“The Ohio Show is one of the toughest to win in,” says Bob Nelson, a Lorain native who now resides in New London. “And I have done all the big shows, North Carolina, Maryland Louisiana, California Michigan.”
Most impressive were his first and second place finishes in the World Championships at Ocean City Maryland. “Ohio has a lot of the world’s best carvers, add to that the Canadians and carvers from the Carolinas and competition here is very tough,” he continues.
Decoy making is a particularly American folk art. We did not inherit it from our European ancestors, who traditionally used tethered live decoys. The North American Indians were using waterfowl decoys a thousand years ago. Scientists discovered a number of well-preserved examples of these in a Nevada cave. Some were made of reeds covered with duck skins others were nicely and recognizably shaped into canvasback decoys with feathers for an added touch.
The golden time of demand for decoys and decoy carving stretched from the end of the Civil War to the end of the market hunting era in 1918. With emergence of more efficient rail transportation in the 1870’s iced game-- not only waterfowl-- could be shipped from Ohio or Maine to restaurants in New York and across the country.
Often more than a hundred decoys can be seen in old photos of the now illegal sink box rigs. (The very deadly sink box-basically a floating hole in the water in which the hunters hid, used lots of decoys to camouflage its wide wooden skirts which kept water from washing in and drowning the hunter.)
Before it was outlawed in 1918 the market hunters hunted both the Fall migration and The Spring migration.
Winter was traditionally the time for carving and repairing decoys.
Decoys from this era from late 1860’s to 1918 era are now avidly sought and expensive collectors’ items. A Red Breasted Merganser Hen by prominent carver Loth Holmes of Massachusetts brought $856,000 in 2007 at a Christie’s auction.
And with the great demand for decoys came factories-the most prominent was the Mason Decoy Factory in Detroit (1896-1924). A $1 Mason Wood Duck Drake brought $354, 500 in 2000, a record for factory decoys. He is pretty though.
For comparison Bob Nelson reports that one of today’s world champion Decoys can expect to bring the carver $1000-$1500 at the auction following the judging at Ocean City, Md.
Bob estimates that each of his completion decoys takes about 160 hours-half devoted to carving and half to painting. He paints from specimen’s he keeps in his freezer from hunting.
He has hunted waterfowl since he was a teenager and that is how he started making decoys. At first, it was for his hunting and then about 20 years ago, a friend, Bob Franta, got him into entering his decoys in competitions. As for his first try at the Ohio Decoy Show-then held in Westlake: “The judges threw it out,” he laughs. “I had cut some groves into it that were not allowed in that division- I didn’t know any better.”
This was discouraging and he did not enter another contest for some time. The next try was better, a Bufflehead that took third in the world championships. With some downs and ups, he was on his way.
Also, competing and winning at Strongsville with a very nice goose decoy was Greg Pruchnicki of Lorain, Bob’s hunting buddy on the breakwall in Lorain.