This is an article written by C. John Sullivan Jr. It was published in the July/August 1997 issue of Decoy Magazine (pages 8-13) and in Mr. Sullivan’s book Waterfowling on the Chesapeake 1819-1936 (pages 157-162) published in 2003 by the John Hopkins University Press. The Decoy Magazine article and the chapter in the book are essentially the same. The following is a transcription from the book with two added paragraphs from the magazine article that were not included in the book. My thanks to both Decoy Magazine and Mr Sullivan for permission to include their work on this website.
Mr. Sullivan’s Website: www.cjohnsullivan.net
Decoy Magazine’s Website: www.decoymag.com
Why I have I included this article in our family history website? The first Graham mentioned is William, my 4th great-grandfather. His son Zachariah would of course be my 3rd great-grandfather and Zachariah’s son John Black Graham is my 3rd great uncle. John’s brother Lafayette is my grandfather’s grandfather.
The Grahams of Charlestown by C. John Sullivan
Much of the history of decoy carving is passed along orally. How does one accurately attribute the many styles of a single decoy maker? Unless patterns, descriptions, or actual photographs exist, the process is complicated. The signing of decoys did not begin until the first collector felt that is was important to establish an accurate attribution. We now know the importance of Joel Barber’s recording of Charles T. Wilson as the maker of the teal decoys presented to him by Robert F. McGaw. I immediately recognized the significance of attribution when I discovered the head patterns for James T. Holly’s decoys; the heir to McGaw’s estate had discovered the signed and dated Holly patterns during the emptying out of McGaw’s shop in 1958. When a single maker executed various styles, assigning credit to that maker for particular decoys becomes complicated. Who is to say that the decoy makers of earlier days did not employ helpers in their shops, much as is done today? These apprentices could have changed styles and patterns out of personal preference or to simply ease the repetitive task of carving. Accurately assigning credit to a decoy maker becomes even more difficult when entire families were engaged in the business. In the case of the Graham family, decoy production spanned not just decades but several generations.
The Graham family arrived in America before the dawn of our new republic, emigrating from Scotland and settling in the state of Pennsylvania. William Graham moved his family from Chester County, Pennsylvania to Cecil County, Maryland.
The earliest record of the Graham family in Maryland appears in the first census of the United States in 1790, in which William Graham appears as a resident of Charlestown. Charlestown had been laid out and developed as a town by an act of Assembly in 1742, “there being as yet no such place settled at or near the head of the Chesapeake Bay,” and George Washington recorded visits to Charlestown in his diary on August 10 and September 9, 1795.
The Cecil County tax list of 1786 reveals that William Graham owned property in the “Village of Charlestown” with a total value of $25. By 1795, the value of his holdings had grown to $50, including a 3-acre lot. In 1845, Zachariah B. Graham, William’s son, had accumulated property worth $1,642. Business in the Graham family obviously was prospering. By 1867 Zachariah’s son, John Black Graham, held property with a total value of $2,353.
John Black Graham was born in Charlestown in 1822, one of twelve children born of Zachariah and Rebecca Lewis Graham. Like his father and grandfather before him, he became a cabinetmaker and undertaker. At the death of Zachariah, Graham took over his father’s business and expanded it to include the sale of sand, coal, and fish, as well as boat building and duck decoy carving. During the Civil War, he held the office of county tax collector for Cecil County.
John B. Graham was one of several major decoy makers from the Cecil County area. The others were Benjamin Dye (1821-1896), W. Scott Jackson (1852-1929), William Y. Heverin (1863-1951), George Washington “Wash” Barnes (1861-1915), Henry Lockard (1868-1944), and Carroll Cleveland “Wally” Algard (1883-1959).
Early in Maryland’s history, Charlestown, which is at the point where the North East River flows into the upper region of the Chesapeake Bay, was in competition with Baltimore as the leading port city of the Upper Chesapeake Bay. As history relates, Baltimore established itself as the major port, and Charlestown became a major site of duck hunting and prolific decoy producing. By 1871, Charlestown was listed in the Maryland State Gazette Merchants and Farmers Directory merely as a post village on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad about 43 minutes from Baltimore City.
A unique carving style evolved in this area adjacent to the Susquehanna Flats. In general, decoys from the Flats have round, flat bottoms, balanced with ballast weights, to make them float realistically and right themselves in rough water. The earliest decoys produced on the Cecil County side of the Susquehanna exhibit a paddle tail and a distinct shelf on which the decoy’s neck is attached. John B. Graham is generally considered to be the originator of this style of decoys. Although Holly initially made decoys with the distinct shelf and paddle tail that are associated with Cecil County, his style quickly developed into something very different.
