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      Display of Roothead Decoys in Salisbury

      • Display of Roothead Decoys Photos
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      May 24, 2012 - October 30, 2012


      909 South Schumaker Drive
      Salisbury, Maryland 21804

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      Display of Roothead Decoys

      The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, Salisbury University presents a unique collection of roothead decoys in its Decoy Study Gallery through October 2012. The earliest non-native decoys made in North America probably had root or branch heads. The bayman who hunted and harvested nature's bounty was very sensitive to his environment and very much an opportunist. He brought these qualities to the creation of his duck hunting lures. Before the use of power tools, a woodworker gave considerable thought to the creation of wooden objects and carefully studied the wood available to him to find efficient ways to create the stool they needed.

      Writing in the early 1960s, Wilbur Corwin of Bellport, Long Island suggested that many of the first rootheads were made from part of a fence rail and a tree branch. The head was carved with an extra-long neck that passed all the way through the body and was wedged so tightly that it required no other means of fastening. In a variation, a hole is bored through a length protruding from the bottom to fasten an anchor line.

      No one will ever know who first thought to take part of a tree trunk and a small protruding branch to fashion a decoy head. However, two examples from Long Island help us date these early roothead decoys. Joel Barber in his seminal book Wildfowl Decoys (1934) documents a shorebird decoy by Ben Hawkins of Bellport, dated to the first quarter of the nineteenth century. A red-breasted merganser by Roger Williams of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York illustrated in Gunners Paradise (1979) by E. Jane Townsend is dated circa 1830.

      The term "roothead" is a misnomer. Most were actually branch heads, made by cutting a segment of a small tree trunk, usually scrub pine or red cedar, with a branch still attached. The head was carved by using the trunk portion for the head and neck and the branch for the bill. Most heads carved later in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries and almost all of those that have survived had a wide, flared base that was nailed to the body. Root or branch heads were used to depict a variety of waterfowl species, but were particularly effective for the heads of brant, merganser, Canada goose, and herons. The forward position of a swimming brant, geese, and Sheldrake were naturals for roothead decoys. Through their skillful use of natural materials to create a working decoy, baymen have left us some interesting and dynamic carvings.

      The Ward Museum is proud to present this exhibit with support from the Long Island Decoy Collectors Association and guest curators Richard Cowan and Gerard Eroksen. For more information, visit the Ward Museum web site at

      Categories: Art Galleries & Exhibits | Museums & Attractions

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