Carved Duck Decoy by Frank Buchner

Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

In the opening paragraph of an article entitled “Duck-Shooting on Lake Erie,” a writer for the Illustrated London News of January 5, 1889, observed, “In no part of the world is there better duck-shooting than on Lake Erie.” Duck hunters familiar with northwestern Pennsylvania had known that for some time.

Migratory waterfowl have traditionally followed seasonal flight paths, or flyways. Erie’s Presque Isle Bay, on the extreme western tributary of the Atlantic flyway, is a stopover for at least two dozen varieties of ducks. Long after the carving of duck decoys became a commercial enterprise on the Atlantic Coast, hunters on Erie’s bay front were carving redheads, pintails, mallards, canvas­backs, and buffleheads.

Invented by Native Americans thousands of years ago, decoys are peculiarly American and are generally unknown in the rest of the world. As in so many aspects of their survival in the New World, early European settlers quickly learned to imitate the Native Americans whom they were rapidly displacing.

As duck hunting became a commercial endeavor during the nineteenth century, the hunters most talented at making decoys began carving for other hunters, especially during the winter off­season. At prime flyway sites on the Atlantic Coast where the yearly harvest of ducks was counted in the millions, specialists were able to make substantial incomes from carving. By 1900, however, market hunting had so depleted the flocks of ducks, geese, and shorebirds that a public out­cry was raised. Consequently, in 1918 Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, outlawing the interstate sale of migratory fowl game meat and effectively ending legal market gunning. Commercial duck hunting continued illegally for many years in many regions, including Presque Isle, but it was eventually replaced by sport hunting.

Frank Buchner (1871-1947) was the most prolific and among the most talented decoy carvers in Erie, and his work influenced other carvers. Remembered by his granddaughter as a “very handy man with a large toolbox,” Buchner frequently used rot-resistant cedar from telephone poles. He would rough out the decoy forms with a draw­shave and undertake the finish carving with a knife.

Buchner’s decoys are first-rate exam­ples of twentieth-century folk art. He was likely the originator of the technique of carving non-realistic patterns on the backs of his decoys. A peculiar characteristic of many Erie decoys is an unusually wide body, ending in an upraised tail. Unlike the rounded shape of most commercial de­coys, this “pancake” body is well suited to the choppy waters of Lake Erie. A decoy of a bufflehead, made about 1920 by Buchner of painted wood with glass eyes, was acquired by the Erie Art Museum in 1993.

The distinctive decoys of Frank Buchner and examples by other local makers will be featured in “Art and Life in Erie, Pennsylvania: A Historical Survey of the Art and Handicraft of Erie County,” opening at the Erie Art Museum at Discovery Square on Saturday, June 27, 1998.

For more information, write: Erie Art Museum, 411 State St., Erie, PA 16501; or telephone (814) 459-5477. Individuals with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone the museum in advance to discuss their needs.