By JoAnn M. Macdonald
Meet David “Dave” Walker, one of the “Havre de Grace Style” carvers who works quietly in the shop next to his home at 221 Lapidum Road. The sign at the road announces “Walker Decoys” in a beautiful country setting near the Susquehanna State Park. On the January day we visited, the sky was beginning to clear and there was a brisk wind. The recent snow and cold were abating; that was a good sign. Another good sign was Maggie, Dave’s dog, who I was told, would announce my arrival and Dave would come out to show me the entrance to his shop. And announce me she did with a few barks and tail wags. Dave’s greeting was a smile and a friendly voice. Maggie had broken the solitude of creating and painting.
Dave deftly daubed paint on the underbelly of a Speckled-Belly goose as we talked. It was one of the many for an order which was going to ship the following Monday. As he continued painting with swift, deliberate strokes, he told me that he works seven days a week. Later he qualified that when we discussed decoys as seen on the Antiques Road Show. Even an ardent carver such as Dave needs a bit of R&R occasionally.
In 1982 Dave built his shop in a fairly large building. Downstairs are the sanders and the lathe and upstairs is where he paints and has storage space; all neat and clean. Around the shop’s rooms there were other decoys in various stages of completion---Blue Geese, Canada Geese and Snow Geese, hen Mallards and hen Bald Pates. Such beautiful birds and Dave captures their essence in a unique way. On the floor in a corner, there was a basketful of carved heads—various geese, Mallards and Pintails. These duck heads were waiting to be joined to necks and bodies, then sanded and painted, and more sanding and painting until the desired finish was achieved.
As we know, decoy making and carving have evolved into American folklore, more like art deco. They no longer are working decoys, but instead these waterfowl adorn our homes. As if in tribute to the men who sat in blinds on land or on the water waiting for the flock to come in, Dave has shelves of old working decoys in his shop. The weathered decoys are beat up from being tossed into boats and truck beds; their paint-chipped bodies are worn, as we would expect them to be. Their beauty is the story of waiting…and perhaps taking a shot meant for a bird.
A little background about Dave: He attended the local Harford County public schools and graduated from Havre de Grace High School in 1975. We discussed his school activities, and he offered that fishing and hunting were his sports. In fact, he is a bow hunter. On the shop wall there was a picture of his father with a deer. His father was a hunter as well as an avid fisherman. And there was another picture of Dave and his friends on a Louisiana duck-hunting trip. In a few days he would be taking an older friend goose hunting on the Eastern Shore—Johnny Simons from Baltimore County who is 82.
Dave began carving at fourteen, after his Aunt Carol gave him a Jimmy Pierce decoy. He learned the art and craft of decoy carving when he rode his bike to Jimmy Pierce’s shop after school to do the “dirty work”; he laughed as he said it. “He’s been good to me.” I commented, “We all have to start at the bottom.” To which he replied, “No, today they all want to start at the top.”
Dave recalled working at the shop of another much-respected and unforgettable carver, R. Madison Mitchell, along with Jimmy Pierce. He knew Paul Gibson and the others who are remembered at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum—men like Charlie Bryant.
I asked Dave which carvers he considered to be his mentors. “Each was a mentor in his own way,” he said. He met Charlie Joiner in the late ‘80’s—“Joiner was gracious to tell me and show me how to transition from working decoys to decorative decoys.” He uses the same paints. Dave added, “He had taken me under his wing, so to speak.” He learned lots of secrets from Joiner who had learned them from the masters—the Ward Brothers. Experiences like these are ongoing in Dave’s business.
Dave became a life member of the Decoy Museum around the time of its inception and served on the Board of Directors. He was in charge of buildings and grounds and recalled clearing the lot next to the Museum property. It was disappointing to him to see the lot sold and, however, not to the Museum. We agreed the increased expanse of the Museum property would be an asset today.
It is enviable: Since he retired from American Cyanamid in 1989, Dave devotes his time to his decoys, hunting and fishing. As we wound up our visit the sky cleared and brightened the shop a bit more. Maggie and Dave walked me to my car. Maggie bade me goodbye by wagging her tail, and Dave smiled.