Joel Barber: The Lost Birds

Canvasback decoy drawing by Joel Barber Robert Shaw Swan drawing by Joel Baber

The Joel Barber Collection

In September 1944, thirty-four decoys from Joel Barber's legendary collection were picked up by a moving company (Garrigan Moving and Storage, 230 E. 63rd Street, New York City) from a folk art gallery at 771 Fifth Avenue, where they had been on exhibition since 1941. Tragically, however, the decoys were never delivered to Barber's home. Although an extensive search was mounted for them, the birds did not surface during Barber's lifetime and their fate remains a complete mystery to this day.

Among the lost birds were some unique and irreplaceable treasures. Luckily, a number of the birds were pictured in Wild Fowl Decoys, so that we have some visual record for posterity. Others were simply recorded in tantalizingly brief notes on the contents of the collection compiled after Joel's death by his son David. The notes leave wide open spaces to the imagination. What did the "swan with raised wings, Currituck Sound, North Carolina" look like? Or the "sickle-billed curlew, Nantucket Island, MA?" Unfortunately, we'll probably never know, but it's great fun to speculate.

A list of the lost birds pictured in Wild Fowl Decoys, either in photos or in Barber's watercolors and drawings, follows with my comments. David Barber's descriptions, drawn from his father's notes, are in bold. Note that Joel Barber was careful to use duck (hen) and drake in describing the decoys.

  • Pair of eiders, Captain Harris Young, Ironbound Island, Nova Scotia
    Plates 69 and 70 (photographs)
    Pages 103-110 and Plates 65-68 of Wild Fowl Decoys describe in great and careful detail the duck tub these simple, hard-working birds were used with and the "heroic" local method of hunting sea ducks. They were given to Barber by their maker, who also explained their usage and oversaw the drawings of the tub. The pair was made about 1920 and collected by Barber in 1930.

  • Loon, Southport, Maine Loon by Albert Orne
    Plate 71 (photograph)
    By Albert Orne, the keeper of the Hendricks Head Light on Sheepscot Bay. A unique Downeast decoy, fully described in Wild Fowl Decoys and one of the few great legitimate loon decoys ever made. If I could have only one of the lost birds back, this would be it. Barber related, "When it came into my hands it still carried in turns around its body, six or eight fathoms of tarred line with a stone anchor attached. The ballast consisted of a second stone, secured to the flat bottom by leather straps." Barber dearly loved this bird; he created several watercolors of it in use, which are now in the Shelburne Museum's collection. A similar but not identical Orne loon, passed down through his family, is known to exist.

  • White-winged scoter, Monhegan Island, Maine
    Plate 42 (diagram), Plate 75 (photograph)
    A classic early, front-preening scoter by Gus Wilson, a superb example of one of his greatest original forms.

  • Redhead with flapping wings, Lake Ontario
    Plate 8 (watercolor)
    By Captain Charlie DoVille, c. 1880. A working decoy, early and one of a kind, the only handmade floating lure with flapping wings I have ever seen or heard of. A tragic loss.

  • Blue-winged teal (stickup), Jamaica Bay, Long Island
    Plate 33 (photograph)
    By Captain John Whittaker of Amityville, c. 1860. Another early and possibly unique bird, with raised wing carving and a split tail, in some ways like an oversized shorebird.

  • Primitive snipe (one of pair), Jamaica Bay, LI
    Plate 52, left (photograph)
    A wonderful, early " " shorebird, also by John Whittaker, c. 1850. The decoy at right in the photo is at Shelburne. A Shelburne-owned watercolor of the two shorebirds by Barber carries the legend, "Old snipe- souvenirs of early shorebird shooting- heads of locust sapling tenoned into white cedar bodies- branch forms bill."

  • Yellowleg snipe, (Kellum), Babylon, LI
    plate 53, bottom (photograph)
    A rigmate by Frank Kellum, its bill replaced with an old square nail and also from Barber's collection, is at Shelburne. Kellum is best known for his extraordinary stickup gull decoys, the two best of which were collected by Barber. One, with its head and bill pointing up at a pronounced angle, is at Shelburne; the second, pictured in Wild Fowl Decoys, was traded to George Ross Starr by Shelburne founder Electra Webb in exchange for an Elmer Crowell redhead drake and was later part of the collection of Dr. James M. McCleery.

