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Exhibit traces duck hunting history on Delaware River
Sunday, September 19, 2004

By Christian Berg, The Associated Press

DOYLESTOWN -- Tom Fitzpatrick was a local legend during the heyday of Delaware River duck hunting, when birds were plentiful and fetched excellent prices at local hotels and restaurants.

One of the most prolific decoy carvers in Delaware River history, Fitzpatrick (1887-1958) had more than 2,000 wooden birds to his credit.

Today, the few weather-beaten Fitzpatrick decoys that remain are little more than relics of a largely forgotten era when "river rats" enjoyed a lifestyle uninhibited by government regulation, riverfront development or environmental degradation.

The lives of Fitzpatrick and others of his ilk, along with the decoy carving tradition they forged, are now being featured at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown. The exhibit, "Ducks, Decoys and the Delaware: A Regional Hunting Tradition," traces the waterfowl hunting heritage on the lower Delaware River from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century.

Although the exhibit includes about 70 authentic Delaware-style decoys, sporting guns and more than half-a-dozen species of mounted waterfowl specimens, curator Cory Amsler said the display was much more than the sum of its parts.

"It's not just an interesting collection of objects," Amsler said. "It's a great story with some interesting characters."

In addition to dozens of historical photographs and biographical information about local duck hunting old-timers, the display provides insight about Delaware River duck hunting methods, which were quite different from modern waterfowling techniques.

Most traditional Delaware River duck hunters used sculling boats. These low-profile, oar-driven craft were typically camouflaged with branches and other natural camouflage that made them look like piles of debris drifting on the current. In the winter, hunters sometimes painted their boats white to blend in with snow and ice chunks in the river.

Once a hunter set his decoys in the water, he would row about 30 yards upstream and wait for ducks to land among the bogus birds. The hunter would then lie down in his boat and silently drift in among them before he popped up to shoot.

The stealth required to consistently kill ducks this way was highlighted by Elisha Lewis, of Philadelphia, who included the following advice in an 1855 article penned for The American Sportsman magazine: "Be still as death itself, yet watchful as life can make you."

Most hunters in the late 1800s and early 1900s used muzzle-loading shotguns and would carry several guns with them in the boat -- it took several minutes to reload a muzzleloader, so having multiple guns on hand allowed hunters to kill as many ducks as possible before the birds flew out of range. Later, more efficient pump-action and semiautomatic shotguns made the need for multiple firearms less pressing.

The most common hunting gun on the river was the 12-gauge, double-barrel shotgun. Scott, Parker and Winchester were among the most popular shotgun manufacturers, and several examples of these classic guns are included in the exhibit.

"Most of the serious hunters may have been poor, but whatever resources they had they put into their guns," Amsler said. "They would try to get the best."

Although the exhibit includes the entire spectrum of the Delaware River duck-hunting tradition, decoys are clearly the centerpiece. Amsler said so much attention was paid to them because "decoys are sort of the primary remains of duck-hunting tradition."

"As duck hunting waned and as duck populations declined, carving traditions kind of went out the window," he said.

The Delaware River's unique decoy carving style developed between 1870 and 1930. The most notable feature is the raised, V-shaped carving of the primary wing feathers.

Delaware decoys were typically crafted from cedar or pine. Carvers would make two halves, hollow out the wood and then join them together with nails and caulk.

"It makes them lighter, and when you're carrying as many as 40 decoys in a sneak boat, that matters," said Amsler, who added that the heads of the decoys were usually carved separately and then attached to the bodies.

Perhaps the most impressive of the decoys included in the collection is an original set of five decoys -- mallard hen, redhead drake, canvasback drake, scaup and long-tailed duck -- carved around 1910 by William Appleton, a market hunter who lived in Bristol, Bucks County. The decoys are an example of the more than 60 carvings that once comprised Appleton's hunting "rig."

It is rare to find a Canada goose decoy carved in the Delaware River fashion, because there wasn't a large resident goose population on the river at that time. Hunters had a relatively short window of opportunity to hunt geese as migratory birds passed through in the fall.

In addition to highlighting waterfowl species that were common during their era, Delaware River decoys also reflect the changing face of the river itself.

The earliest Delaware decoys were relatively small, with rounded bottoms. These decoys were made for hunting at a time when the river was shallow and slow moving and most hunting occurred in marshes and creek mouths.

But between 1910 and 1930, repeated dredging to widen and deepen the river channel intensified the currents and forced decoy makers to alter their methods. Later decoys are considerably larger, which made them easier to see out in the middle of the river channel. Carvers also incorporated flat bottoms and weighted keels on later decoys to make them more stable on the water.

Dredging operations had a profound impact on not only the local hunters, but also the ducks.

The tidal wetlands of the lower Delaware River were once a waterfowl haven because of the wild rice and celery that grew there, providing a smorgasbord for migrating birds. Repeated dredging, however, destroyed much of this native growth.

The environmental damage caused by the dredging, combined with various sources of industrial pollution, led to a rapid decline in waterfowl populations during the mid- to late 20th century. Wildlife officials responded by increasing hunting restrictions, which in turn led to a rapid decline in Delaware River hunting.

Today, only a handful of accomplished Delaware River decoy makers remain, and most of them are producing highly detailed collectible decoys that bear little resemblance to the "working" decoys of a century ago.

Amsler said the transition from hunting tool to folk art was simply the latest step in the decoy's evolution, and that selling prices indicate the genre is attracting plenty of well-heeled devotees.

The best known contemporary Delaware River carver still is Bob White, of Tullytown, who has been hunting on the river since the 1950s. White served as a volunteer consultant to Mercer Museum officials who developed the exhibit, and demonstrates local carving techniques in a seven-minute video featured in the display.

The video shows White using a variety of saws, chisels, gouges and other hand tools as he transforms a block of wood into a duck. Along with a hands-on demonstration of his craft, White provides a running commentary on the differences between his decoys -- which sell for $500 or more -- and those of yesteryear.

Back then, "It wasn't supposed to be art," White said. "It was just a tool that these decoy makers used to put food on the table.

"We make birds to attract not so much ducks, but people. I make them prettier than they are. That's what they're paying $500 for."


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