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R. Madison Mitchell

By James L. Trimble

 R. Madison Mitchell

 The Chesapeake’s Dominant Decoy Maker

 Reprinted with permission from the Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Decoy Magazine.
Canvasback pair


When asked the distinguishing characteristics of his decoy by a reporter many decades ago, Mitchell responded, “Ninety percent of the gunners from Columbia, Pennsylvania to Richmond, Virginia can tell you whether the decoy they are holding is a Mitchell decoy…or not!”

Mitchell, the Chesapeake’s predominant decoy maker, made that comment with a chuckle and a twinkle in his eye, a comment that might seem vain if it wasn’t also true. It was still a time when Madison Mitchell dominated wooden decoy production in his part of the world, a craft that eventually headed toward its twilight years, as did Mitchell, as wooden decoy rigs gave way to plastic.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest of the 130 estuaries located in the United States, stretching 200 miles long and up to 35 miles wide, encompassing 11,684 miles of shoreline, including the tidal tributaries of Maryland and Virginia, a distance longer than the entire west coast of the United States. Many rivers feed it, but the majority of the Chesapeake’s water is derived from the saline Atlantic Ocean to the south and the Susquehanna River to the north, which pours in fresh water at the head of the bay.

A major resting and feeding habitat along the Atlantic Flyway for migratory ducks and geese, its open waters with wild sego and celery grasses are home to 29 species of waterfowl. The watermen who populated the bayside communities throughout the region harvested a great variety of seafood from its waters. The late fall arrival of ducks and geese represented another source for both sustenance and income.


Mitchell Swan


According to the writings in early sporting books and magazines, millions of birds arrived on the Susquehanna Flats each fall, with their numbers greatly depleted by winter’s end. It was prime gunning habitat for the market hunter of yesterday, who sold their harvest for shipping by rail to the nearby accessible markets of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Richmond. Due to this abundance of waterfowl population, this vast Chesapeake Bay region supported more decoy makers, who produced more decoys, than any other area in the world. The identities of many of the early decoy makers from many regions have been lost to time and history, however the pioneers of Upper Chesapeake Bay decoys, men such as Holly, Graham and Dye, have been identified, with fine examples of their work surviving.

Robert Madison Mitchell was born in 1901 in Oakington, Maryland, near Harford County’s Swan Creek, just south of Havre de Grace, and he grew up in this waterman’s community at the top of the bay. It was a time when waterfowl conservation was non-existent and years before the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 became law. Mitchell was the son of a farmer and market hunter, who worked the land on Spesutie Island at the southern end of the Susquehanna Flats.

Interviewed in George Reiger’s 1980 book, “Wings of Dawn,” Mitchell relates, “We had men here, my father for example, who farmed on Spesutie Island. He got $14 a month salary and five acres of ground to do with as he pleased, as well as the fishing and hunting rights to the lower farm. If he hadn’t gunned for the market, we would have been hard pressed to make ends meet. Money from waterfowl was one of my father’s biggest sources of income.”

While Mitchell was an infant, the family’s farming activities moved from Spesutie Island to the rolling hills of Mount Felix on the Heights, which overlooked Havre de Grace and the bay. His grandfather’s stroke precipitated the move, as they had to take over the family dairy and look out for his care. Mount Felix, a 7700 square foot brick manor house with unparalleled views of the bay, was built in the 1830s by Mitchell’s great-grandfather, canner and agriculturalist John Mitchell. This is where Mitchell spent his formative years.


Mitchell Green-winged Teal


The 1910 Harford County census lists Robert H. Mitchell as Head of Household with his occupation as a farmer, working on “our farm.” Occupants include his wife, three daughters and 9-year-old Robert M. Mitchell. The younger Mitchell often told of life on the farm, including delivering milk by horse and buggy, all before morning classes. He learned to fish and hunt upland game at this father’s side. Although he lived in a waterfowling community, it was not a pursuit in which he would partake until he was a young man.

A favorite uncle, E. Madison Mitchell, had a great impact on the younger Mitchell, so much so that he dropped his given name Robert and went by his middle name Madison, or the now proper name of R. Madison Mitchell, which he kept for life. Years later Mitchell decided to choose his favorite uncle’s profession, that of an undertaker, and he quite school at age 16 or 17, moving 30 miles south to Baltimore, where he lived in an apartment over his uncle’s funeral home. While there he “helped out,” which included “night removals” from Baltimore homes. He also attended classes at the Baltimore Business College.