  • Black-bellied plover, LI
    Plate 56 (watercolor)
    Identified in Wild Fowl Decoys as from Lawrence, on the island's south shore.

  • Swimming sheldrake, Great South Bay, LI
    Plate 90 (watercolor)
    Probably made about 1880, with the head fashioned from a single suggestively shaped piece of wood, a flowing meeting of trunk and branch. Barber's legend at the bottom of the watercolor, which was cropped out for the book, reads, "A decoy from the battery setting of Mr.. Duncan Arnold, Babylon, LI. The body is of yellow willow, the head of an apple-wood knot. It is shown completely rigged for Battery use with anchor fastening and dangling weight. Presented to the author by Mr. Arnold in 1922."

  • Canvasback wing duck, Elkton, MD
    Plate 12 (photograph)
    Found on the Blair family farm in Elkton , MD and given to Barber by Walter Blair. Made for use with a battery rig on the Susquehanna Flats.

  • German decoy mallard
    Plate 24 (photograph)
    Barber's collecting extended to a number of European examples, several of which are pictured in Wild Fowl Decoys and are in the collection at Shelburne. This lost mallard is the wildest looking of them all.

  • Centennial broadbill, Benjamin Holmes, Stratford, CT
    Plate 80 (watercolor)
    Three other Holmes scaup from Barber's collection are at Shelburne, including a bird with a considerably thinner and more fluid body form. The lost bird was originally owned by Captain Charles Delancey "Cappie" Wicks Sr. of Stratford and given to Barber by his son "Young Cappie." Centennial Bluebill by Benjamin HolmesAccording to Connecticut decoy historian Henry Chitwood, Cappie Wicks Sr., who worked as a market gunner and guide for many years, "used more important decoys by Laing, Holmes and other gifted makers than any other area resident." In Wild Fowl Decoys Barber passed on Young Cappie Wick's story that the bird was "one of a group awarded a Gold Medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876." Barber dubbed his decoy the "Centennial Broadbill," a name that has stuck to this style of Holmes bluebill ever since. No records of the Exposition have been found to prove or disprove the claim. Later writers have assumed, without justification from Barber's account as I read it, that Holmes made all of the prize winners and have embellished on the story. Bill Mackey is clearly most at fault. He pictures a turned-head Laing in American Bird Decoys, with the caption, "Greater Scaup by Ben Holmes. Several turned-head decoys were among the dozen he exhibited at the Centennial Exposition ... This decoy ... is one of them." Mackey slipped at least twice on the photo caption, as Holmes is not known to have ever made turned-head birds. Mackey further damns himself in the text after telling the story of "the dozen" by saying, "One senior collector has personally handled and placed his stamp of approval on at least thirty-six of the original dozen. One wishes the real exhibition models could rise and flap their wings." Indeed. I think it is safe to say only that Holmes is said to have made this single prize winner and that it is lost.

  • Sleeping black duck, Stratford, CT
    Plate 51 (photograph)
    Looks like an early (turn-of-the-century) Wheeler to me, made when he was still very much under the influence of Laing's work. A rigmate, also from Barber's collection and a gift from Wheeler, is at Shelburne.

  • Sleeping broadbill, Stratford, CT
    late 47 (photograph)
    By Albert Laing, a rigmate to the Mackey "Holmes" turned-head described above. Another rigmate, also from Barber's collection, is at Shelburne. Like most of Barber's many Laings, this one probably came by way of Shang Wheeler, who used and repainted the birds.

  • Bufflehead, Weedsport, NY, the Montezuma Marshes
    Plate 57, bottom right (photograph)
    Yes, a nice little Stevens that appears to be in fine original condition. A rare species from the Stevens brothers; the number of known examples can easily be counted on one hand.

  • Snipe, Nantucket Island, MA
    Plate 54 upper right (photograph)
    An odd primitive shorebird, similar to the early "rocker" style Nantucket birds but with unusual two-piece construction and a small knob-shaped head. One of a kind to my knowledge.

