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Once made solely as a tool for hunting, decoys have had a renaissance as a collectible piece of folk art.

We’ve sold a pair of merganser decoys made by Captain Edwin Bachman of Lunenburg, NS, for $37,000,” said Gary Guyette of Guyette and Schmidt, Inc., the world’s largest waterfowl decoy auction house based in St. Michaels, Maryland. “Another decoy by an unknown Prince Edward Island carver went for $17,000.” Other Maritime-made lures, although selling for less than those of Bachman and the anonymous PEI artist, have also garnered the interest of collectors—indicating that Atlantic Canadian waterfowl carvings, once ignominiously tossed into sheds or behind barns, have become recognized as folk art.

A very different decoy

For centuries, the people of Southwestern Nova Scotia have been using their own unique waterfowl lures. These decoys come in the form of small, fox-red dogs.

Initially known as Little River Duck Dogs or Yarmouth Tollers, and now as Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, these canines have been in documented existence in the Maritimes since the 17th century. Explorer and colonizer Nicolas Denys described them in his book Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America (Acadia), published circa 1672.

Until the mid 20th century, however, when the Canadian Kennel Club formally recognized them as a breed, tollers, as they are commonly called, remained one of Nova Scotia’s best-kept secrets.

They’ve come by the toller moniker naturally. Tolling in a hunting context means the process of luring game, usually waterfowl, with the use of decoys. These amazing dogs attract waterfowl by imitating the appearance and reputed hunting techniques of the red fox—which will prance along the shoreline where waterfowl are rafting far out on the water until spotted by the birds. Then, for some unknown reason, lured by its antics, they swim close enough to shore to become its prey.

Legend has it that hunters, after observing the fox’s success, developed a bushy-tailed red dog that would mimic this attraction. A good tolling dog will retrieve a ball or stick along the shore to entice waterfowl within shotgun range—then the dog retrieves the fallen birds.

Training a tolling retriever takes little effort. Their desire to retrieve and please surpasses that of most other water dogs—tollers will do anything possible to satisfy an owner who understands the dogs’ sensitive temperament, training it with play and praise.

Tolling requires a quiet body of water, generally undisturbed by shoreline vacation homes or motorized craft. A blind, best constructed on a marshland point, will hide the dog’s companion and offers a concealed space from which to throw a ball or stick for the toller to fetch and attract the ducks. Ideal natural conditions include a stiff breeze at the birds’ backs, pushing them toward the dog, as it carries the scent of the toller’s human companion away from them.

Sometimes called the “pied pipers of the marsh,” tolling retrievers have an intelligence which, combined with versatility, attracts the interest of dog fanciers worldwide.

Seeing hunting lures as collectibles occurred as early as the 1930s, but the practice of attracting waterfowl with fake fellows is an ancient one. Waterfowl are drawn to decoys because they look like their own kind and inspire a sense of safety. Egyptian tombs dating from 1500 BC contained mud and feather duck imitations. Greeks as early as 400 BC lured their prey into net tunnels by pulling carved and painted wooden bird replicas on a long lead.

When Europeans came to North America, they discovered Native Peoples already using waterfowl imitations to entice birds within range of spears and arrows. Apparently they had been using this method for more than 1,000 years—decoys dating from around 600 AD were found in caves in the southwestern US.

These decoys, woven from bulrushes, and not designed to be saved or transported, were exceptional. Using the hide of a dead duck or shaping seaweed or eelgrass into mounds with “heads” made of driftwood sticks, First Nations Peoples wasted little time perfecting models, given they would abandon them after the hunt.

Europeans initially adopted these types of decoys, but soon began to carve wooden replicas that would be saved. Mostly settlers, they wanted permanence not only in their place of residence but also in their waterfowl lures.

Since the major hunting grounds for the birds were along the Atlantic coast and major waterways, skilled boat builders frequently became the best decoy carvers.

The Industrial Revolution propelled a major increase in decoy making. Improved firearms, expanding urban populations, and better means of transportation elevated hunting waterfowl to the status of a profession. A new breed of hunters, known as market gunners, appeared. They shot not for their own table, as previous waterfowlers had, but to provide meat for the rapidly growing cities and towns.

“The market gunner, more than any other, is the father of the decoy,” wrote Joel Barber in his 1934 classic Wild Fowl Decoys.

Professional gunners required large rigs of decoys, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. One carver is reported to have produced as many as 900 decoys in a single year to supply the demand. Companies such as the Mason Decoy Factory of Detroit,
Michigan, began to manufacture the lures en masse.

Not surprisingly, this activity put tremendous pressure on waterfowl populations. During both spring and fall migrations, a professional hunter often bagged 100 birds in a day.

By the late 1800s the devastation had become obvious to conservation groups such as the Audubon Society. Campaigns were undertaken to regulate waterfowl hunting. The Migratory Bird Act of 1918 forbade spring shooting—and outlawed the sale of migratory birds, effectively putting an end to market gunners’ careers. Of course, the agreement drastically reduced the demand for decoys, both hand and factory made.

In the years immediately following, recreational hunters tried their hands at decoy making. It proved no easy task. This discovery brought new respect for the work of the pre-1918 carvers. In summer 1923, one of the first recorded decoy shows was held in Bellport, Long Island. The following year another was held, in New York City.

Interest then waned until a major event in 1931, once again in New York City, revived it. Billed as an exhibition of “American Wild Fowl Decoys,” its underlying purpose was for then sportsmen to discover the trade secrets of the old-time carvers. This would be one of the first time decoys had been displayed as something other than a hunting tool.

