by Clayton Davis

George Bell of Crisfield, Maryland is sensitive to the shape and plumage of migratory waterfowl that visit his home.

Dangling down from Pennsylvania is a huge leaf shape that shields the Chesapeake Bay from the cold, vicious Atlantic Ocean. It is called the Delmarva Peninsula, occupied in thirds by Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, hence the name. Geese and other migratory wildfowl find this a splendid route to take north and south as they live out nature's plan for their annual vacation.

"I can tell you something about decoys used for hunting," says George. "They are carved from Cottonwood. Autumn is the time of year when we look for the perfect Cottonwood tree. That is when the leaves are gone and the sap is down. It is the best time to cut one for decoy carving."

George told his story so well I could see a splendid Cottonwood tree standing alone in a forest. I saw it felled, the wood carved into the shape of beautiful ducks and geese.

George was born twenty-six years ago in Shelltown, eight miles east of Crisfield along the Pocomoke Sound. He carries on a unique carving tradition started by the Ward Brothers in Crisfield many years ago.

Lem and Steve Ward had transformed the decoy from a hunter's tool to a work of art, and taught their carving techniques to anyone who would drop by and chat a spell. In tribute to their contribution, the Ward Foundation was established in 1968. It now claims 6000 members in 13 countries. The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art was erected to preserve their legacy in 1992. It sits alongside Schumaker Pond in Salisbury, Maryland, where wildfowl swim and play in their natural habitat.

George has lived in Crisfield for the past 10 years, just a mile from the famous Ward Brothers workshop.

Making a living on the bay as a waterman for five years, George decided there must be something else he could do and started sanding decoys for Zack Ward, a relative of the Ward Brothers. He has been carving on his own for ten years now.

The first thing George ever carved was a swan decoy. He was 16. It was a thing he says is so ugly he'll probably own it for the rest of his life. While sanding for Zack Ward, George picked up customers when his boss couldn't fill the orders.

A dozen hunting ducks usually takes George about five days to carve and paint. A decorative decoy will take up to three days. People place orders anywhere from 6 months to a year ahead of time. The price for a typical decoy is about one hundred dollars, although it really depends on the type. He once made a full size standing eagle that sold for a thousand dollars. George's carving styles are derived from the patterns created by Lem and Steve Ward, obtained through his association with Zack.

The best decoys are carved from the heart of a cottonwood tree. "We cut them when the sap is down," George says. "Cut them into blocks about two or three feet long. The blocks cure in the attic all next summer." When the wood is thoroughly dry and cured, George will carve three or four decoys from each block.

"Feel it," George says as he hands me a decoy. "Almost light as a feather. Cottonwood floats."

For many, the Chesapeake Bay provides a living from the sea but catching it will freeze your hands and have you sloshing hip-deep in bay water. It is, George concludes, "Much more interesting to carve waterfowl decoys."


back to the main page