A year or so later, an older sister visiting Havre de Grace surprised the family with an early birth. Mitchell accompanied his sister and child on their return train trip to Michigan. While there, he took a job working at a General Motors assembly line in Pontiac for $6.00 a day, a decent wage for the time. It is quite possible that Mitchell may have run across the nearby Mason decoy factory while living there, thus noting the use of lathes and assembly line processes in producing decoys. He may also have been exposed to the wealth of Michigan’s forests, a source he turned to later in life.

While Mitchell was spreading his wings elsewhere, Havre de Grace was coping with the new federal migratory laws, which forced many watermen to convert from market hunting to providing guide services for city sports, who now poured in by rail each gunning season. The small town of Havre de Grace quickly became the gunning Mecca of the East Coast.

Mitchell returned home in April 1920, and according to Charles Lee Robbins 1987 book, “R. Madison Mitchell – His Life and Decoys,” Mitchell and his father hunted ducks on the Susquehanna Flats from a sinkbox that fall, something they repeated each ensuing season. Their rig was reported at 450 decoys, and they shot mostly divers, with Mitchell using a 12-gauge Winchester Pump Model 98, full-choke with a 32-inch barrel, a gun used by four generations of Mitchells. Although raised in a waterfowling community of market hunters, this was purportedly his first attempt at hunting ducks. As Mitchell is quoted in Rieger’s previously referenced book: “The market (market hunting) had stopped before I actually took up gunning.”

In 1922, Mitchell received his embalmers license and opened for business shortly thereafter. Sam Barnes, a prolific decoy maker, helped paint the funeral home. Barnes was Mitchell’s mother’s cousin and a contemporary of his father, and in 1924 Mitchell started helping Barnes with his decoy production, a job completely done by hand, using a saw, a hatchet, a drawknife and spoke shave. “He was one of those old gentlemen who never stopped; he just kept on working,” Mitchell is quoted as saying in David and Joan Hagan’s 1990 book, “Upper Chesapeake Bay Decoys and Their Makers.” Purportedly when Mitchell was asked what he knew about making decoys at the time, he responded, “The same thing you did when you started.”


Mitchell Blackhead pair


It is interesting to note that this was the same year that a pair of Sam Barnes canvasbacks was awarded “Best in Show” at the Second Annual Exhibition of Wildfowl Decoys in New York City, based on practical (functional) use and maintenance. At the time, Barnes sold his decoys for $1.25 each.

According to Madeline Shanks, Mitchell’s daughter, her father augmented his income, as did many in town, by picking up racetrack fans at the train station and taking them to the now-defunct Havre de Grace Racetrack. Champion horses of the day, including Seabiscuit, Citation and Man’O War, all raced there. The Havre de Grace destination was so popular the railroads operated special “racing trains” from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, using the same railroad tracks that brought in the city sports each gunning season. It is not known how long he provided this service or whether he ever used his hearse for pick-ups.

Mitchell had been working on a steady basis with Barnes for about two years when Barnes died of pneumonia in 1926. Mitchell handled the funeral, and it was the first to utilize a brand new hearse he had just purchased. At the time, his business on Washington Street was handling about 20 funerals a year. Barnes left behind substantial orders for decoys - about 1400 birds in all - that needed to be filled before the next hunting season. That same year his daughter Florence, who had painted his decoys, married and left town.

Recognizing the opportunity, Mitchell established his own shop, implementing power tools, including a belt sander built by a local machinist, and later a lathe to turn his decoy bodies. The shop was located behind his funeral business on Washington Street, just a few blocks from Barnes’ Washington Street home. Now on his own, Mitchell sought guidance from other area makers, particularly concerning the application of paint patterns. Capt. Billie Moore, owner of the gunning yacht Reckless and father-in-law of well-known decoy maker Bob McGaw, both Washington Street neighbors, came to Mitchell’s aid, teaching him how to mix and blend colors, applying the same feathered wing pattern used when helping his son-in-law fill decoy orders. With Moore’s help, the 1400 newly finished decoys were completed in time for gunning season. McGaw’s signature “dog bone” weight is also found on some early Mitchell decoys, which could indicate a Moore influence as well. (Locals report that McGaw was upset that his father-in-law would help this new upstart, who would eventually prove to be a formidable competitor for area decoy business.) According to the Hagen’s book, the average order was for 50 to 100 decoys and they sold for $1.50 each.

For Mitchell, 1926 carried added significance, as he married local Helen Maslin, a union that lasted until her death in 1973.