Over the ensuing years, waterfowl decoys began to grace mantels and shelves across the US, but it wasn’t until plastic decoys replaced wooden ones in sports hunters’ rigs in the 1960s and ’70s that the decoys of Atlantic Canada came to the notice of collectors.

“About 30 years ago, out-of-province pickers swept through New Brunswick, finding a wealth of antiques and a population frequently willing to give them away,” Carol Kuehner wrote in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, in 2003.

“Among the items almost cleaned out of the province were wooden decoys.”

Only one serious collector stood in the way of this hemorrhage of folk art. His name was Jack McKay of New Maryland, NB. While working for the province’s Department of Tourism in the ’70s, McKay recognized the volume of decoys headed south of the border, and he decided to start his own collection. As he travelled around the province he met and interviewed the best of the old-time carvers. Whenever possible, he purchased samples of their work. At the time of his death, in 2003, he had close to 180 decoys in his
collection. A white-winged scooter duck from Campobello Island dating from 1880 was among the oldest.

During his quest, McKay spent many hours scouring the sheds and barns of Tabusintac, NB. Tabusintac was home to many of the last of the old-time carvers. The small Anglophone community snuggled behind the 19-kilometre-long Tabusintac Lagoon on Miramichi Bay had long been the cherished hunting grounds of wealthy American sportsmen. Late into the 1960s, local guides were still busy carving decoys for these “sports.” Plastic had not yet swallowed up their art. Men such as Guy Robertson, Archibald Morrison, Ephriam Stymiest, First Nations artist Peter Ginnish, and James Callaghan were steadily producing decoys in the time-honoured fashion.

James Callaghan carved his first decoy when he was nine, the year before market gunning was outlawed. “I never use paint,” he told me, when we chatted back in 1990 (he died in 1994). “Only a mixture of stove oil and shingle glue heated on the stove ‘til it’s just right. It’s a tricky business, making a decoy that’ll fool a bird like the Canada goose.”

Callaghan had the soul of an artist. He not only carved decoys, he portrayed his beloved hunting grounds in oils on canvas, played a mean fiddle, and could use words to create powerful images.

“I recall one clear, frosty October night, watching a flock of geese swimming offshore from a blind in that cove,” he said, pointing to one of his beachscapes. “They sent in two scouts from among their number to see if it was safe. Silent and perfect as a memory, the pair of geese drifted toward me, black ghosts in the moonlight. To even consider killing anything so wonderful would have been a heinous crime.”

Callaghan became mentor to an up-and-coming young local carver, Serge Savoie. Serge’s father Amateur (Mat) Savoie is generally regarded as one of the earliest of the regional carvers to take waterfowl carving into the realm of art. In 1935, when he moved to Lower Neguac a few miles from Tabusintac, he set up a barber shop and began to make and sell decoys on the side.

At first, his work was not unlike those of other local carvers but as he gained experience he began to refine his technique. By the 1950s he’d introduced glass eyes and a feathery textured surface to his models. Although some hunters said he was getting too fancy, he continued to perfect his work. Over the years it’s estimated he produced more than 4,000 carvings.

Savoie was to leave not only an impressive collection of carvings as his legacy but also a son who would become as dedicated to the art as he had been. Serge Savoie promised his father on his deathbed that he would carry on his work.

In spring 1987 he quit his job as a machinist to devote himself to carving. “I felt I had to,” he said. “I was carrying pieces of my carvings to work in my pocket…I couldn’t leave them for eight hours at a time.”

In May of the same year, his decision was rewarded when one of his duck carvings was selected to become a gift from the Canadian government to visiting French President François Mitterrand.

“It was James Callaghan who gave me my first colour wheel, who taught me to blend colours to get the effect just right,” Serge said. “Whenever I was in doubt, I’d go to him, sometimes with as little as two feathers, and say, ‘James, what about these?’”

Each of Serge’s ducks takes between 250 and 400 hours to complete. “These days I carve to fill orders,” he says. “But,” he continues softly. “Even if there were no orders, I’d still carve.”

It’s in his blood. Following in his father’s footsteps on two counts, he also operates a barbershop, on the Robichaud Settlement Road near Neguac, NB.

Although the efforts of the decoy makers from Atlantic Canada don’t bring in top dollar for Guyette and Schmidt, an American carver named Elmer Crowell’s “feeding plover” brought a price of $830,000, while his “preening pintail” commanded $801,500. Guyette is quick to point out a Maritime connection to this Cape Cod artist’s work.

“Historically there was a similarity between the styles of carvings produced in the Lunenburg to Yarmouth area and those of New England,” he says. “United Empire Loyalists carried their decoy carving techniques to southwestern Nova Scotia. Later, American sportsmen would bring decoys with them when they went to hunt in such areas as Tabusintac. Many waterfowl lures reflect this influence.”

Guyette says he used to get a lot of his decoys from Quebec pickers who travelled the Maritimes buying up decoys without regard to age or condition. “We would simply go to their warehouses and sort through them.”

Some of the Maritime decoys purchased have found their way back to Canada by a circuitous route. In 1982 the Museum of Man, in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec), purchased a truckload of 200 to 300 Canadian decoys from the company, among them examples from Atlantic Canada. Like their living counterparts, the waterfowl replicas have managed to migrate north. The old cliché about birds coming home to roost seems to have been validated.

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