When you look in the dictionary for the word decoy, you will find that it’s something used to fool people or things.
However, on the island of Chincoteague, Virginia, you will find the genuine article – the Virginia Duc Man.
I had the opportunity to meet Roe Terry by accident at the National Hurricane Conference last year in Orlando, Florida. We quickly hit it off, exchanging war stories about storms, but soon I discovered that Roe has a very poorly kept secret – he has been making exquisite duck and other waterfowl decoys for the past 40 years.
His journey to decoy carving success had a pretty tough start. “My dad had Lou Gehrig’s Disease and couldn’t walk, and I was a kid looking to do what the other kids in the area were doing for fun – duck hunting. An old timer in Chincoteague took me under my wing and started to teach me the skills of gunning and decoy carving. It turns out that the man was Doug Jester, Jr., the son of the most famous decoy carver Chincoteague ever produced.”
From those humble beginnings, Roe’s talent – and passion – for carving decoys took off. His work is full of detail in both the carving and the painting. “The process starts off with a block of wood which I band saw to rough shape. From there, I chop out the body with a hatchet and use a draw knife and carving knife to sweeten up the form.”
Roe builds both decorative (known as shelf decoys) and working decoys. Surprisingly, there is very little difference between the two. “The carving is the same for both. The main difference is in balancing it up so the decoy will float properly. I normally hollow out the working decoy and sometimes the keel so I can add melted lead to make it float level when it hits the water. It takes some time to get it right, but it’s something that makes the decoys a pleasure to use.” Roe was eager to point out that when you throw a decoy into the water in the early morning darkness, it’s comforting to know it will float properly and not require any nocturnal maneuvers to right it.
The painting on his decoys is vibrantly detailed, requiring intense focus and patience. He’ll do a great deal of research in reference books and with the animals themselves to get the coloring and feather shapes just right. Since Roe carves decoys of many different species, he can’t rely on repetition to get things right. “I make all different kinds of species of ducks, geese, swans and shorebirds – sorry, I don’t do birds of prey or other animals. The variety is pretty spectacular.”
Just how many decoys does Roe make annually? “I average nearly 300 birds a year. I do most of the band saw work in the winter when it’s cooler in my saw room. Then, it takes a few months to chop out the bodies and then another month or so carving out the heads. Finally, it’s sanding, undercoating and paint, paint, paint.” When I spoke with Roe over the phone, he was busy painting about a dozen of his decoys.
Looking at shots from Roe’s shop, it’s easy to see just how busy he is. Racks and racks of decoys fill the rooms in his workshop – some needing a little carving, others needing paint. The variety of shapes in his decoys is pretty dramatic.
Remember, also, that he’s doing all of this decoy carving part time. When groups visit Chincoteague, he’ll often hold seminars where he tells about and demonstrates the skills practiced by carvers for more than a century. His seminars last about an hour and a half, and leave the visitors with a much better understanding of the history of the craft in this beautiful corner of the country.
And, if this wasn’t enough, Roe is also the Public Information Officer for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (where he is involved in the annual round up of the wild ponies that call the island home) and tracks weather satellites for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “I do work hard, but I try to take off a couple of months in the summer to fish and a couple of months in the winter to gun for ducks. Building decoys gets old after 40 years, but the money ain’t bad.”
And, what’s it like working near the quiet, unspoiled Virginia shoreline near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay? “I really love it in the winter, when we have only 3,000 people out here. The summers are starting to get a little like Florida – we may have 10,000 people a day come to the island. But, the highs and the lows do offset each other. Besides, I just love living here.”