Lemuel Ward, the patriarch of American wildfowl carvers, died here last week and the accolades came quicker than Chesapeake Bay waves during a summer storm.
Ward, the seemingly eternal master of waterfowl decoy carving, was an artist, a country poet when it came to wood who could easily command thousands of dollars for one of his intricately knived, turned and painted bird fakes. "Wildfowl counterfeits," he liked to call them when visitors crowded into his Crisfield workshop.
Ward, 87, and his late brother, who painted, were believed to have created at least 25,000 decoys since the time of World War I.
Their skill at making replicas of all types of shore and woodland birds led a group of Salisbury, Md., businessmen to initiate the Ward Foundation and with it the North American Wildfowl Museum, housed at Salisbury State College. The museum, now in its seventh year, is thought to have the finest collection of carvings and waterfowl memorabilia in the United States. The majority of the carvings are Ward's.
In 1983, Lem Ward was further recognized as a unique American artist when he received the National Heritage Fellowship Award of the National Endowment for the Arts. Wildfowl carving -- more readily called decoy carving by Eastern Shore natives -- is believed to be one of only three definitive native American art forms. The others are whaler's scrimshaw, and jazz.
When Ward, along with his brother Steve, who died eight years ago, began carving in 1918 it was to serve the practical needs of waterfowl hunters. There were no collectors of what passed as decoys then -- bulky wooden blocks made crudely to look like the live ducks and geese. The only thing that mattered was the carver's ability to help a hunter supply food for the table. For the Wards, it was a part-time occupation. Back then, their Crisfield barbershop was the main source of income.
But it didn't take the brothers long to show an unusual talent with chunks of pine or easier-to-handle basswood. By 1930, no longer satisfied with turning out the standard $18-per-dozen stoic, straight-as-an-arrow waterfowl fakes, they added little touches that revolutionized the decoy carving business.
Their goose or duck heads would have a slight tilt, a sideway preening look or perhaps a downward, elongated neck and head that appeared to be feeding.
The race was on. From plain working decoys that were used by hunters, the decorative decoy was born. Exactly who carved the first decorative decoy is not known. But Lem Ward, also a master painter who was able to reproduce minute feather and color details, was in the thick of it.
Waterfowl carving competitions soon became popular and Ward won his share.
Spurred by the invention of cheap, mass-produced plastic decoys after World War II, the collecting of original hand-carved models was a natural turn of events. What once belonged to watermen hardly able to waste hard-earned money on such frills now became the game of attic and storage-shed searchers or the wealthy who would offer large sums of money to own an original.
Decorative or actual working model, it didn't matter. As long as it was the real article -- by Ward, especially.
Ward said in interviews that singer Andy Williams had paid $7,100 for a pair of his American widgeons. As far back as 1971, William DuPont, of the Delaware DuPonts, had a standing order for as many collector decoys as Ward cared to carve.
They were not just for the wealthy, however, as Marylanders who knew him remembered last week.
"Lem didn't know me from Adam," Carl Brady, a Mitchellville, Md., collector, recalled. "I stopped by in Crisfield years ago and spent nearly a day chatting with the old gentleman. What I learned about decoys that day you can't get from books.
"On top of that he'd treat you to a bit of homespun poetry if you cared to hear it. And who wouldn't?"
"Back in the '60s," said Crisfield charter captain Doug Carson, "the undertaker here, Harvey Bradshaw, and I had a complete set of Lem's working decoys. Harvey and I shot over them. I'll never forget it.
"Almost froze to death one day waiting for the ducks to come into them. Imagine that. Wonder what some folks would give for those decoys now?"
As an afterthought, Carson said sadly, "I don't even know where they are now."
If Carson could remember the whereabouts of his decoys, chances are his bank account could swell considerably.
"Some years back I wanted to make a few field decoys for goose hunting," said Carson. "You'd think Lem would have been too busy to bother with me. But I was a local boy and we knew each other. He stopped what he was doing, drew me some silhouettes, gave me a couple of cans of starter paint, and I was on my way."
While new generations of carvers are moving up in the ranks, only one of the old masters of the wildfowl carving art remains: 86-year-old Madison Mitchell of Havre De Grace, Md.
"I'll tell you this, with the passing of Lem, a lot of Maryland heritage and talent went with him," Carson said.