It should be noted that his father, Robert H. Mitchell; his cousin and mentor, Samuel T. Barnes; and the man who taught him how to paint decoys, Capt. William E. Moore; were all members of the “Ducking Police,” created by an 1872 State of Maryland statute to regulate shooting on the legal boundary limits of the Susquehanna Flats. There is no doubt that their stories about those “early days” had an impact on Mitchell.

A December 5, 1926 article in the Baltimore Sun, “Ducking Days Along Susquehanna,” mentions the “hundreds of sinboxes that dot the water,” and details some of the gunning accidents that occurred there, including accidentally shooting holes in the watertight box, hunters accidentally shooting themselves and one particular case of two brothers who froze to death in their sinkbox. It would be interesting to know if Mitchell, with his new hearse, collected the bodies.

The 1930 census for the City of Havre de Grace lists the 29-year-old Mitchell as living on Washington Street with his wife and two-year-old daughter. Under the Head of Household column, his given name is listed as R. Madison Mitchell and his occupation as embalmer-undertaker. He is not listed in the 1920 Maryland census, as he was likely residing in Pontiac, Michigan.

With time, the Barnes body design was modified to clean sharp lines for easy and fast lathe production, perhaps with a Holly influence. Mitchell used lead ballast weights and replaced the traditional leather anchor straps with a small ring and staple. The first time he tried rings and staples on his father’s decoys he left the leather straps in place, commenting years later that he didn’t want “any backfire” from his father. His initial decoy production was limited to canvasbacks, blackheads (bluebills) and redheads, as he claimed they were the only ducks he could paint. With increased demand, Mitchell rebuilt and enlarged his shop in 1932.

In 1934 the state of Maryland outlawed the use of a sinkbox, a lethal floating water-level platform used by Chesapeake gunners to kill diving ducks. Once eliminated, hunters no longer needed huge rigs of 400-500 decoys. That same year a severe drought in the Midwest and Canada dried up nesting potholes crucial to the survival of migrating ducks, and few came to the Chesapeake. Mitchell did not sell a decoy that year, but fortunately the ducks returned, as did the gunners and the demand for his decoys, and his business continued to grow.


Mitchell Mallard pair


By the mid-1930s, most of the legendary 19th century decoy makers from the Upper Chesapeake Bay were gone, or in their twilight years with limited production. McGaw and Jim Currier were still producing decoys commercially, as were a few makers north in Cecil County, but for Mitchell, competition was limited. McGaw was the first maker in Havre de Grace to recognize the need for production decoys, and installed a used Sears & Roebuck Co. lathe to turn bodies in 1929. Reportedly it was used to turn gunstocks in World War I. In 1941, he sold his lathe to Mitchell, who sold his to Paul Gibson, who was starting his own decoy making business in Havre de Grace. Part of the transaction required Mitchell to continue turning bodies for McGaw. Currier, as well as some of the Cecil County makers, continued to chop out bodies by hand. But Mitchell outlasted them all, and eventually handled the burials for McGaw, Currier and Gibson, as he had done for his mentor Barnes.

By the 1940s, increased production required additional help as well as a ready source of wood. Mitchell turned to his community for part-time workers who welcomed the opportunity to augment their income. For a while, Currier worked in his shop, refurbishing and painting cripples, some having to be dipped in lye to remove old crusted paint. Mitchell was demanding, setting high quality work standards and gaining a growing reputation for producing a superbly crafted and functional decoy. “I spent a lot of time making patterns, designing heads and designing bodies from freshly killed birds,” he is quoted in the winter 1987 issue of Wildfowl Carving and Collecting. “All of my heads were made from live ducks, but a trifle larger than the actual head…it would show up better and stronger…there also had to be sufficient strength in the carved wood bill.”

The first wave of workers in Mitchell’s shop is long gone, but many that came after, including Gibson, Currier, Jim Pierce, Harry Jobes, “Speed” Joiner and Tit-bird Bauer, became decoy makers in their own right, all producing a Mitchell style decoy. And a third generation, including Pat Vincenti, Butch Wagoner, Bill Collins and Charles and Bob Jobes, all present day makers, tutored under his watchful eye.

In his book, Reiger commented on the workforce in Mitchell’s shop: “For close to half a century, Mitchell has run something like a European artist’s atelier where numerous carvers and painters have been employed turning out tens of thousands of birds using Mitchell patterns, while Mitchell himself may not actually put his hand on every decoy with his imprimatur.”

