Collectors Donate Original Crowell Decoy To Historical Society

By: Russ Allen

Topics: Local History , Historic preservation

The Elmer Crowell decoy donated last weekend to the Harwich Historical Society. RUSS ALLEN PHOTO

HARWICH – “It is a very big deal for the museum!”

Thus did Janet Cassidy, executive director of the Harwich Historical Society, describe the event held last Friday afternoon in the Brooks Academy Museum in Harwich Center. With some 25 Society members present, Chad Tragakis, president of the Potomac Decoy Collectors Association, presented the organization with an original and pristine A. Elmer Crowell duck decoy, presumably made Crowell's restored workshop, now on the museum grounds.

Crowell is considered perhaps one of the greatest decoy carvers ever; his decoys hold the world record auction price at $1.13 million.

Due to ongoing work on the structure the presentation ceremony was moved inside the Academy building. But the presentation symbolized a significant step in a process that began when the Society assumed a role in preserving and restoring the Crowell barn after an attempt to move it from its original location in East Harwich to Sandwich failed. Even though the successful rebuilding of the structure has been meticulous, time consuming, and expensive, the new facility lacked one vital element, a full-size original Crowell decoy. Now, thanks to the leadership and nationwide membership of an organization based in the Virginia and Maryland region and dedicated to preserving and celebrating decoys and their history, a Crowell decoy now resides in the Society’s collection.

This story actually began two years ago when Tragakis first visited the then-newly installed Crowell workshop and barn and learned about the lack of an original Crowell decoy that could be displayed in the barn. He left having made a personal commitment to do whatever he and his organization could to “secure and donate an original paint and condition Elmer Crowell decoy to the historical society.” Returning home he and the association members set about the dual tasks of raising the funds necessary to purchase the decoy and locating one that would fit the criteria.

It took about a year to accomplish both tasks, and in September 2016, Tragakis emailed the Society’s executive director that, by saving up the members’ dues, “we were successful in purchasing a beautiful and historic Elmer Crowell black duck decoy that…will greatly enhance the society’s collection and add to the educational experience and visual interpretation of the workshop.”

The Association raised a bit less than the decoy’s estimated worth of $3,000 to purchase it from a collector. However, its members’ challenge was to find the right one to donate to the Society. According to Tragakis, the problem is that most of the existing Crowell decoys are not in pristine condition. Most decoys were originally purchased for their intended use of attracting ducks being hunted by their owners, while fewer decorated homes, offices, and other settings. Since many have been repainted over the years, damaged by use and weather, hit by gunshot, or just neglected, finding one that met the donor’s criteria proved the greater task.

The one that the Association located, purchased, and has now presented to the Society is in nearly excellent condition overall. Made around 1920, it measures 17½ inches long and has “dry original paint with beautiful and subtle feather detail still visible. The breast and head show the signature rasp marks that Crowell used to simulate feather texture. The bill is highly detailed and features Crowell’s typical nostril, lower bill, and nail carving.”

Of particular interest for decoy collectors and for its display in the Crowell barn is the oval Crowell brand on the bottom (similar to one visible on the walls) as well as that of the wealthy hunter that owned and used the decoy, “J. B. Chase.” Tragakis has researched that name and believes that Chase's father was a professor at Harvard University and the family lived in the Boston area. The son apparently owned several Crowell decoys, on one of which the carver refers to Chase as “his good friend,” which would suggest that Chase visited Crowell at his barn workshop in its original location. However, Tragakis adds, he is not certain about who the original owner actually was.

The Potomac Decoy Collectors Association decoy will now become a part of the A. Elmer Crowell Barn Museum, located on the grounds of the Brooks Academy Museum of the Harwich Historical Society, 80 Parallel St. in Harwich Center. The Society’s buildings are open on Thursdays from 1 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m.