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.
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 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.