Historical Perspective: Waterfowling was once a way of life

A Keyes Chadwick carving of a redhead decoy, a new acquisition from Allan and Shelley Holt. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regularly appearing series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

For countless generations, life on Martha’s Vineyard was defined by the annual cycle of harvest that was critical to survival. Harvesting wild ducks, geese, and other birds was part of that tradition, attracting hunters to the ponds, salt marshes, and shorelines annually.

Many early Islanders hunted ducks to put food on the table. Some carved decoys, an important tool used to attract ducks within shotgun range. Later, as a new leisure class discovered the Vineyard, a number of clubs were set up exclusively for the purpose of duck hunting such as the Watcha Club in 1903 and the Tisbury Pond Club in 1912. By 1930 the entire area between Tisbury Great Pond and Oyster Pond was owned or controlled by hunting clubs.

The hunt required skill, knowledge, and a specialized set of tools, perhaps the most important of which was the wooden decoy used to lure wild birds into gunning range.

The Museum’s current exhibit, “The Art of the Hunt: Martha’s Vineyard Decoys,” features decoys and first-person accounts from oral histories with Vineyard duck hunters. Listening to their voices captures the profound connection between the hunter and his natural surroundings, and offers details on the process, from carving the decoys, to the hunt, to preparing ducks for the table.

What follows are excerpts from two of the voices you can hear in the exhibit.

Herbert R. Hancock (1929 – 2001) of Chilmark, was a man of many talents. A builder, a lobsterman, and long-time Chilmark selectman, he began duck hunting with his father and grandfather in the marshes and ponds of Chilmark.

Mr. Hancock started carving decoys at a young age for the same reason that his great-grandfather — Russell Hancock, a whaler, fisherman, and farmer — carved them: to attract ducks. He started carving decoys at a young age to use in hunting and later in life he carved many exquisite decorative decoys.

“I hunted a lot with David Flanders. We’d go before daylight; put out a whole bunch of decoys. Often we went late in the afternoon. Supposed to quit when it got dark, but we didn’t always. Go on a stormy night and it would be dark early. So ducks wouldn’t fly much ’til it got dark. We took a boat, went over across the [Menemsha] Creek one time, lot of potholes over there and marshy. There’s a lot of ducks flying around there when it gets dark, close to dark. And we were over there shooting and the game warden chased us around. I just shot a duck and Davy comes over, ‘Somebody’s right over here.’ So we decided to take off and headed towards Gay Head and you could hear the guy — splash, splash, splash. We knew our way around there, we just swum around and got back to the boat and come back over and picked up the duck.

“Game warden was Ed Bannister. But we were shooting too late. It was against the law to shoot after a half hour after sunset. It was after that for sure. He didn’t catch us by any means. He tried, I give him credit for that.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to find ducks after you shoot them. If they’re still alive, they can get out of sight in a hurry. You shoot a duck, and if he’s crippled and he lands in the water, they can swim along with just their bill out of water. You wouldn’t think that would be possible. A black duck would do it. You try to get that thing, and he’d be swimming off with just the tip end of his bill out of the water. Somehow, they can stay underwater, which is unbelievable, you know. Think about it. I mean it’s got all that air in their feathers. Smart, they’re smart birds. In the right conditions the goose will do it. They can stay right under, called skulking.

“Teal and widgeon were the best for eating because they just ate grass. All depends what a duck eats, how good it tastes. Black ducks would taste marshy. Geese too. If you’re going to eat a goose, you have to shoot them early in the season when they were feeding in a field, eating grass. Then they tasted good. So if you wanted a goose that was good to eat, you had to get a young’n. The older ones were tough. You always had to shoot the last one in the line because the old gander, the old man, would fly first, then the mother, and then all the little ones would be all stretched out behind it. Sheldrakes, mergansers, they’re not good eating. Fishy tasting. You have to give them away. There weren’t too many people who wanted them. So I never shot too many.”

Ham Luce (1905 – 1998) of Oak Bluffs grew up on a farm — what is now Farm Neck — on Sengekontacket Pond. For many years, he was the caretaker for the Flynn property known as Pohogonot in Edgartown. He was good friends with Henry Keyes Chadwick, a well-known carver whose decoys now fetch thousands of dollars at auction.

“Keyes Chadwick. I knew him. I used to do a lot of hunting and fishing. He kept beagles, and we had that thing in common, even though we were a long ways apart in age. So we used to go hunting together a lot.

“He had a great grapevine there and when it was warm, he’d sit out there and carve decoys. And he told me, ‘You know, I never wanted to be known as a master carver. I was an expert poultryman.’ That’s what he had made his living at for years. He used to show poultry in Madison Square Garden. But he wound up, he says, ‘All they buy is the decoys I made.’ And he was kind of put out about it that nobody recognized him as an authority on fancy poultry.

“But he made the best. He said ‘I make good decoys, but I can’t paint that well.’ So he had a man from the Cape used to paint them for him. Elmer Crowell. Elmer Crowell came over one day, and he says, ‘Keyes,’ he says, ‘you make a damn good decoy, but you can’t paint worth a damn.’

“To make a decoy he’d get a cedar post. He would rough it out with a saw, and then he’d take a hatchet, and rough it out a little more, and then finish it off with what’s called a spoke shaver, or a draw knife. And the heads he’d whittle out by hand with a penknife. He used to drill a hole in the bottom, and countersink a little round piece of lead. To balance it, you know.

“He made them back when most of them weren’t worth anything. Like $2 a piece or something. Little did he know that they were going to be worth a lot of money as collector’s items, you know.

“The duck hunting season started earlier, then. Sometimes September. And it would last way up into spring, which was a bad thing, because they were shooting birds that were mated already. That depleted a lot of birds.

“There were a few market gunners on the Island too, pretty well over by my time. They made a living shooting ducks and shipping them to New York, Boston. They killed them by the hundreds.

“I suppose there were so many birds that it didn’t seem possible they could wipe them out, but they did. And I guess what also happened was that agriculture took up a lot of their habitat. They started draining huge marshes, wherever these birds were breeding. They lost thousands of acres that way. So many things that were wrong.

“You know, people that are not gunners do not realize that with a lot of people, including myself, never got a kick out of killing something. The pleasure, I always found, was the anticipation of going out with the companions, and enjoying the beautiful autumn weather, and the foliage.

“Oftentimes, on a cold clear night you’d hear geese going over — migrating, you know. A great sound. Men have been listening to that for centuries. The call of the wild. But I suppose in every man there’s sort of an atavistic desire to hunt; it’s there, I suppose. But they had a reason for it, to survive.

“You know, I often think now, looking back, about hunting, I could have been a lot happier if I had used a camera instead of a gun. Because when you kill something, you only see it once. And if you let it live, you’ll probably see it any number of times, or someone else will. You’re taking away life from something that is enjoying it to the fullest. I can see the people that needed the meat, but we didn’t need the meat. Sometimes you change a lot of your thinking, you know.”

Linsey Lee is curator of oral history. The Museum on School Street in Edgartown is open Monday through Saturday. Go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441 for more information on tours and exhibits.