New England Old Squaw
The absolute favorite decoy in my collection is the inspiration for this miniature. It is one of the few ducks that we have in our living room. (Most of my collection is in my studio.) For the longest time I did not know anything about this decoy except that I liked it a lot, but even Doc Starr agreed that, based on the inletted head, construction, type of wood and body style, it was probably made in New England by a very good carpenter or perhaps a cabinet maker. That was all I knew until around 1989. Here’s the rest of the story…
I bought this bird in a flea market near the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa. for $40 in 1973. Back then, $40 was a lot of money for a self taught artist just out of the Marines. Over time I ended up with a fairly nice decoy collection, sometimes spending several thousand dollars for a decoy, but this decoy always remained my favorite. I used it in several paintings including a large piece called “Tollers” which was featured in WILDLIFE IN NORTH CAROLINA Magazine in 1979.Ten years later I was in a show at Harker’s Island when a carver named Jim Russell approached me and asked me if I still had the Old Squaw Decoy in that painting. When I said yes, he proceeded to tell me a very interesting story.
First, he described the decoy in great detail, right down to the unique eyes, which were made with a keyed dowel, and the weight, which was sunken into the decoy, flush with the bottom. I realized that he knew that decoy very well. He then said that the decoy was made by his grandfather, a man named Burr Russell, a furniture maker from Vermont, back in the 1920’s or 30’s. (Interestingly there is a famous decoy maker from Hingham, Mass. named Russell Burr.) Mr. Burr Russell made a large rig of sea duck decoys, Old Squaws and Eiders, over 100 in all. Each winter he would travel to Maine for some duck hunting. Sometime in the 1950s he died and the family gathered at his home to divide up his estate. Jim Russell told me that his father rolled two barrels of decoys out of the barn and told Jim and his cousin to get rid of them, so they spent the day shooting at them on fence posts and throwing them on a bonfire. Jim decided to keep one and his cousin kept one.
Sometime in the 1970’s Jim and his family moved to Harkers Island and a tragic fire in a storage shed burned many of their personal things as well as the decoy that Jim kept had kept. Jim’s cousin had moved to Chester County, Pa., and died in the early 70’s. The cousin’s widow sold many of their antiques, including the other saved decoy to a Chadds Ford antiques dealer sometime in 1972 or ’73. I bought it from that dealer. I only wish that the rest of that rig had survived. The folk art world would be that much richer.