George Starr’s 1974 book, “Decoys of the Atlantic Flyway,” memorializes an early trip to Mitchell’s shop. “Around 1952, my son Robin and I ended up at Mitchell’s place just after supper one evening, about two weeks before the gunning season was to start. We were welcomed and invited into the paint shop, where the last orders for the year were being finished. The paint room was about 12-feet square with floor-to-ceiling racks on three sides. Mitchell and about five of his jolly crew were sitting around on straight chairs or boxes. In front of each was an upturned box on which was a wooden pallet with the basic colors each person would use that night. The birds were passed around the circle – one painting the breast, another the head, etc., until the decoy returned to his place on the shelf fully painted. The painting itself had become so automatic, that everyone’s mind was free to enter into banter which made the time go swiftly.”

Angus Phillips, the outdoor writer for The Washington Post, wrote a short story on Mitchell, “Decoys are Art Work for Posterity,” in the December 5, 1978 issue, 26 years after Starr’s visit. Phillips wrote, “Mitchell’s prices range from about $13 each for small ducks to about $20 for a Canada goose. A signed original will go for five times that much, and ought to. They are magnificent replicas. Before I left, I asked Mitchell if I could buy two ducks and a goose. He sighed and went to gather them up. As he handed over the ducks, a pair of blue wing teal, he told me, ‘If you can’t get $50 for these tomorrow, don’t sell them.’ Then he turned over the goose, heavy and perfect, and filled out the bill. That’ll be $47.50, he said.”

Phillips wrote about Mitchell learning decoy making from his mentor Barnes a half century earlier, calling it “a simple trade and when coupled with Mitchell’s profession of mortician, it would provide him a good and full life here along the flats.” While explaining that Mitchell viewed decoy making as an occupation secondary to his mortuary business, Phillips noted that the phone rang incessantly at the cluttered workshop where Mitchell and three assistants worked 12-14 hours a day making decoys.

He also noted that most of the buyers by then were decoy collectors, who had no intention of floating them on the Flats, but instead viewed them as a dying art that someday would be worth big money. “I’m a decoy maker – that’s all,” Mitchell was quoted as saying, with Phillips explaining that the veteran decoy maker was not particularly happy with the evolving collector’s demand. “Mitchell knows his decoys are worth a lot more than he sells them for,” Phillips wrote, “and that’s why orders pile up until he’s working far longer hours than a 77-year-old man ought to. He knows people buy them as decoys, then turn around and sell them as art.”

Mitchell also took offense to the “plastic junk” that had taken over the trade, insisting that his heavier wooden birds were far superior and would float true in a gale, sturdy and lifelike. “A man buys a plastic decoy, he’s lucky if it lasts him two years,” Mitchell said. “Then he goes out and buys more. My decoys will last 50 years if they’re taken care of.”

Phillips explained how Mitchell’s decoys were made the old-fashioned labor-intensive way - heads whittled by hand, bodies turned on a lathe. After sanding, each gets five coats of paint, and the heads are drilled and nailed to the body. “The workshop smells of pine and cedar sawdust, of paint and cigarette smoke,” he wrote, describing the scene: “Mitchell sits across a bench from Tit-bird Bauer, who’s worked for him for 30 years, both painting at an incredible pace. In the corner, a young Bobby Jobes is whittling heads. Johnny Reisinger, who worked for Mitchell for 25 years, works a whining sander downstairs, finishing bodies. Bauer and Mitchell light cigarettes, take a drag, and settle to work. It’s the only drag they get, because by the time the duck is painted, the cigarettes are burned out. Bauer paints the underbelly, upper body feathers, the tail section, then quick wing patches before handing the half-finished bird to Mitchell. The boss works with a broad brush, dabbling the ridges of feathers, a blot at the tail to signify where the two wings meet, and then the head. The pace continued for 2½ hours nonstop, until 16 birds are in the drying racks, with only eyes and bills left to paint.”


Early Canada Goose by Mitchell


According to Pierce, a long-time employee, “Mitchell was a good employer and always fair in his dealings with his employees. He was always available to answer questions and took the time and patience to guide and instruct. His decoy making calendar generally started in February after hunting season, when he began carving heads. Blocks were sawed in late spring, waiting for summer help to lathe turn and finish the bodies. Painting usually started mid-August and lasted until just before hunting season in November. He was an avid Baltimore Colts and Baltimore Orioles fan and in the shop the radio was always on when they were playing.”

Pierce continued, “We were all aware that the mortician’s job was 24-7, and when the phone rang he had to go.” He also remembered that Mitchell always dressed in a khaki pants and shirt and wore a bow tie. And from time to time the shop apprentices were pressed into service to drive the hearse, act as pall bearers or assist in removals.