For speed in carving, many years prior to the advent of the duplicating lathe, Holly must have reached the conclusion that he could spoke shave bodies more efficiently without the shelf and tail. Along with the elimination of the shelf the paddle tail was changed to an upswept design. This change likely occurred early in Holly’s carving career; early enough that it set the standard design for the Havre de Grace school of carving. The only three known holdouts or exceptions on the Havre de Grace side of the river were Charles Nelson Barnard, his brother Thomas, and Joseph E. Dye. All of their decoys exhibit well-defined shelves and tails.
The Graham decoys from Cecil County always exhibit the shelf and a well-rounded tail. The tail is subtler than on most Cecil County decoys and does not protrude as far from the body as many do. The decoys attributed to John B. Graham encompass many different styles; all close enough in characteristics to be identified as probably his but varied enough to raise some questions. Some variations are minor, such as those of tail length, tail shape, slope of forehead, width of head, slope of bill (Roman nose), fatness of body, and presence of carved mandibles. Other variations are not so understated, such as the replacement of a solid body with a hollow-carved one for black ducks. In addition to black ducks, John B. Graham carved canvasbacks, redheads, bluebills, and teal.
John B. Graham was recognized primarily as a cabinetmaker and boat builder, as is evidenced by the numerous references to him in publications. In 1871, his listing in the State Gazette indicated his principal occupation as cabinetmaker. In the Delaware State and Peninsula Directory of 1882, his occupation is shown as an undertaker, while his son, John Cooper Graham, appears as a cabinetmaker.
Given the many stylistic variations that appear on Graham decoys, is it reasonable to conclude that more than one Graham made decoys? It is certainly possible that John B. Graham made both solid and hollow-bodied decoys, but perhaps it was his son John who decided that hollowed versions were better for the black ducks and carved them himself. To carry the hypothesis of multiple Graham carvers an additional step, let us first acknowledge that handmade wooden decoys were in use on the Susquehanna Flats by very early in the nineteenth century. Is it not plausible that, if John B. Graham followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as undertaker, cabinetmaker, and boat builder, an earlier Graham might well have been the originator of the Cecil County style, as manifested in the so-called Cleveland canvasbacks (reported to have been gunned over by Grover Cleveland), which some consider to be the earliest Susquehanna Flats decoys?
The comprehensive work Portrait and Biographical Record of Harford and Cecil Counties, Maryland, written and published in 1897, says this about John B. Graham: “It is worthy of special mention that on the site where he now engages in business, members of his family have followed the same occupation for 120 years, a record perhaps unequaled by any other family in Cecil County.” It would be a logical conclusion that the business referred to included decoy making. The Portrait continues: “In the possession of John Black Graham were the tools of cabinet making used by his father and grandfather, but they are so different from those now in vogue that the cabinet makers of today cannot tell for what they should be used.” We sometimes forget that technical advances existed prior to the twentieth century. Certain advances in the development and design of various types of saws could well have led to minor changes in construction that resulted in subtle decoy style changes over a period of years.
The population of Charlestown in 1882 was 250. It was a close-knit community of families all living on or within sight of the North East River. The Delaware State and Peninsula Directory of 1882 lists only eight specialty professions in the town. Three are filled by Grahams—John B., his son John C., and John B.’s brother, F. D. Lafayette Graham, all listed as cabinetmakers and undertakers.
In those days, generations of families were born, lived, and died in the same village, on the same street, even in the same house. Grandfathers, fathers, sons, and brothers worked in the same shop. The Grahams lived together, hunted together, built boats together, made caskets and furniture together, and, most certainly, made decoys together. It is inconceivable that John B. Graham was the only Graham making decoys in Charlestown, Maryland. The variety of styles evident in Graham decoys combined with the listed professions of generations of this family strongly suggests that the diversity evolved from one generation to the next.
I don’t make decoys. I collect them, study them and talk about them, and so does my son. If I made decoys, I think he would make them too. As my good friend Henry Fleckenstein says, if we are worthy of a seat around that pot belly stove in the sky, we can sit there with the Grahams and ask some questions. John B. will answer, “I made that one,” and John C. will likely answer, “I made that one,” then their father and grandfather will probably say, “but you made them on our patterns.”