The Ward Brothers: Waterfowl Counterfeiters

As good wood became scarcer, Steve started carving miniatures. Lem, who’d always done some “flat work” or painting, began experimenting with decorative bird carving. They were “putting feet” on their decoys, so to speak. By 1957, they stopped making working decoys altogether. Good timing, for shooting canvasbacks was outlawed in 1959.

Little did Lem and Steve realize they were in venting a prestigious new art form, which would earn them unsought fame and acclaim, including honorary college degrees, a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an entire museum named after them in Salisbury, Maryland. As kids, the Wards were poor but passionate duck hunters who shucked oysters for 10 cents a quart to buy powder and shot. An old lighthouse keeper gave them a rusty single-barrel musket that would “kick the soda out of a biscuit and never break the crust.” Like all Crisfielders, Steve used a punt gun on occasion, and rarely respected bag limits. When folks “wanted to go huntin’ and get somethin’ to eat, they’d just go out and do it.

’Cause down there, shootin’ birds was a tried-and-true way of fillin’ your stomach,” said Lem, who pretty much put down his own guns in favor of beholding the birds in his quest for ever-new, but true-tolife, attitudes and poses.

It is estimated that the Wards produced 20,000 birds over their long careers, employing every wood that floats, from telephone poles to the tons of balsa they recovered from WWII navy life rafts

Steve was a quiet man, a loner who read good books and the Bible. More mature than Lem, who skipped or ran rather than walked, Steve was the brains of the business—frugal, thinking ahead, handling the orders and waiting lists. Decades before his death, he stashed away decoys to pay for his funeral and leave an inheritance for Ida. Lem had an artist’s high-strung temperament. Critical and outspoken, he hated to be pressured, and would explode in anger or even cancel an order if a customer was too insistent.

Steve sometimes thought Lem crazy to devote so much time to a single bird. And Lem wasn’t crazy about Steve’s lovely miniatures, but he painted every bird his brother turned out. Lem’s favorite species was the pintail, and Steve’s the widgeon. Baby brother was the talker, while Steve, friendly but reserved, stayed in the background, carving whenever sportsmen and collectors came around with their never-refused requests to authenticate dozens of old stools, which made some wealthier than the Wards ever were. In 2011, an early Ward brothers canvasback sold for $63,250.

As the painter, it was Lem who made the Wards famous, also perhaps because he lived longer, and because of Ida’s lovely-to-read biography, The Story of Lem Ward. She recalls how her mother spoiled him, how when money proved short, Ida went to work in a shirt factory in Pocomoke for $13 a week, leaving home before dawn and cooking dinner after her 30-mile commute home.

The brothers were both hypochondriacs who fretted about their health. But Steve’s progressive blindness drove him to remove all his tools from the workshop in 1972; cancer took him in only five weeks, just short of his 81st birthday. Lem had a stroke at 76, then suffered illnesses and amputations that put him in bed for 14 months. Still, at 84, when he could no longer carve, he took to penciling wildfowl and shorebirds, and died just short of his 88th birthday.

It is estimated that the Wards produced 20,000 birds over their long careers, employing every wood that floats, from telephone poles to the tons of balsa they recovered from WWII navy life rafts. They worked in cedar, cypress, pine, redwood, juniper, magnolia, tupelo, and preferably basswood for the decorative birds. For decades they used only a keyhole saw, before finally acquiring a few power tools: a band saw, belt sander, and a drill press with a twoinch bit for hollowing out the bodies in the misbelief that hollowing, plus varnishing, would prevent the birds from cracking.

Incredibly, each brother only dared to quit barbering—a profession neither ever liked—after 40-plus years, to work full-time on decorative birds. For, like their father, Travis, they were both Chesapeake Bay watermen and decoy makers at heart.

Brooke Chilvers loved her visits to the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, and the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum (“Don’t miss the great eats at the Vineyard Wine Bar!”) on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.