Acceptable wood for decoy production was always a problem for Mitchell as well as the rest of the Havre de Grace decoy makers. Mitchell had watched Barnes throw away or burn knotty wood; one advantage of the lathe is that it permitted him to use it. Early on, spring rains brought fallen logs down the Susquehanna, and if usable they were retrieved and hauled to the shop, some by local gunners who bartered them for finished decoys. Another source of wood was downed telephone poles that were being replaced. And a lot of his wood, Mitchell recalled, came from “listening around” - when he heard of an old building or bridge being torn down or damaged by fire, he and his apprentices would take a truck there to see if any large timbers could be recovered.

Mitchell also instituted a two for one trade-in program to secure wood, in which he accepted certain wood in predetermined sizes, lathe turned them, and kept one of the two blocks for his shop’s production. Many area decoy makers took advantage of this offering. From time to time, as stock ran low, he imported train carloads of western red cedar, usually cut from Michigan or Idaho forests, which was lighter and less expensive than the northern white cedar and white pine. He considered his pine decoys to be premium grade birds, applying a small finishing nail under the tail prior to painting them and selling them for 25 cents more per bird.

Mitchell’s decoy staple and ring are usually placed behind the head, which allows the decoys to ride high in the water, not pulled down by a tight anchor. Until the early 1950s, he placed the staple parallel with the body, which often split the grain, especially the cedar bodies, until someone suggested reversing it would prevent checks. He initially attached his lead weights with a single nail fore and aft, doubling the number in the late 1940s. This attachment of the hardware is a good way to identify the age of Mitchell’s decoys.

Mitchell’s earliest gunning decoys, sold by the dozen – eight drakes and four hens - had finely carved heads and paint patterns with the longest feathers running down the inside of the back, ornithologically incorrect yet a signature of his work. The majority were canvasbacks and other divers, such as redheads and bluebills, but he also made a limited number of puddle ducks, of which the hens and black ducks are scratch painted. And he probably made more sleepers, mostly canvasbacks, before 1950 then any other Upper Bay decoy maker. For hunters who gunned divers “up the river” on the Susquehanna, he made a special purpose magnum decoy. His swans, with their long graceful necks and “barn door” keels, are some of the finest confidence decoys to float the upper Chesapeake Bay. Some were made with a side pouch or box to hold body-booting ammo, a practice that took hold along the Flats in the 1950s.

Most decoy orders were placed at season’s end with many customers planning a trip to Mitchell’s shop to visit and pick them up. Box loads were shipped via local railway express, with most going to Chesapeake Bay area gunners. The onset of World War II brought numerous people to the nearby Aberdeen Proving Grounds/Edgewood Arsenal to help with the war effort. Many first purchased decoys from Mitchell while stationed there, and continued buying them when they returned home. The Officer’s Club at Aberdeen had rigs of his decoys branded with the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Arsenal insignia.

Other customers included homegrown Maryland baseball legends Jimmy Foxx of Sudlersville, “Home Run” Baker of Trappe and Bill Werber of College Park. Long time Maryland Senator Millard Tydings of Harford County and William DuPont and his family from Wilmington, Delaware also bought his decoys. They were all Chesapeake Bay gunners.


Mitchell Woody drake


Mitchell also accommodated special orders. He made lots of stick-up silhouette Canada geese for Eastern Shore gunners as well as large silhouette swans, some with gun racks, for body-booters to hide behind. Some of the silhouettes were floated in V-board rigs. He also produced cork decoys, mostly black ducks, which some thought were the best black duck decoys to float the Chesapeake. “It is the only decoy that will kill a black duck,” Mitchell once commented, referring to their skittish nature. They were made of sanded cork with a pine bottom board and head, and the later ones had an inserted Masonite tail. He stopped making them after being warned by his doctor about the hazards of ingesting cork dust into the lungs.

Several things led to the decline in the hunter’s demand for Mitchell’s decoys. In addition to the introduction of cheap plastic decoys, which required little care, severe hurricanes in 1954 and 1972 decimated the wild celery and sego grasses already weakened by uncontrolled pollution, and the damaged habitat supported fewer ducks, resulting in fewer gunners returning to the area. Demand was still strong for his decorative or fancy “Christmas ducks,” many of which were mounted on lamps, but they represented just a small proportion of his business.

