was a wing feather found by a man in Florida and identified as belonging to an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Then in 2005, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology announced that searchers had seen an Ivory-billed in the Big Woods in Arkansas and produced a 4.5 second video of the bird flying. This video was extensively analyzed and the team felt that because of the wing-beat rate, the colorings, the flight pattern and size, it was definitely not the Pileated Woodpecker. Other researchers have reported sightings along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida's Panhandle. Although both claims were from trained ornithologists, neither is universally accepted. There has as yet been no incontrovertible evidence.
At Overboard Art, when the news of the possible rediscovery of the bird was spreading like wildfire, Don decided it was time to include the Ivory-billed in the collection. In fact, Don spoke to Bobby Harrison, Associate Professor at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama who followed up on the original report of the Arkansas sighting and saw the bird himself. Don based his sculpture (left), from a picture Prof. Harrison sent him of an actual specimen that dated to the 1800s. We hope that one day the bird will be recovered from the edge and until then, here's a tribute to America's largest woodpecker!