The Ward Brothers: Waterfowl Counterfeiters

Neccessity was the mother of art along Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

[by Brooke Chilvers]

Photos of the two elderly Methodist country boys suggest they were twins, their wrinkled hangdog faces squinting through thick bifocals as they translate the beauty of waterfowl into carved and painted floating wood sculptures. But five-foot-six-inch-tall Steve Ward (1895–1976) and his much bigger baby brother, Lemuel “Lem” T. Ward (1896–1984), were gifted with different talents and embodied dissimilar temperaments. In addition, Lem, a natural lefty, was born with his left arm much shorter than his right, the deformed hand missing two fingers with a third misshapen.

What an unlikely beginning for the uneducated artisan who, alongside his brother, was responsible for unwittingly creating a new art form— decorative bird carving—out of the humble trade of making handmade hunting decoys. Together, they transformed the utilitarian gunning “stools” of the Chesapeake Bay marshes into folk-art masterpieces worthy of collectors’ mantels and museums.

However unalike, the two sons of Travis Ward— a towering waterman, decoy carver, and skipjack builder-turned-barber—shared the same workshop for 65 years. Neither boy finished elementary school nor learned to drive, both bicycling into Crisfield, Maryland, well into their 70s. Both were gifted barbershop quartet singers, writers and reciters of poetry, fishermen, and waterfowlers enamored of nature. And both put food on the table for too many decades by giving haircuts and shaves—Steve in his shop in the side yard next to the house, Lem freelancing around town. They churned out innovative decoys between spritzing customers with lilac water or bay rum.

Little did Lem and Steve realize they were in venting a prestigious new art form, which would earn them unsought fame and acclaim.

Except during Steve’s service in the U.S. Army Hospital Corps in France during World War I, and his never-discussed two-year marriage to a local girl (who dreamed of escaping the “down neck” fishing village, now a seafood distribution point, in Somerset County), he lived with Lem and his sharp-witted 270-pound wife, Thelma, and their only child, Ida, who would devote her life to caring for her father and uncle after Thelma died in 1966. Steve simply treated Ida, her children, and grandchildren like his own.

Crisfield, today billed as the “Seafood Capital of the World,” stands alongside the Little Annemessex River, with Tangier Sound to the west and Pocomoke Sound to the east. There Travis Ward’s carvings had already contributed to Crisfield’s distinct stool style. Flat-bottomed, slightly oversized, with exaggerated head shapes, wide hips, and narrow chests, his decoys were unusual for the Chesapeake. In Havre de Grace, for example, the very heart of sport and market gunning, shorter-necked, softly round-bottomed decoys were typical, all fairly standard in size and shape, with a straightforwardlooking position. Made mostly of white pine, with little carving or decorative detail, they were often painted with a single solid or splotched color; any feathers were scratched in with a nail.

Steve made his first decoy at age 12 out of a root stuck in the mud. Lem picked up tools much later, in 1918 while Steve was at war, carving and painting a humpbacked goldeneye made to sit high in the water. But from the beginning, Steve was the saw and hatchet man, chopping out four to five decoys a day with his shavingsharp blade; he shaped them in his lap with spokeshaves and drawknives. Lem was the painter. Never content, nearly tortured with striving for an always better bird (anxiety unleashed long bouts of painful psoriasis his entire life), Lem “seemed compelled to dress his hunting stools in tuxedos when the job called for overalls,” one author wrote. “We didn’t pattern after nobody,” Lem said.

By 1926, the Wards’ flat-bottomed hunting stools had their jaunty heads with upswept bills turned 30 degrees to the left or right. Steve knifed in a separation between the upper and lower bills. Lem lined up two ice picks to stab in the eyes, and the little hole where the bills come together. He showed off the duck’s full speculum in all its glory, even if this is not visible to the hunter.

In the early 1930s, when a haircut cost 15 cents, the Wards charged $1.25 for a shooting stool. Lem’s first sale was a dozen pintails for $18, paid out in single dollar bills. “That’s the most money I ever made. I thought it was a fortune.” Their total output up to then was some 500 decoys, about 100 a year, mostly canvasbacks, pintails, redheads, and geese, generating $2.50 a day each from their overtime work.

The Depression actually increased demand for decoys that resulted in dead ducks. Pothunters, market gunners, and exclusive duck-hunting clubs pounded the ever-dwindling wildfowl populations. Between illegal sinkboxes, punt and battery guns, night-lights, and tolling (using live ducks as decoys), half the local waterfowlers were criminals! Although the Wards disapproved of the big-city sportsmen shooting ducks baited with feed, the gunning clubs ordered large numbers of Ward decoys, and their old Wards required regular repainting.

By the 1940s, the brothers were earning some money, and in 1948 won Best in Show, with a sleeping mallard, in the 11th New York Decoy Show. But around 1950, hunters were turning to mass-produced—even plastic—decoys, and the brothers had trouble selling their handmade decoys at $20 apiece.