A basket of primitive duck decoys. Photo: Connie Leinbach

By Connie Leinbach

Duck decoys made on Ocracoke are some of the most unusual ever crafted.

That’s the assessment of Chase Luker of New Holland on mainland Hyde County. Luker was among two dozen decoy carvers and sellers at the Third annual Ocracoke Waterfowl Festival held April 17 in the Berkley Barn and grounds, sponsored by the Ocracoke Island Decoy Carvers Guild.

“We’ve been waiting to have something like this,” he said about the lack of festivals since the COVID-19 pandemic hit more than a year ago. “There are 500 active collectors and 50,000 interested in seeing them.”
A hunter education coordinator for the N.C. Wildlife Commission, Luker noticed the duck hunting traditions of this part of the world when he moved to Hyde County 15 years ago.

“The best decoy makers today live on the coast of North Carolina,” he said.

And the old Ocracoke decoys were different from others.

With Jack Dudley’s book ‘Mattamuskeet & Ocracoke Waterfowl Heritage,’ Chase Luker shows how Ocracoke decoy carvers saw a bird shape in the crooks of cedar branches.

“The decoys here are other-worldy,” Luker said, pointing out pictures of primitive Ocracoke-made decoys in a book of decoys by Jack Dudley of Morehead City. “They don’t look like brants, but they look like decoys.”
Dudley, a retired dentist, also has a Facebook page.

“He came here and did dental work in exchange for decoys,” Luker said.
Old time carvers would find a forked branch of cedar and in it saw the bird they wanted to carve, he said. Or they carved decoys from old ship masts.

“See how rough they are,” Luker said, showing a curious visitor a rough-hewn decoy.

Among the purveyors was Tom Reed of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, a third-generation antique decoy dealer who owns American Sporting Classics.

“Tom is what I call one of the big hitters,” said islander John Simpson, president of the Ocracoke Decoy Carvers Guild which produces the festival. “He is nationally renowned for collecting and organizing decoy shows. He told me this is one of the best he’s been to for sales and also for just being community oriented.”

Reed featured antique decoys by Lem and Steve Ward of Crisfield, Maryland, who were two of the most prolific carvers on the East Coast. One of the brothers’ decoys was priced at $8,000.

Tom Reed shows the signature on an $8,000 decoy by Steve Ward of Crisfield, Maryland. Photo: C. Leinbach

The waterfowl festival was a morale-boosting success as it was the second public event on Ocracoke since the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world in early 2020, causing the island to be closed briefly last spring. All large events were canceled, including the OVFD Firemen’s Ball, Ocrafolk Festival, Blackbeard’s Pirates Jamboree and many other events.

Casey Arthur. Photo: P. Vankevich

“This was great for the community — we needed this,” said Vince O’Neal, one of the founding and current guild directors. “It was so nice to get out and see people.”

Casey Arthur of Stacy, Carteret County, was in his niche as he worked on his latest decoy between greeting visitors. A long-term member and director of the Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild, he is a frequent visitor to Ocracoke and was an advisor in the formative stages of the Ocracoke guild.

“This is a wonderful event for both us carvers and those who love the art,” he said.

Inside the barn, this year’s featured carver William Nathan Spencer of Ocracoke took center stage. Not only is he skilled at making duck and goose decoys, but he also enjoys carving smaller-size shorebirds such as Sanderlings and Piping Plovers made from single piece of wood, which were popular with browsers and shoppers.

“They’re affordable,” he said. To read the profile on Nathan, click Nathan Spencer: A native talent for waterfowl carving.

Featured carver Nathan Spencer with wife Janet. Photo: C. Leinbach

“More people showed up than I expected,” said Simpson about the event. “I thought maybe three or 400 would be a decent turnout. We didn’t do admissions, but we figured about 700 people.”

About 24 vendors set up their displays and many said this was one of their best sales events, Simpson said.

President of the Ocracoke Decoy Carvers Guild John Simpson. Photo: P. Vankevich

Proceeds from vendor fees, merchandise, baked goods, raffle ticket sales and baked goods “baked by the whole island” go back to the community in the form of scholarships, Simpson said.

Simpson will be the featured carver next year with his signature duck–a pintail.

As he observed the bustle of customers and vendors he mused about the lure of hand-carved decoys.

“It’s an everyman art,” he said about this folk art. “Carving comes from a different place, a personal place.”

Peter Vankevich contributed to this story.

Island carver Eddie O’Neal corners the festival. Photo: P. Vankevich
Vince O’Neal’s decoys. Photo: C. Leinbach