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A simple man, an extraordinary talent

A. Elmer Crowell

Courtesy of the Harwich Historical Society

In the spring 2014 issue of Boston magazine, Lindsay Tucker wrote, “Next to jazz and scrimshaw, decoy making is one of the few traditionally American art forms, and very much a part of the New England heritage.” European settlers learned from Native Americans how to hunt with decoys, and Harmon explains that advances in both shotgun technology and the use of wooden decoys in the 1800s created a boom (pun intended) in the market for game birds. By the time Crowell began carving his birds near the end of that century, the populations of shorebirds had begun to decline. Then, in 1918, the federal government banned market gunning with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, an early environmental protection law.

In a 2011 article for Forbes magazine titled “Ten Career Lessons From A Book About Bird Carvers,” Deborah L. Jacobs wrote, “The decline of market gunning reduced the demand for duck decoys, but Crowell saw a potential new market painting miniature birds.” In fact, this change in hunting laws would propel Crowell into the most productive and creative years of his life.

Crowell’s success as a decoy carver allowed him to both follow his passion for bird hunting and create a network of customers that would help elevate him to fame, though he never amassed great wealth. Not only did he provide customers with decoys, he also guided hunts on the Cape and in towns such as Wenham, north of Boston. Harvard professor John Phillips, an influential hunter, outdoorsman, and conservationist, placed Crowell in charge of his duck camp in Wenham and employed him for more than 10 years. Here, the craftsman would leave decoys and miniature bird carvings that caught the eyes of other well-known political and business leaders.

At the height of his career, states Harmon, “Crowell’s customers included Henry Ford, W. H. Hoover [the vacuum company founder], Pierre S. du Pont, James Storrow, Massachusetts governor Leverett Saltonstall, the royals in England, and many more.” Crowell’s reputation grew, and he was able to work fairly steadily even through the Great Depression. His full-time career as a bird carver began in 1912; he carved nearly until his death in 1952.

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