Decoys Bring Alive A Waterfowl Story
Henry Stansbury is pure Maryland.
His family has been here since the 1650s. He grew up in Mount Washington, played lacrosse for the Terps in the early 1960s and now splits his time between his houses in Catonsville and on the Eastern Shore.
And his love for the state and its history also led him to one of his greatest passions — decoy collecting.
Hand-carved decoys, once used for waterfowl hunting and now appreciated as art, have a rich history in the Chesapeake Bay region. And as a self-proclaimed “amateur history nut,” Stansbury was drawn in by the stories behind them. He’s now dedicated to sharing these stories with others — most recently by guest-curating the Crisfield Carvings exhibit at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.
The exhibit, open through Nov. 3, showcases the work of the several famous decoy carvers from the early 1900s who hail from Crisfield. Brothers Lem and Steve Ward — who Stansbury calls the most famous decoy carvers — as well as Lloyd Tyler, are prominently featured.
“It has some of the finest decoys from the Crisfield area that you will ever have a chance to see,” Stansbury, 74, said.
A few from Stansbury’s collection of about 400 decoys are included in the group. He has several decoys at other museums across the region as well. But that still leaves plenty to adorn the shelves of his Catonsville home and make his basement look like a miniature decoy museum itself.
Seeing antiques around the house while growing up was one of the reasons Stansbury became interested in history to begin with. His great-grandfather’s union cavalry saber and spurs from the Civil War hung over the mantel. His mother was interested in genealogical research, and his aunt worked at the Peabody Institute, so he was immersed from a young age.
He studied American civilization at the University of Maryland. Early in his marriage to his wife, Judy, he began collecting Baltimore memorabilia and prints that cost about $10 to $15.
“When we were starting out as a young married couple with no money, you could buy history for very little money,” he said. “Cost you more to frame it than what you were buying it for.”
In 1980, Stansbury was drawn to an Ira Hudson black duck decoy but decided the $500 price was just too much. Unbeknownst to him, another customer bought the decoy that day — his wife gave him his first decoy for Christmas that year.
“My wife tells me I can sell it anytime I want because she knows I never would,” he said. “It was a lot of money. That’s the reason why I had to go buy the books. It was getting serious.”
Stansbury’s passion for decoys — and his collection — grew from there. He became a great presence in the Maryland historical community. “I went through all the chairs,” he explained, including a stint as president of the Maryland Historical Society.
Stansbury, who is fully retired from owning his own insurance agency, is now on the board of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. It was his idea for the museum to start featuring rotating exhibits like Crisfield Carvers, said Pete Lesher, the museum’s chief curator.
He thought the exhibits would keep the museum fresh for repeat visitors and, most important, allow them to engage members of the collectors community, Lesher explained.
The Maritime Museum has had rotating exhibits since 2010, but this one “got to the heart of Henry’s collecting interest,” Lesher said. “He was entirely the driving force behind this particular exhibit.”
Stansbury has, in fact, written a book about one of the famous Crisfield carvers, Tyler, along with another about Hudson. Doing research for the books allowed Stansbury to delve into his favorite aspect of collecting and history — the stories.
“You ask people stories and they tell you the neatest things,” he said.
When interviewing Tyler’s daughter for his book, Stansbury heard anecdotes about how decoy carving was more about survival than art for the family during the Depression.
“She said, ‘Well, my father made all his decoys out in the yard, and whenever something flew over he grabbed his shotgun, he never had his shotgun more than an arm’s length away, and he would shoot it and it would be in our dinner at night,’ ” he said. “But they were hungry, you know, it was the Depression.”
The great carvers were making decoys for practical purposes, and “they never dreamed that anybody would be collecting these things,” Stansbury said.
Lesher said this is one of the aspects the museum exhibit tries to highlight, drawing visitors in with real, relatable stories.
“These decoys are a great American form of folk art,” Lesher said. “It is an essential story of Maryland, and it really is just as tied in with the way people relate to the bay as is oysters, crabbing and the fisheries are.”
The exhibit began the second weekend in April, to coincide with the East Coast Decoy Collectors Association’s annual buy, sell and swap meet in St. Michaels.
Lesher said they got a great reaction from the collectors’ community. And although Stansbury is modest about his involvement, Lesher said he was a big part of the success.
“He’s connected with the rest of the collecting community. He’s a scholar. Not only has he collected these things, but he’s written about them, he’s done original research. He’s personally generous as a sponsor ... and then he just brings all this enthusiasm and even work — he’s hands-on — to the whole thing,” Lesher said. “Just to be able to have all those things in one package is a rare find.”
Stansbury said he ultimately just enjoys meeting people, hearing stories and sharing his knowledge.
“It’s just fun to do,” he said.