Explore Bygone Days of the Watermen, Market Gunners & Carvers at Eastern Shore Museums
Updated: Feb 24
The Maryland Eastern Shore is legendary for its beauty, with quaint fishing villages, verdant farms and waterfowl without compare along the Atlantic Flyway. It wasn’t always the easiest place to get to before the days of massive bridges. Ferries or steamboats brought visitors to the isolated peninsulas and islands that make up the coastline.
The Chesapeake Bay and its saltwater tributaries provided a livelihood for generations of families. People made their living catching fish, dredging and tonging oysters, shooting ducks and geese, and farming. The bounty made its way into the finest restaurants on the East Coast.
If the waterman’s and waterfowler’s lifestyle is dear to you, you can feed your soul with visits to three very different, unique museums. Here’s a look, working north to south. Check out the photo gallery below each museum narrative.
Upper Bay Museum
Rick Bouchelle is the current president of the Upper Bay Museum. He explains the museum got its start
with members of the Cecil County Hunters Association, sort of a local version of Ducks Unlimited back in the 1950s. They were conservation and history minded and wanted to improve habitat and preserve history.
Each member had waterfowling and hunting related items in their personal collections that they wanted to display, so they got together and said, “Let’s put it all in one place.” The museum was founded in 1975. When the town of North East received possession of the land that was then the Harvey Fish Market with the aim of making it a park, it offered the building that housed the market to be a new museum site. “The guys moved their stuff into here around 1983, set it up as a museum and it opened – twice a year, for the two days of the water festival in the summer and the two days of the decoy show in the fall,” Bouchelle said. “You could still smell the fish,” he said with a laugh.
By the 1990s, the park’s popularity was driving demand for more museum access. It’s now open Friday through Sunday, from Memorial Day through a decoy show in late October. Bouchelle said they can often accommodate school groups and bus tour groups during the off-season with a little notice. It’s all free, but donations are appreciated. You can even bring well-behaved dogs into the museum!
The museum houses several hundred, if not more than 1,000 vintage and antique decoys, including several complete gunning rigs. Bouchelle said the most unique item on display is the double sinkbox. “This is the only one in existence, that we know of,” he said. They also have a punt gun mounted on a skiff. Many of the ones that weren’t confiscated were lost to history, either overboard or buried in marshes somewhere, he said. “We try to add something new every year,” he said. New in 2017 was a 125-year-old gilling skiff, set up just as it would’ve appeared during actual use.
Bouchelle is also a hobbyist decoy carver, specializing in Upper Bay style working block birds. “I don’t have the patience to do decorative stuff,” he said. He trained under Vernon Bryant, one of the more well-known carvers in the area today.
“Everybody up here does Upper Bay style; if it’s not a Havre de Grace body, it’s a Cecil County body and the only difference is Cecil County has a flat tail, because everybody knows ducks don’t swim around with their tails up.” Well, except for ruddies – on occasion.
Some local decoy makers exhibit and sell their wares in the gift shop. For example, Frank Muller was offering a canvas Canada goose decoy for just $75 during my visit. The annual decoy show in late October usually has a special auction preview party with drinks and oysters. That cost $25 in 2017. Daily admission to the show is just $5. A special benefit auction is free. This wonderful little museum is located at 219 West Walnut Street, North East, MD 21901.
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum was founded in 1965 on Navy Point in St. Michaels. St. Michaels is
a quintessential Chesapeake Bay waterfront village. Located in Talbot County, it’s a tourism hotspot with excellent walking tours, nice shops and restaurants and beautiful old homes lining the side streets. Beware that many of the larger waterfront restaurants close outright or have reduced hours during the winter.
Like the Upper Bay Museum’s location, the Maritime Museum’s 18-acre waterfront campus once housed a bustling seafood operation, with packing houses, docks and workboats.
