Massachusetts

Cape Cod’s Elmer Crowell, the First and Best Decoy Maker

In 1900, an Elmer Crowell decoy sold for $2. In 2007, an Elmer Crowell decoy sold for $1.13 million. And so did a second one.

What started out as a side hustle for the Cape Cod carver turned into a full-time job and worldwide fame. From a converted chicken coop that smelled like cedar wood shavings and oil paint, he made decoys now displayed in museums throughout North America and Europe. Collectors consider Elmer Crowell the father of decorative wood carving. Many consider him the best.

Elmer Crowell

“There was really no one in the world doing what he was doing,” Ted Harmon told Cape Cod Life in 2016. Others followed, and during a golden age of decoy carving Massachusetts produced some of the best and most prolific decoy carvers in the world.

“He was decades ahead of everyone else,” said Harmon, a collector and owner of the Decoys Unlimited auction house in Barnstable, Mass.

Elmer Crowell

He was born during the Civil War, on Dec. 5, 1862, in East Harwich, Mass., to a family of mariners and cranberry farmers. His father bought him a shotgun at age 12.  He set up a duck blind on family property by 716-acre Long Pond.  Then he immersed himself in hunting.

Cover illustration from Puck magazine.

He used both live and wooden decoys to attract birds from the great flocks that migrated along the Atlantic flyway and paused on Cape Cod’s waters. At 14, he began carving his own wooden decoys.

He found he could do what he loved and augment his wages from cranberry farming. Restaurants then had a strong appetite for wild fowl. In 1889, for example, one Chicago menu  offered, blue-wing teal, pheasant, wild goose, quail, prairie chicken, sage hen, blackbirds, plover, partridge, two kinds of snipe, three kinds of grouse and four kinds of duck. A popular menu item was the reed bird, one of four to six small birds plucked and served on a skewer.

Elmer Crowell and the Three Bears

But hunting also became popular among well-heeled sportsmen along the Eastern Seaboard. The once-excellent railroad system out of Boston made it easy to reach coastal marshes, ponds and beaches. The railroads also carried gamebirds to the urban restaurants and markets.

Cape Cod attracted men like Daniel Webster and Grover Cleveland, who often hunted and fished there. Three affluent gentlemen who called themselves the Three Bears hunted together on Long Pond played a big role in the life of Elmer Crowell. They were G. Herbert Windeler, U.S. Golf Association president; Loring Underwood, landscape architect and gentleman photographer; and Charles Ashley Hardy, a stockbroker who built a hunting lodge called the Chatham Bars Inn, now a Historic America Hotel.

The Three Bears realized Elmer Crowell was outgunning them on Long Pond. They recognized his skill at handling live decoys, and they hired him to run their hunting camp. They then came to realize his extraordinary carving and painting skills, according to Kate Beckerman in Antiques and the Arts Weekly.

Hardy in particular fell in love with Elmer Crowell’s decoys, and he asked him to carve decorative birds: a Hudsonian curlew, a common snipe and a pair of bobwhite quail. Later, Hardy would help set up Crowell’s studio in an old chicken coop.

Elmer Crowell outside his shop.

Crowell sold his cheapest, utilitarian model for 25 cents. He also offered a “challenge,” or middle-level grade, for $1. His top-grade decoys sold for $2 – or maybe a bucket of quahogs. Some he gave as gifts.

Along the way Crowell married a Harwich neighbor, Laura Linwood Doane. They had one son, Cleon, who later took up carving with his father.

Phillips

Another wealthy hunting client, Dr. John C. Phillips, had a profound impact on Elmer Crowell’s life. Phillips, grandnephew of abolitionist Wendell Phillips, wrote more than 200 books and articles about ornithology, zoology and wildlife conservation.

In 1900, Phillips persuaded Crowell to leave Cape Cod and manage his hunting camp (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted) on Wenham Lake on Boston’s North Shore. Crowell then ran Phillips’ gunning stand on Oldham Pond in Pembroke, Mass. In his spare time, he carved and painted decoys, which Phillips and his rich hunting friends prized. Though Crowell only worked for Phillips for 10 years, the doctor bought decoys from him until his death in 1938.

An Elmer Crowell canvasback duck (miniature), from the Centerville Historical Society collection.

Another important Brahmin customer was Harry Vinton Long, Nathaniel Bowditch’s son-in-law. A stockbroker and director of the Museum of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Long owned a home in Cohasset, Mass., that offered spectacular birdwatching and hunting.

