Hingham Bird Carving Artistry: Duck and Shore Bird Decoys and Avian Miniatures

Our “Boxes, Buckets, and Toys” exhibit at the Hingham Heritage Museum has celebrated the craftsmanship of Hingham’s coopers and box and toymakers. Another area in which the woodworkers of Hingham excelled was the carving of duck and shorebird decoys, as well as decorative miniatures.

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Joseph Lincoln’s trade card

Life-like wooden decoys are used by duck and shorebird hunters to attract live birds: groups or “rigs” of wooden birds are set in or near the water to lure birds flying by to stop and join them.  The coastal areas and freshwater ponds of the South Shore were popular shooting locations for both sportsmen and market gunners and making wooden decoys became a cottage industry at which a few local practitioners excelled.

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Joseph Lincoln with his decoys

The most famous of our local decoy artists was Joseph Whiting Lincoln (1859–1938), who lived and worked beside Accord Pond on the Hingham-Rockland border.  After working in a shoe factory, Lincoln undertook a variety of occupations before settling into a career as a decoy carver in the 1870s.  In what had been his uncle’s cooperage, Lincoln created decoys that were shipped all over the East Coast and are highly sought after today for their artistry.  This “no nonsense” Yankee  made some miniatures, almost always in decoy style, but generally referred to his miniature carvings as “toys.”

Elisha Burr (1839-1909), a box maker whose Civil War canteens and woodenware are collectibles today, and his son Russ Burr (1887-1955), were also well-known decoy artists.  Like Lincoln’s, their work is highly sought after by collectors today. Russ Burr is also well known for his miniatures, two of which are on display in the Kelly Gallery at the Hingham Heritage Museum.

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Russell Burr, “whittler,” with some of his miniatures.  Photo courtesy of Bob Mosher

Alston “Shorty” Burr (1910-1979), Russ Burr’s nephew, continued the family carving tradition using his Uncle Russ’ patterns for avian miniatures.  Two of Shorty’s miniatures, similar but cruder than his uncle’s, are also on display in the Kelly Gallery.

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A Russ Burr shore bird decoy.  Image courtesy of Bob Mosher

There is much to appreciate in these bird carvings, whether considered as hunting tools or one of the few purely American art forms.  According to Bob Mosher, a contemporary Hingham carver and decoy historian, the difference between Lincoln and Burr decoys is instructive.  Lincoln made “working birds”—even his miniatures were made as little decoys, and his work is simple and impressionistic.  Burr’s style, on the other hand, is more detailed and “busy,” creating an “active, alive” carving.

Contemporary carving by Mosher and Hingham carver W.D. Sarni can be viewed and purchased in our Museum Shop on the 1st Floor of Old Derby Academy.

 

Carl Burr’s Hingham, Part 2

As discussed in Part 1, the diaries of Carl Burr (1884-1861) provide a glimpse of how Hingham was changing from a largely rural community to the suburb of today during the first half of the twentieth century. As with transportation, the entries chronicle changes seen in how the town valued and used its open spaces.

Carl Burr was an avid outdoorsman. His year was measured by the fishing and hunting seasons. His entries through the 1910s and 1920s spend much time describing many places in Hingham available for hunting and fishing. He mentions hunting pheasant and quail on Turkey Hill, rabbits near Popes Lane and Pleasant Street, foxes in the High Street area and spending early mornings in Septembers in blinds awaiting the chance to shoot ducks in the Home Meadows.

Home Meadows as seen in 1888

Home Meadows near Winter Street

In the Spring he spent time fishing for trout and mackerel at Triphammer and Accord Ponds or casting a line off of the Leavitt Street bridge over the Weir River near his home.

A view of a hunting cabin at Triphammer Pond in 1911

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He helped found the Hingham Sportsmen’s Club (HSC) in April 1932, which held monthly meetings at the G.A.R. Hall along with shooting contests and field days in many farms in town.

GAR Hall on Main Street in the early 20th Century

GAR Hall with Trolley Tracks
But even before the Club was founded, his journal entries reflect a change in both the rural nature of the community and the types of wildlife available and allowed to hunt. Many of his entries refer to the lack of luck in finding anything during local hunting trips, particularly birds on trips up Turkey Hill. He stops referring to duck hunting in the Home Meadows after 1923 and instead goes on hunting trips to places on Cape Cod or in New Hampshire instead. With the town evolving into suburbia, regulations were put in place banning hunting in most areas. An entry on April 7, 1949 says he marked the 50th anniversary of his first bird hunt by taking the gun given to him by his father down to the Weir River though he notes shooting anything has been illegal there for the past 10 years.

Looking across the Leavitt Street Bridge over the Weir River in 1941

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By the late 1930s fish are becoming so scarce in Hingham’s streams that he helps raise funds for the HSC to purchase trout and other fish from local fish farms to stock Hingham’s rivers. This only solved the problem in the short-term and the practice was discontinued by 1950. In November 1960, Carl Burr was one of several owners of land in the Home Meadows who sold their acreage to the new town Conservation Commission to help preserve the land as open space.

View of the Home Meadows near Water Street in 1958

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Open space changes in Hingham can also be summed up by the use of the Hingham Agricultural and Horticultural Society’s properties across from his house.

Agricultural Hall and Fairgrounds around 1900

Agricultural Hall
Agricultural Hall was built in 1867. Early in his life he attended the many events that took place there including agricultural exhibitions and sporting events on the fairgrounds by local amateur and school teams, including games of the Breezy Hill baseball club, the ‘home’ team from Hingham Center:

Breezy Hill Baseball Club, 1915
As the years passed, however, fewer agricultural activities took place on the grounds, amateur town teams disbanded and school teams moved to the fields used today. To follow baseball, he becomes a fan of the Boston Braves, attending many their games in Boston, or listens to them on the radio (and later television). By the time he became custodian of the Hall in the 1950s, the grounds were largely abandoned and only town elections and a few other civic events occurred in the building. The Hall was torn down a few years after his death in May 1961, replaced by the Hingham Public Library.