Today, you can visit several themed buildings, including the Hooper Strait Lighthouse, which was saved from demolition and moved 60 miles north in 1966. Plan on spending at least half a day at the museum. It has 35 buildings, some of which are offices, with 10 building housing extensive collection and open to the public. The exhibits track the geological, social, and economic history of the Chesapeake Bay.
Some of my favorites were (of course) the waterfowling building, with its extensive collection of decoys, large-bore shotguns, battery guns, and more from the market gunning age that lasted from the late 1800s to the 1920s. It may house one of the few authentic, foundry-made punt guns still in existence. It wasn’t unusual for gunners to kill 50 or more birds with a single shot. The ducks were on the water and the shots were often taken in the dark or right at the edge of dark.
There is also a boat-building facility where you can watch craftsmen and women working on traditional, wooden ships in a variety of shapes and styles. Another building has preserved and restored working boats from bygone days, including a variety of skiffs and other craft used in oystering or netting fish. More than 80 boats are displayed. Right at the entrance of the museum is an incredible replica of the tiny, oar-driven shallop that Capt. John Smith used to explore the bay and its tributaries.
The museum is open year-round, with hours varying by season. It’s closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. There is an admission charge, but active duty military get in free. Adult guided tours for groups of 10 more guests are available with reservations. It has an excellent gift shop.
Several bed and breakfasts are in the town or you can stay in larger motel properties just east of town or in nearby Easton (which also has a huge waterfowl festival in November). I stayed at the pet-friendly, loaded-with-charm Tidewater Inn in nearby Easton. The hotel's restaurant, as well as several in close walking distance, offer excellent fare.
Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art
Further south, in Salisbury, is the beautiful Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art. The Ward brothers, Lemuel
(Lem) and Steve, were unique characters. They lived south of Salisbury in the waterfront town of Crisfield, famed for its blue crabs and oysters. The town was supposedly built on a base of discarded oyster shells.
The men were barbers and sung in the local barbershop quartet. Neither worked as a waterman or commercial duck hunter, although they enjoyed fishing and hunting. They were students of the birds’ behaviors, looking at how they swam, flew and landed on the water. Their dad, L. Travis Ward, Sr., was also an early decoy carver. Around 1920, they began making wooden hunting decoys that were touted for their realism and functionality. Once plastic decoys began holding sway, they switched much of their work to decorative carvings.
Steve did most of the carving, while Lem did most of the painting, often experimenting with new styles and paint patterns. They had no formal training. They didn’t even own a car. But their work captivated the gun clubs they supported and, later, collectors who appreciated the artwork and unique story of the brothers. They had a story written about them in National Geographic in 1964 and they were awarded honorary doctorates by Salisbury State College (now Salisbury University) in 1972. In 1983, Lem Ward won the National Endowment for Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship.
The Ward Foundation was established in 1968 and began staging events such as the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition. The first museum was built in 1975, with the larger new museum opening in 1992.
The museum has changing exhibitions in two large galleries, the LaMay Gallery and the Welcome Gallery. Sometimes they focus on single-artist works to themed or cultural exhibits. One unique exhibit when I visited in November 2017 was called “Bottoms Up: The Underside of Decoys” and it showed the many unique markings carvers used to signify their work. Also exhibited was a large collection of painting called “Retrievers: The Hunter's Best Friend.”
The galleries present about ten exhibitions each year. Works of art from the Ward Museum's permanent collections, as well as masterpieces and cultural artifacts from other museums are often featured.
Permanent exhibits include the Ward Brothers Workshop, the Decoy in Time Gallery, the Decoy Study Gallery, and the World Championship Gallery. There’s also an informative video about the Ward Brothers’ life and times. It’s shown near the workshop or click link above to see it. The Habitat Theater also has regular film screenings and a children’s interactive puppet theater, a gallery space for student art, and educational wall panels.
The museum is located at 909 South Schumaker Drive, Salisbury, Maryland 21804. It’s open daily, except for the Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. There is a small admission fee. Group Tours and Special Rates are available. Call 410-742-4988. It also has an excellent gift shop.