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.