Harwich’s A. Elmer Crowell—the father of decorative bird carving

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Photography Courtesy of Jim Parker.

In 1874, a son of a Harwich cranberry farmer receives a gift of his first 12-gauge shotgun. He’s 12 years old, but this is a different era for fish and game hunting, when it would not have been uncommon for a Cape Cod farm boy to hunt waterfowl in his spare time. The boy learns that shorebirds are drawn to decoys; driven by necessity, he begins to carve them for himself using primitive tools such as a hatchet and a pocketknife. It’s a slower time than modern day, an age when a boy measures minutes and hours not by the screens of his electronic devices but by the size of the pile of wood shavings accumulating about his feet on the barn floor.

The boy floats his decoys on the water, he waits, and he shoots ducks for his dinner and to sell at market. As the years pass, folks notice the effectiveness of his craftsmanship; soon the boy discovers that his decoys, which he leaves set up afloat, are disappearing. No, they’re not sprouting wings to fly off with their feathered friends—other hunters have started “borrowing” them. This leads the boy to a significant innovation; he carves the birds with removable heads that he can take home in a bag. Now that people can no longer steal from him, they have no choice but to buy his work. Demand grows, and he turns a profit. Little does he know that a hundred years later, his decoys will fetch tens—and even hundreds—of thousands of dollars at such renowned auction houses as Christie’s. Nor can he know that his name, A. Elmer Crowell (the “A” stood for Anthony, though he never used it), will live on for years after his death, nor that future generations of craftsmen will consider him the father of decorative bird carving.

According to Ted Harmon, a modern-day collector of carved birds and the owner of Decoys Unlimited, Inc., an auction house based in Barnstable, Crowell would sell his most utilitarian pieces for about 25 cents each. His middle- or “challenge”-grade decoys sold for about a dollar apiece, and his top-grade “premier” work would fetch around $2. Crowell (pronounced “Crole”) would often sell his best grade birds at $24/dozen. Or he would trade them for a bucket full of quahogs.

Many of the articles written about Crowell in recent years have focused on the large sums of money that people have paid at auction for his works. It is speculated that in 2007 a pair of his birds sold for $1.3 million, though the record price for a single bird, according to Harmon, is more than $900,000. “But the money isn’t important,” Harmon says, “he is.” Without Crowell, Harmon says, others might have carved birds in decorative ways, but the art form would have taken much longer to develop. “There was really no one in the world doing what he was doing. He was decades ahead of everyone else.”