  • Redhead drake, Barnegat Bay, Tuckerton, NJ
    Plate 98, right (photograph)
    A rare species by Harry V. Shourds that appears to be in original paint. Found "adrift on the bay" according to Barber, who did not know who had made it.

  • Old Pintail, Elkton, MD
    Plate 108 (photograph)
    Found by Barber in the loft of the workshop at the Blair family farm in Elkton,
    " a legacy from an old man named Maxwell, a so-called 'tenant gunner' who for many years occupied a shanty on the shore below the house." An important missing link to the so-called "Blair school" of early Delaware River decoys.

  • Canada goose, Barnegat Bay, NJ
    Color plate D (watercolor)
    By Jessie Birdsall, given to Barber by the maker. Barber commented, "Like all collectors, I take great pleasure in acquiring specimens. I carried that Goose back to New York, wrapped in a second-hand sheet of brown paper, too small to cover or disguise the Goose. Fellow travelers were amused but any possible embarrassment was overcome by the pleasure of possession." This was one of Barber's favorite birds and is depicted in several drawings and watercolors in the Shelburne collection.

  • Canvasback drake, Chesapeake Bay, MD
    Color plate A or Plate 40 (watercolors)
    A so-called "Cleveland" canvasback, believed to have been made about 1880 by John B. Graham of Charlestown, Maryland and gunned over on the Susquehanna Flats by President Grover Cleveland. Barber owned a pair from the rig; happily, the other is in the Shelburne collection.

The rest of the lost birds:

  • Swan with raised wings, Currituck Sound, North Carolina
    I can see the eyebrows of Carolina collectors rising as they read this. Another possibly unique bird.

  • Sickle-billed curlew, Nantucket Island, MA

  • Sheldrake duck, Stony Brook, LI

  • Black-bellied plover, LI

  • Black duck, Stratford, CT
    Laing? Holmes? Wheeler? Disbrow? Great examples from Barber's collection by all of them are at Shelburne. Another Stratford black duck originally in Barber's collection, a thin-bodied turned-head by Laing, was given to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by Mrs. Webb.

  • Whistler drake, Connecticut Shore, Housatonic River
    Barber's collection, which is rich in great Stratford decoys because of his long association with Shang Wheeler, includes several whistlers by Laing and Holmes. I suspect that this one, however, may have been from Milford.

  • Golden plover, Nantucket Island, MA

  • Golden plover, Nantucket Island, MA
    Two different birds.

  • Black-bellied plover, Cape Cod, MA
    Crowell? Strangely, although Barber was good friends with Joe Lincoln and collected many fine examples of his work, he does not seem to have connected with Crowell, who was at least equally well known and working at the same time not far away on the Cape. Barber's collection contained no first-rate examples of Crowell's work, an almost incomprehensible omission.

  • Whistler drake, Lake Champlain
    Possibly by George Bacon, the region's only important carver, who specialized in goldeneyes.

  • Sleeping redhead, Pointe Mouillee, MI
    Probably by Nate Quillen. Barber acquired several Quillen birds, including an outstanding pintail drake now at Shelburne, from the Detroit carver Lee Smits.

  • Canvasback duck, St. Clair Flats, MI
    Warin? Chambers? J. R.W.? Barber's collection includes a number of outstanding Toronto area decoys, including the finest known Warin pintail, geese by Chambers and Warin, several redheads and black ducks by Chambers, and a J.R.W. teal.

  • Canvasback duck, Lake Erie, Sandusky, OH
    A rare bird from a little represented area. Although Lake Erie supported a number of early gunning clubs, relatively little is known about the decoys used in the area. Because of the lack of information and superficial similarities in style, many early Ohio decoys have been misidentified as Blair school birds from the Delaware River.

  • Old mallard drake, Kankake Marshes, Northern Indiana
    Another rarity from an area where few early decoys are known. An extraordinary group of high headed pintails from the Marshes recently surfaced.

David Barber wrote of the lost birds, "It was [my father's] wish and hope that some day they would be found and would resume their place in his collection." Although the chances are slim that any of the birds will ever be found, we can all hold out that wish and hope as a means of keeping faith with Joel Barber, the man who invented us all. So collectors, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might find tomorrow. And what a find the lost birds would be. P.S. Give me a call.


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