Bob Jobes’s workshop is messy. Old posters pinned to the low ceiling curl down at the edges. There’s hardly a bare surface anywhere. The air smells of wood dust, paint, tradition.
Jobes carves wooden duck decoys, a craft so revered in Havre de Grace, Md., that the bayside city proclaims itself the decoy capital of the world. The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum serves as a bricks-and-mortar testament to that pride.
In his modest shed tucked behind some houses on the north end of town, Jobes tries to balance the pressing matter of earning a living with a dedication to doing his work the same way it has been done by those who came before him, including his father.
“There’s a lot of handwork that goes in here that you don’t even know,” he said as his hands instinctively ran over the miniature ducks he was sanding. “We can’t compete with what’s made overseas.”
Thankfully for Jobes, the people who seek out his products aren’t looking for cheap, mass-produced items. While originally intended for the practical purpose of luring the area’s abundant waterfowl into hunters’ sights, decoys are now mostly prized by collectors who wouldn’t dare set them afloat.
“There are a few hunters that are traditionalists” who still use wooden decoys, said Jeannie Vincenti from behind the desk of the Havre de Grace storefront she maintains with her husband, Pat, another leading local carver.
But even those hunters wouldn’t think of using most of the merchandise displayed at Vincenti Decoys, which ranges in price from less than $100 per duck to $4,500 for a pair. Age and condition, in addition to the carver, are the primary factors driving price.
Such hefty appraisals amuse Jane Currier, who keeps some of her late Uncle James’s carvings in her Currier House Bed and Breakfast. He’d carve his decoys out of old telephone poles dropped off behind his house. Now they can fetch four figures. “All I can think of is he’s up there laughing his head off, because he used to sell them for $3 a pair,” she said.
Less likely to garner top dollar would be a former working decoy. Frequently used ducks would be repainted every year or so, with some eventually going under the brush 50 or more times, according to the Decoy Museum.
Even that kind of effort was probably preferable to the practice of early Dutch settlers, who used live, tame ducks to attract their wild brethren. Next came a rough version of the decoy, shaped out of reeds. Demand for the wooden variety took off after the Civil War, spurring a Havre de Grace tradition that flourished well into the 20th century.
Today, you won’t have a hard time finding evidence of the city’s love affair with decoys. They sit in people’s windows — a long-necked swan here, a mallard there. Restaurants like to decorate with them, too, Jobes said. Problem is, there just aren’t as many people making them anymore.
“It’s a dying art, but you’re hoping that young people come along,” Vincenti said.
The museum is a steadfast advocate of that art.
A relatively recent addition to the 25-year-old museum, the “What Is a Decoy” exhibit not only explains the history behind the imitation birds but also the precise work that goes into making them. A series of carvings shows the evolution of a block of wood into a painted duck head. Several monitors play videos featuring local carvers demonstrating techniques such as chopping a decoy into shape or painting it to realistic effect.
The most engaging area of the museum is the gallery displaying hundreds of decoys made by area craftsmen. (As in other parts of the building, stained-glass windows portraying the favorite fowl ring the room.) In addition to spotlighting their decoys, the exhibit profiles the men who have become household names in Havre de Grace and the wider decoy-collecting community. It’s easy to lose yourself among the glass cases filled with their mallards, swans, canvasbacks and any number of other species. The decoys are definitely an endearing bunch, vacant eyes notwithstanding.
The gallery looks out on the water where the Susquehanna River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Despite the less than ideal weather, I walked along the city’s Promenade, a.k.a. boardwalk. A gaggle of geese paddled in front of me, and farther down the shore, a group of mallards rode the waves crashing into a small cove.
I wondered whether any of them would be able to tell the difference between a decoy and one of their own. I know I wouldn’t.
Havre de Grace is about 75 miles from Washington. Take Interstate 95 north to Exit 89 to MD-155 east, which becomes Superior Street. Turn right onto Locust Road and left onto Erie Street, which becomes Water Street and then North Union Avenue. Follow North Union Avenue downtown.
*Use our interactive map to help plan your trip.
800 S. Market St.
Admire the decoys carved by the owner’s uncle. Rooms from $95.
103 N. Washington St.
Grab New York-style pizza to go, and eat by the water. Slices from $2.25.
142 N. Washington St.
Sample dozens of wines by the glass. Salads, small plates and flatbreads from $8.
215 Giles St.
Monday-Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m. $6, seniors $5, ages 9 to 18 $2. From May 6-8, the museum will be one of the sites hosting the 30th Annual Decoy & Wildlife Art Festival (adults $8 for the entire weekend, children 12 and under free).
721 Ostego St.
Watch Bob Jobes in action, and browse his selection of wooden ducks.
353 Pennington Ave.
Buy already made decoys or supplies to craft your own.