Counterfeiting Nature

Thursday, April 15, 1999, Chincoteague, Virginia - They call him Cigar Daisy because he could always be seen with a cigar in his mouth, or so one of the stories go. But around these parts, stories are as good and bad as the breath used to tell them.

He is an artist. Call him a craftsman, or a wood carver, or whatever - in fact, he would prefer you call him a decoy maker - but, alas, Cigar Daisy is an artist. He didn't start out that way, and he hasn't changed much, but people have changed, and like it or not, that makes him an artist.

Growing up on the Virginia Eastern Shore during the depression, Daisy was working before his teen years. At 12, he was a farrier and a blacksmith, and he also carved decoy ducks. An avid hunter, Daisy made many decoys for himself, and those he wanted to sell, he usually could, for about $1.25. Since those days, he figures he has carved about 18,000 decoys.

The Great Impostor
T o make a decoy, Daisy likes to start with a block of seasoned cedar, either from Maine or New Jersey, that is about 4" square by 8" long. Although basswood is popular among wood carvers for its clean, almost nonexistent grain, Daisy finds that it creates too much dust. "Basswood is the worst wood to work with, on your health," he says. Water Tupelo is another popular carving wood.

He cuts an outline of the duck on a bandsaw, turns the wood ninety degrees, cuts a second plane, and already, his decoy has a three-dimensional shape. Next, he clears out large pieces of wood with a hatchet and knife. "Carving is just taking away what you don't want," he says.

Daisy does most of his carving with flexible shaft, rotary tools. He has ten of these, each with a different bit, hanging from an old motor boat steering wheel beside his workbench, and he can spin the wheel to use whichever tool he needs. The tools work at 16,000 rpm and kick up a lot of dust, and he keeps the doors in his lakeside shop open and fans blowing the dust away. "I like the carving part, the design," he says. "It's like, the rest is just detail."

After he has taken away most of what he doesn't want, he sands the decoy by hand, then he paints it. The finish carving, the sanding and painting are all more intricate and more "polished" now, than they were when they were only fooling ducks.

Duck decoys are an American tradition, going back possibly 2000 years, when Native Americans, apparently keen to the social instinct of ducks to want to be where other ducks are, would form bulrush, feathers and pigments in a ruse to bring ducks near them. According to the Ward Wildfowl Museum, in Salisbury, Maryland, these hunters would even wear such decoys on their heads while they waded in water, and would reach out and grab the legs of passing ducks.

As Europeans came to this continent, they learned this trick from the Native Americans, and hunters have been using them to lure wildfowl from the skies ever since. As birds and people are different around this country, so are the decoys, and a fascinating aspect of this art form (considered to be the "oldest American folk art") is that decoys are unique to the region, the carver and the era. Two areas where decoys have been popular are the northeast and Louisiana, where ducks tend to travel in their seasonal flyzones.

It has not been an easy life for Daisy, but always one either out of doors, or of the outdoors. He has hunted, fished and trapped professionally, he has worked on survey crews and "made a ton of caviar" from sturgeon he has caught. He has killed between 380 and 390 deer in his life, and he lost count of the ducks.

But he has always made duck decoys. One year in the 1960's he made 1,100 of them - "Used to be a dozen a day," he says. But now he will only make two or three each week. "When you're young, you feel good and you make all this stuff and you don't make any money for it," he says. "Now, you can get anything you want for these, but you don't feel like making them."

When he says "you" he, of course means, "me" and he can practically get whatever he wants for the few decoys he carves these days. An original carving by a well-known artist such as Cigar Daisy will cost you between $300 and $700.

"You started getting a teeny bit of money out of them in (19)64," says Daisy, referring to the period when duck decoys started waddling out of garages and into the living rooms of America, when the objects of deception became objects d'art. Up until the 1960's the primary use for a duck decoy was as a duck decoy, but plastic has helped to change this tradition, making wooden decoys too expensive, too heavy, too fragile and just plain impractical - a collector's dream.

Even though his work has earned him many prizes, including a world championship, Cigar Daisy doesn't compete much. "I'm a decoy maker," he says, "and they try to be an artist." He doesn't use the business tactics that some of the artists do, either, such as selling massed produced models and castings of their works.

Much credit for the boon to bogus birds has been given to two Maryland men; Lem and Steve Ward, who dedicated their daily lives to deceiving ducks. The two brothers carved thousands of decoys in their Crisfield shop, and called themselves "wildfowl counterfeiters."

"The Ward brothers were instrumental in promoting the art form of wildfowl carving, and presenting it to the general population," says Sharon Goebel, Public Relations Director of the Ward Museum. Of course, it was late in their career, after they had carved thousands of decoys and sold them for only a few dollars, that they helped improve the market and boost the price at least twenty-fold. Of course, it was not until after their deaths that the market went crazy, and now, if you can bag a Ward original for under $1,000, you're a good hunter.

Cigar isn't his real name, but he hasn't used his real name in so long, it's not very important. Daisy's horse shoeing, hunting and trapping days are over, as is his cigar smoking. These days, he keeps to his little shop, carving a few decoys each week, watching the ducks waddle along the dock, talking with friends and neighbors, and telling those stories, both good and bad.

Hunting for Decoys?
You can spend as much as you want, even hundreds of thousands of dollars for antique decoys, but here are the more reasonably priced prey: You can usually buy an original work by an accomplished artist for $300 - $700. You can buy a casting of an original work, which is actually molded out of a pecan/resin mix, hand painted, numbered and signed for $100 - $200. and you can buy mass-produced reproductions for under $100. There are many decoy carvers throughout the country who are not "accomplished" and you can get their works for less than $200 and it doesn't matter at all, as long as you like the work, which is what art is all about.

Click on Cigar Daisy's 1989 Shooting Stool World Champion Decoy,
to join Mark's tour of the Ward Museum in Salisbury, Maryland.

Visit the Ward Museum Web Site

Check out the True America Made in the USA Archives

Return to our MAIN page