Long, an avid birdwatcher who collected Americana, naturally prized Elmer Crowell’s decoys. He bought some of Crowell’s finest work, and he spread the word among his rich friends about the man he considered a national treasure.

One duck hunter kept his Elmer Crowell yellowlegs in a velvet bag when he didn’t deploy it on the marsh.

Migratory Bird Act

But Elmer Crowell saw the writing on the wall – or, rather, in the state and federal governments. They had started to crack down on the market gunners who supplied restaurants with wildfowl. The market gunners took down hundreds of birds at a time, thousands in a day. By the end of the 19th century, gunners had driven to extinction Labrador ducks, great auks, passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets and heath hens.

Labrador ducks, now extinct

Conservationists pressured lawmakers to ban hunting migratory birds, and lawmakers responded. In 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which made it a crime to hunt, kill or sell a migratory bird or its parts. They also banned the use of live decoys to attract birds.

“The shooting was great,” Crowell later recalled. “But we could not sell them in the markets, as the law cut it out. Soon the law cut out the live decoys, and that was the end of good shooting there.”

The Songless Aviary

In 1912, 50-year-old Elmer Crowell set up shop in East Harwich and began carving decoys full time, six days a week. Hardy helped him acquire more tools and convert an old chicken coop into a workshop.

He called it his songless aviary.

Crowell became consumed with capturing the exact likeness of a species, and he made dozens of different kinds of ducks, geese, shorebirds, songbirds and miniatures. He made plovers, sandpipers, curlews, yellowlegs, warblers, woodpeckers, robins, bluebirds, blackbirds and catbirds.

Ironically, he advertised his wares with a decoy on a post in front of his driveway. It was a hooded merganser. one of the few birds he didn’t get quite right, according to John S. Dumont, the son of a client who studied woodcarving with him.

His great-granddaughter’s best friend, Juell Buckwold, recalled her frequent visits to the old man with the chubby face and the bright blue eyes.

Elmer Crowell with a miniature

She remembered a cheery gentleman in too-short black pants with wood shavings at his feet. Crowell sat and whittled as men hung around his workshop and talked about decays. He was always willing to share what he was doing, his love for bird and how he carved, she said. He would hand children a knife and let them try it for themselves.

His son, Cleon, carved along with him. Together, father and son also did carpentry, remodeling houses and making weathervanes.

Miniature knot from the Centerville Historical Society collection.

Crowell carved miniatures, as well. He sold songbirds and shorebirds in sets of 25 or individually. In 1930, he sold such a set for $100. In 2020, a set with his business card and a list of the birds on his stationery sold for $108,000.

Decoy Collecting Becomes a Thing

Elmer Crowell’s fame grew among wealthy decoy collectors. He sold his decoys to Henry Ford, Pierre S. du Pont, James Storrow, Massachusetts Gov. Leverett Saltonstall, the royals in England and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.

Rheumatism forced Elmer Crowell to retire in 1943, and Cleon took over. Elmer died on Jan. 1, 1952 at the age of 89. He had carved an estimated 15,000 decoys in his lifetime, 9,000 of which are believed to survive in museums and private collections.

“There is no question that he carved some of the finest shorebird decoys known,” writes By John M. Levinson, Somers G. Headley in Shorebirds: The Birds, the Hunters, the Decoys.

By the 1950s, decoy collecting had spread beyond wealthy sportsmen and Cape Cod tourists. An Iowan named Harold Sorenson began publishing a magazine called The Decoy Collector’s Guide. Then in 1967, Richard Bourne of Hyannis held the first ever auction of wildfowl decoys. The auctions proved popular, setting benchmark prices, and soon expanded to three a year.

Elmer Crowell, Record Setter

Crowell decoys routinely fetch six-figure prices, and his were the first to reach seven figures. His decoys set a record in 2007, just before the financial crash, with a pintail drake and Canada goose that sold for $1.13 million.

In 2022, a pair of working canvasback duck decoys, made around 1920, brought $102,000 at a Copley Fine Art’s auction.

After his death in 1952, the barn started to decay. Several Cape Codders established the A.E. Crowell American Bird Decoy Foundation. One member took apart the barn in 2008, marked all the boards and stored it in a storage container in Sandwich. The Foundation raised money and found a new home for the songless aviary, now under the auspices of the Harwich Historical Society

The songless aviary is now located at 80 Parallel Street, Harwich, Mass. With thanks to the Harwich Historical Society

 

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