The Chesapeake Bay is America's largest estuary and encompasses some 4,000 miles of shoreline. The bay is divided into three distinct areas, and each produced carvers who developed their own, easily recognizable style.
Decoys made in the Upper Bay and Susquehanna Flats, as well as the Middle Bay (Maryland's Eastern Shore and Dorchester County) were made for use in the open waters. Lower Bay (Crisfield) decoys were primarily made for use in the small estuaries and tidal marshes that dot the region.
The Upper Bay region encompasses the area where the Susquehanna River flows out of Pennsylvania into the bay, and includes the town of Havre de Grace, where decoy carving has been a tradition for over a hundred years. Virtually all of the carvers in this region made decoys for their own use, as well as guiding hunting parties and gunning for commercial markets.
Decoys were valued for their utilitarian function and were never considered for their artistic merits This was the area where the market gunners and their "sink boxes" reigned supreme before the 1918 migratory bird legislation. The "sink box" was floated out on the Flats and counterbalanced with heavy cast-iron decoys cast at the "Principio Furnace" located above Harve de Grace.
One of the earliest Harve de Grace carvers was John "Daddy" Holly. His decoys were of the classic Upper Bay style -- Solid wood construction (made from either pine or cedar), with rounded bottoms and a carved shelf for the placement of the nail-attached head, lead weights, and anchors which allow the decoy to be used in rough, open waters. These decoys had very good carving delineation between the face and bill, carved mandibles and necks; were broad-breasted; and had the "scratch paint method" of finishing. Earlier decoys had forged iron keels and ballast weights, which were replaced with "sand or wood cast" lead weights.
Within this school, two styles emerged -- the Havre de Grace style with upswept tails and no neck shelf; and the Cecil County or Northeast River style with a carved shelf for the placement of the head and straight tails protruding from the middle rear of the body.
Noted carvers from this region include: John "Daddy" Holly and his sons, William, John, Jr., and James (canvasbacks, redheads, and blackheads); Sam Barnes (canvasbacks, redheads, black ducks and swans); Charles Barnard; Jim Currier; and Robert "Bob" McGaw, who owned the first decoy-producing machine in Havre de Grace and carved canvasbacks, redheads, black ducks, bluebills, geese, pintails, widgeons, and some mallards.
Down the bay from Harve de Grace is the Middle Bay area, probably the best known part of the Chesapeake thanks to James Michener and his sweeping saga Chesapeake and places like Tilghman's Island, Rock Hill, Kent Island, Easton, and Cambridge. Ed Phillips epitomizes the carvers of this school, and while Middle Bay carvers basically followed the Upper Bay style their decoys were not quite as rounded on the bottom (i.e., not completely rounded nor completely flat -- similar to Mason decoys). Their decoy bodies were quite graceful and the necks usually have a slight backward arch; most have carved eye representations; and are very well painted using a scratch feathered technique.
Middle Bay decoys were solid wood with a dowel rod attaching the head and neck; a sheet lead ballast weight on the bottom; and an anchor line tie made of sheet copper bent into a loop and attached with a copper nail. Phillips and his counterparts made canvasbacks, pintails, widgeons, black ducks, redheads, and Canada geese; as well as, an occasional plover or other shorebird stick-up.
Carvers of the Middle Bay included: Ed Phillips, John Glen (who made decoys for the famous Cedar Point Gunning Club), Jess Urie, August Hennefield, Ed Parsons, and Josiah Travers. The Lower Bay area and Crisfield, Maryland, is where the first appearance of the true "flat-bottom" decoy occurs in the bay area. Typically, Crisfield decoys are solid wood, slightly over-sized, narrow breasted, wide in the hip area, and flat-bottomed, with a tail usually coming out of the top of the body.
Decoys in the area were typically weighted with anything handy. These decoys were very utilitarian, with rather primitive carving and sufficient paint to attract the ducks. After the outlawing of market gunning in 1918, the hard times of the Depression increased the demand for decoys to help individuals provide for their own meat, particularly in the waterfowl rich area of Crisfield, and carvers like the Ward brothers (Lem and Steve) met the demand. It is estimated that the brothers produced as many as 10,000 decoys in the 50-years they were actively carving. The Ward brothers took the carving and painting techniques of their father, Travis, and other Crisfield carvers and refined them to a fine art.
Other Crisfield carvers included Elwood Dize, Loyd Tyler, Loyd Sterling, and Will Sterling. These carvers made decoys of many species, including canvasback, black duck, mallard, pintail, wigeon, green - and blue-winged teal, bluebill, goldeneye, redhead, and Canada geese.