September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
“Ordered from Joe 6 winter yellow legs (greater). New shape and bigger. Paid him $2.” So reads the diary of one Herbert F. Hatch for Friday, July 15, 1898. “Joe” was his friend, mentor, and hunting companion Joe Lincoln, whose greater yellowlegs decoy is pictured on the opposite page.
Joseph Whiting Lincoln (1859–1938) lived in the Accord section of Hingham, Massachusetts, on Boston’s South Shore. The son of a cooper, Lincoln was a shoe-factory worker until machinery phased out his job. He then took up a variety of part-time occupations, including clock repair, upholstery, horticulture, and, beginning in the 187Os, bird carving. Working at a chopping post in a corner of the tiny shop that had been his father’s cooperage, Joe Lincoln produced some of the finest decoys ever made.
“Decoy” derives from the Dutch article de and kooi , a cage or trap, and, by extension, a cove where netting devices were set up to entrap waterfowl—“decoy ducks” being domesticated birds used to lure their wild brethren into the nets. The noun decoy now specifies an artificial bird used to entice wildfowl to within shooting range.
The native peoples of America were using various types of decoys on their hunting grounds hundreds of years before the coming of the first Europeans. Learning from the Indians, but improving on their somewhat fragile stuffed bird-skin and woven-rush models, the colonists began carving bird decoys in wood, which could endure many years of rough and watery use.
A decoy maker must be something of a naturalist, draftsman, carpenter, sculptor, painter, and even naval architect, for an old chantey has it that a good decoy “must lie in a sea and ride / Like a hove-to Gloucester schooner.” Joe Lincoln’s birds are of exceptional quality, but his methods and materials were typical. The bodies of his ducks and geese are generally of white cedar; the heads, carved separately and doweled to the bodies, are pine. His shore birds, such as this yellowlegs, are cedar, with bills of hard maple. After sawing a block from a log, he would chop out the bird’s rough form with a hatchet, refine the shape with drawknife, or spokeshave, carve details with a jackknife, and finally smooth the flowing contours with rasp and sandpaper. In virtually all his duck and goose decoys the heart of the log is centered on the breast and runs through the bird to just below the tail. Thus in the finished decoy the symmetrical pattern of the wood’s slightly raised grain is visible under the paint, suggesting the bird’s layered feathers. Joe Lincoln succeeded, as few others have, in capturing the essence of a wild bird in a piece of painted wood. This yellowlegs, with its graceful curves, undercut wings, incised and tapered beak, glass eyes, and fine coloration, represents him at his best.
The production of decoys, both hand- and machine-made, burgeoned in the mid-nineteenth century during the heyday of the market gunners—professional hunters who supplied wildfowl meat for the country’s growing population and feathers for the millinery trade. With no seasonal restrictions or bag limits, thousands of market gunners and amateur sportsmen hunted the waters of America’s great migratory flyways, each gunner equipped with a rig of decoys often consisting of hundreds of wooden “floaters” and “stick-ups.” Floater decoys represent swimming birds, such as ducks, and are ballasted to ride upright on the water, moored to a small anchor with a length of twine. Stick-up decoys generally represent small, wading shore birds and are mounted on leglike sticks that are thrust into the ground, either on dry land or in shallow water. Decoys and shotguns combined with such deadly efficiency that it was not unusual for a single hunter to record daily kills numbering in the hundreds. Sandpiper kills were usually too numerous to count by the bird and were reported instead by the bushel. At least three species—the Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, and Eskimo curlew—were hunted to extinction before state and federal laws were enacted to protect game birds.
The utilitarian craft of the decoy maker was first accorded recognition as an art in the landmark exhibit “American Folk Sculpture” at the Newark Museum in 1931. The art critic of The New York Times declared the decoys of one anonymous carver to be “worthy of Brancusi.” One tries to imagine Joe Lincoln’s reaction to that comment or to hearing his hardworking decoys described as “primitive polychrome wooden sculpture”—or to seeing one auctioned in 1986 for $205,000. He’d probably stroke his walrus mustache, shake his head, and start chopping out another three-for-a-dollar bird.