Stories from the late 1950s and early 60s recount tales of hundreds of finished decoys with no buyers in sight, as demand waned. Some were remade into other species and sold at a reduced rate. At times it must have seemed that an era was coming to an end. Yet what Mitchell and other decoy makers of the time didn’t realize was that a new cusp of decoy demand, this by a new breed of hunter, the decoy collector, was fast approaching. Early collectors, including Starr, Bill Mackey, Somers Headly, Amos Waterfield and John Hillman, began visiting the shop, buying up volumes of gunning birds that had not sold. Once Mitchell realized the potential, he expanded his production to include most species that flew the Atlantic Flyway.

The new collectors of the 1970s and 80s took dead aim at Mitchell, buying up everything he could produce, usually in pairs. They purchased them as folk art, as they had no intention of putting the decoys overboard. In 1980 Mitchell sold his decoy business to his one-time apprentice Bill Collins, and a few years later his funeral business as well. For a few years he lent Collins a hand, adding a signature to the finished bird.

But Mitchell had a goal yet to achieve, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s he was a driving force in the founding of the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, which was to herald the unique waterfowling history of his small waterfront community. When the Havre de Grace Decoy Festival was started to raise funds and support the Museum, he was its first Honorary Chairman. Prior to his death he established the R. Madison Mitchell Endowment Trust, whose sole purpose is to support the museum’s acquisition, preservation and interpretation of decoys.

The Havre de Grace Museum is now firmly established on the banks of the Susquehanna River with the legendary Flats in the distance. A set of Mitchell Decoys, along with a lifelike wax replica of the maker, is on permanent display. Several years ago Mitchell’s Washington Street shop was moved to the museum’s grounds, where present day makers practice their craft in the public eye.

Mitchell died on January 14, 1993 at the ripe old age of 91 and over 900 attended his funeral. Legions of men who had worked for him, honorary pallbearers, lined the entrance to the church, paying tribute to a man who had impacted all of their lives and many of their livelihoods. Yet Mitchell lives on, not only through his surviving decoys, but also his imprint on the many current day Havre de Grace decoy makers. The Holly family may have created the Havre de Grace design, but without a doubt today’s makers are producing a “Mitchell style” decoy.

Some consider Mitchell’s “production” decoys as factory birds, yet in his book Dr. Starr addressed the issue of lathe turned decoys when he wrote, “The bodies are turned by machine, but the rest of the work is done by hand, including the carving of the heads. Some may be inclined to call this a factory operation, but I don’t feel that a decoy which is more than seventy-five per cent hand-crafted, qualifies as a “factory decoy.”


Mitchell Woody hen


The earliest Mitchell gunning decoys, especially the divers, are as well crafted as any decoy made. His canvasbacks with their sleek eye-pleasing lines are as handsome as any of the species, and most Upper Bay collectors are fortunate to have lured one onto their shelves. In the November 1983 issue of National Geographic, in an article titled “Humble Masterpieces – Decoys,” he was profiled along with his neighbor in Crisfield, Steve Ward, as a master Chesapeake Bay carver.

Waterfowl historians estimate that Mitchell, with the aid of the many carvers and painters who worked for him, made over 100,000 finely crafted decoys. So you can see that he wasn’t boasting in that long ago interview that most mid-Atlantic gunners recognized a Madison Mitchell decoy when they saw one. With drive, energy and foresight, this one individual, with the assistance of a lathe, changed forever the design and production of Upper Chesapeake Bay decoys. He, more so than anybody else, earned Havre de Grace its title: “The Decoy Capital of the World.”

Epilogue: Mitchell now rests at Havre de Grace’s Angel Hill Cemetery, a tranquil setting that overlooks the legendary Susquehanna Flats. It’s a familiar location, as his undertaking business brought him there often, and many others from his waterfowling community, including Sam Barnes, Bob McGaw, Jim Currier, Paul Gibson, Ed Pearson and the Holly family, are buried there. Chiseled into Mitchell’s tombstone is a replica of one of his canvasbacks, which is fitting, since more of his decoys floated on the Chesapeake Bay’s waters than any maker before or since. He was without a doubt the dominant maker of Chesapeake Bay decoys. And he just may be America’s most prolific decoy maker.




Jim Trimble is a contributing writer for Decoy Magazine, concentrating on Chesapeake Bay and Chincoteague area decoys. If you have information on early decoy makers from this area, contact him at (703) 768-7264 or potomacduck@cox.net. He would like to thank Jim Pierce, Madeline Shanks, Ray Yingling, “Hurricane” Pete Peterson, Drew Hawkins and Larry Cook, who assisted with this article.