A general, bushwhacking, body booting, and $1,144,600 send me to Crisfield, Maryland
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes – SBFL* 3 – VISITED – What took me to Crisfield, Maryland, was an eye-popping $1,144,600, somehow tied to body booting and bushwacking, and it all started with a general. It has been an unexpected journey to Crisfield, Maryland.
Decoys ducks and an Army Major General
My journey was kicked-started by a great, 91-years-young, retired Army Major General, Warren Magruder, an avid fishing and hunting enthusiast. When I say avid enthusiast, trust me, he is. As was covered by The Baltimore Sun back in July 2010, he caught a black drum fish in the Chesapeake Bay that was 50-inches long, 36-inches around, and weighing about 70 pounds. His pedigree is equally impressive on the duck hunting front. Although he is no longer hunting, he has a lot to show. Show he did, and after seeing a $1,144,600 price tag on a Guyette & Detter Inc. catalog, I was hooked on the story of duck decoys, a unique and true American art form.
General Magruder has been a Chesapeake bay duck hunter since 1945 and saw a lot of changes since then. He is the proud collector of many duck decoys.
What in the world is bushwacking or body booting, anyhow?
If you don’t know what it is, don’t feel bad, it was a type of duck hunting done way back when. As General Magruder explained, “Body booting was something like a wetsuit. You start with hip boots and then you pull it up to the chest and then the body booting come all the way up, just about to your neck.” Once you had your suit up, you stood in shallow waters, almost up to your chest in the middle of the duck decoys to hunt. Bushwhacking was a type of duck hunting boat, about 18 feet long and painted white. It had a canvas curtain in the front, two gunners sat on the front seat, which is a board across the front, and in the stern (back of the boat) was a guy who moved the boat down along. These days you can only see them in special places such as The Ward Museum dedicated to the Ward Brothers, famous sons of Crisfield, Maryland, who carved some of the most valuable duck decoys.
$1,144,600 will get you only two decoy ducks
Last year, in July 2018, a Mallard Hen and a Drake duck decoy by the Caines Brothers sold for, yes, $1,144,600. Caines Brothers. These days, the Caines family decoys are some of the most sought-after South Carolina decoys and very few are known to have survived. Hobcaw Barony is on the lower end of Waccamaw Neck and it is there that Richard Caines (1813-1881) raised his children. Five of his sons lived to adulthood and carved decoys. The Caines Brothers were Joseph J. “Hucks” Caines (1876-1944), Edmund A. “Ball” Caines (1851-1914), R. Randolph “Sawney” Caines (1860-1938), Moultrie J. L. “Pluty” Caines (1870-1912), and Robert J. “Bob” Caines (1879-1923).
Crisfield and the Ward Brothers
Among other internationally famous duck decoy carvers were the Ward Brothers. The Ward Brothers, Lemuel T. Ward (1897–1984), and Steven W. Ward (1895–1976), were two brothers from Crisfield, Maryland, who became famous for their wooden wildfowl carvings. In November 2006, a Ward Brothers goldeneye drake decoy sold for $109,250. So, realizing that a couple of famous duck decoy carvers were living on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, I went to Crisfield to visit the Ward Brothers’ shop. Originally barbers by trade, they began carving small decoys from cedar blocks in their barbershop during slow times and to help make extra money during the winter months.
Now that you have learned how my journey to Crisfield started, let’s talk a bit about Crisfield. It is on the Tangier Sound, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. Locals call it the crab capital of the world. The population was 2,726 at the 2010 census. Elevation is 3 feet. It is a great little town that still has remnants of a vibrant yesterday that was mostly based on oyster harvesting, by the tons, literally. Most of the first houses built in 1872, when the town started, were placed on piles over marsh or water. To fill the swamp land, oyster shells were used. Today, from the center of the town to the City Dock is man made land comprised of billions of oyster shells crushed compactly together, forming the foundation of the larger part of the business section of the city. I am told that the ground is as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar. Crisfield began to slip into decline along with the decline of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Currently, Crisfield is largely a tourist destination. It hosts many annual events and festivals, the most prominent of which is the National Hard Crab Derby. Crisfield is also a major gateway to Smith Island and Tangier Island. And, of course, we should not forget Somer Cove Marina, where you can tie your boat up for a couple of days or more. The TripAdvisor website provides a list of the five best things to do while visiting Crisfield, but if you are visiting the town by boat, your list will get quickly longer with Somer Cove Marina’s offerings.
I hope to say hello to you and shake your hand if you spot my boat, Life’s AOK in one of my locations that I will be visiting.
Fair Winds and Following Seas.
5 things I learned
- There’s an interesting world out there of a truly American art form, as well as stories directly related to coastal living. All you have to do is look for it, it is still there and alive.
- The technique of using decoys for duck hunting goes back nearly 2,000 years to the native Americans
- The artists who carved and painted the decoys that are bought by collectors for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 21st century lived in very modest conditions and surroundings.
- The famous duck decoy carvers of Crisfield, Lem and Steve Ward, lived in the marsh country. In later years, they named their barber/decoy carving shop, L.T. Ward & Bro – Wildfowl Counterfeiters in Wood
- The shop is still in existence as an interesting little museum and can be visited.
1 thing I recommend
- Be it by land or be it by water, first visit the Crisfield Heritage Foundation, and the Ward Brothers workshop in Crisfield, MD. Then go to Salisbury, MD, which is not too far and visit The Ward Museum. You will not be disappointed.
Marina where you can tie your boat up
It is located on the Eastern Shore in historic Crisfield, Maryland. Somers Cove Marina is a 515 slip marina. Picturesque setting offers a safe and secluded berth. The marina is protected on three sides by land and provides immediate access to the Tangier Sound in the Chesapeake Bay. The ambiance of Crisfield is perfect for walking, whether in and around the marina, uptown, or downtown.
Question: Do you know any collector who has paid big bucks for a decoy that I can meet? I’d love to interview them and learn more about their passion for decoys.
*SBFL stands for Slow Boat to Florida. It is a series of my blog posts, which started with a posting that had the same title. Each numbered heading has two parts. The first is “Planned,” and when I visit the planned location, a “Visited” label appears at the beginning. The series represents part travel, part current and historical anthropological highlights of the locations. I invite you to visit the same locations by boat or by land, or simply follow my slow journey. I love to hear from you on any current or past insights about the locations that I am visiting. Drop me a note, will you?