Members of the Long Island Decoy Collectors Association who gathered for their monthly meeting at Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library, are in many ways, birds of a feather. Old enough to have hunted wildfowl and collected decoys since the 1950s and ’60s, they’re also young enough at heart to enjoy an old-fashioned round of show-and-tell.
For this gathering, they’ve unpacked prized pieces from their antique and vintage duck decoy stockpiles, and set them out in a row on the horseshoe-shaped meeting table. They’ve waited patiently as business was dispatched, including plans for the annual decoy show next month. (See box.)
Of the 60 members in the association, 25 have come to the meeting. They take turns sharing their extensive knowledge about their canvasback decoys.
Tim Sieger, 64, of Bridgehampton, shows off a drake and hen made in 1936 by the Ward Brothers of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “It’s very rare to find a matched pair, used by the same hunter on the same rig,” says Sieger, who estimates the set’s value at $80,000.
Mary Meyer, 64, of East Hampton, one of two women at the meeting, is also one of the few nonhunters in the room. Meyer began collecting after inheriting decoys from her father, Russell Meyer of Northport. She enjoys researching markings and other clues to a decoy’s history. “These are folksy, authentic Long Island decoys,” she says, holding up a sleeping hen from her collection.
Duck decoy making and collecting are longtime traditions on Long Island, where commercial and recreational duck hunting thrived for centuries, and still goes on in parts of Nassau and Suffolk counties. Some Long Islanders are carrying on hunting and decoy-making traditions passed down by generations while others do their hunting at garage sales, vendor booths and auctions. They’ve become experts at identifying where, when and how a decoy was made and used. More than nostalgic remnants of times gone by, decoys are also a valued — and in some cases extremely valuable — form of American folk art suitable for display on a living room mantle or in a history museum.
Long Island’s maritime past makes it fertile ground for decoy collecting, local experts say. Long Island, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware, are hotbeds of tradition and local interest in decoy carving and collecting, says Joshua Ruff, director of collections and interpretation at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages in Stony Brook. The museum’s collection includes 200 decoys; 70 of them are part of a permanent exhibition.
Many pieces, which are bought and sold locally, survive from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when duck hunting for profit was a significant part of the local economy, Ruff says.
“There were people who were hunting in Shinnecock, Moriches and the Great South Bay and other bays on the South Shore for the New York City markets, for food and the fashion industry,” Ruff says. Long Island was also “a big hunting mecca for sportsmen,” he says.
Craig Kessler, 67, of Aquebogue, grew up in Oakdale and worked in the 1960s as a duck hunting guide at the South Side Sportsman’s Club on the 3,000 acres surrounding the Connetquot River. The clubhouse, where U.S. presidents and Gold Coast millionaires once hunted, is now part of Connetquot River State Park Preserve.
Kessler retired after 25 years as the regional director of Ducks Unlimited, a private nonprofit that raises funds to protect and restore wetlands in North America. Kessler, a member of the Long Island Decoy Collectors Association, and Steve Sanford, a former New York State Department of Environmental Conservation waterfowl biologist, have been videotaping interviews with the region’s veteran gunners (a term that refers to hunters who use guns), for a documentary titled “On the Falling Tide: The story of traditional Black Duck gunning on the South Shore of Long Island.” It will be screened at the annual show on March 4.
For Kessler, the beauty of decoys is in their accuracy depicting the 43 waterfowl species found in North America. “Being a hunter, I like to see birds that are realistic in terms of what an actual duck looks like,” Kessler says.
Dick Richardson, the club’s vice president, traces his passion for collecting duck decoys to early hunting experiences. He started hunting at age 14 in 1950 with his father, Harvey P. Richardson, a retired U.S. Coast Guardsman who was a member of Bellport’s Pattersquash Gunners Association. That experience turned the younger Richardson into a lifelong wildfowl hunter and outdoorsman.
Like many old-time duck hunters, Richardson’s father not only bought decoys from companies like Wildfowler Decoys in Quogue, but he also carved his own, using cork salvaged from discarded 1930s life preservers. The sculptures were then singed with a blowtorch to resemble local black ducks, Richardson recalls.
Although his own youthful attempts to make lifelike decoys came up short, Richardson, now 81, a retired Brookhaven National Laboratory researcher living in Patchogue, has made his own mark in the field. An expert on decoys made on Long Island from 1880 to 1900 and used in Bellport and Patchogue, he has lectured at the Hampton Bays Historical Society and exhibited pieces from his extensive collection at the Suffolk County Historical Society and the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Richardson is known among fellow members of the Long Island Decoy Collectors Association for his ability to identify a decoy merely by taking a gander at it. “You can look at a bird and tell what year it was made,” Richardson says.
On Long Island, this traditional folk art is still being created. For Lyle Smith, 53, a retired Southampton Town police officer who lives on the Shinnecock Reservation, making and collecting decoys connect him with generations of his family.
“It’s something in my blood that I was able to pick up and do on my own,” Smith says. His ancestors include the revered Shinnecock folk artist and decoy maker Chief Eugene Cuffee.
Using special tools, Smith grinds blocks of cedar and cork into bodies and heads and paints them with acrylic and oils in his home workshop. “The colors are what the ducks would look like in the wild,” he says. He hunts with his decoys on the reservation, or gifts them to tribal elders.
Smith is also a collector, but only of decoys made on the reservation. One of his prized possessions is a mallard decoy made by his grandfather, who died in 1947. “It’s a great pride to have something that your ancestors made,” he said.
George Rigby, 57, of Moriches, also uses the skills he learned from a long line of traditional decoy makers. A descendant of five generations of South Shore baymen, his great-grandfather and father were both carvers. Wanting to be like his father, Rigby says he began drawing ducks at age 5 and later graduated to carving.
He employs traditional tools and methods, sometimes even cutting down a tree for wood. In his backyard, Rigby’s knives, hatchets and rasps shape pieces of cedar into heads and cork into bodies.
“I like using the old tools, the old-school way,” Rigby says. It takes about six hours from start to finish to make one decoy. At that rate, Rigby estimates he’s made about 500 or 600. The most money he’s earned on a single piece was $400 — that was a special show decoy that took a week to make.
Recognized as a folk artist by Long Island Traditions in Port Washington, Rigby has won dozens of prize ribbons at shows such as the Mississippi Valley Fair in Davenport, Iowa. Of his two children, George V and Salena, only his daughter shows interest in carrying on the family tradition.
“When I started carving there were a lot of people interested who were older than me, and we had a couple of carving clubs. I don’t see that anymore,” he says. “It’s a dying art.”
Making a splash
The Long Island Decoy Collectors Association’s 46th Annual Show
WHEN | WHERE Saturday, March 4, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Hall No. 25, 370 Motor Pkwy., Hauppauge
INFO 516-639-8480, lidecoycollectors.org
— JIM MERRITT