Jim Pierce is an affable man who’s been an avid hunter and fishermen all his life. He’s been making decoys for 62 years. He says in no uncertain terms that his wife Lori “knew when she married me that I loved to hunt and fish. And I made decoys.”
Pierce retired from Bell Telephone Company at the age of 55 after 36 years of service. But he had started making decoys as a youngster and learned through the “father” of carving—R. Madison Mitchell.
For Pierce, it was more of a hobby: “It really wasn’t a real business. I made them for hunting most of the time, you know what I mean? Then after that, people started collecting them and I still made them for hunting and then it became a business.”
But he’s adamant: “It’s still a hobby.”
It’s evident where his passion is. “The money we made out of here was just extra fun money. The decoy business was extra fun. I wanted to do this for a hobby and because I enjoyed it,” he said.
Pierce said he feels fortunate for the many joys he’s experienced in life, which include spending time with his 11-year-old grandson, Bradley. He has two sons, James and Charles and the day that Charlie told him he wanted to come home and make decoys was one that Jim won’t soon forget.
“I was elated,” he says, laughing.
Clearly, passing on his passion and the traditions of this city are important to him.
How long have you been in Havre de Grace?
"I was born and raised here, it’s a nice community, and ripe for hunting. I grew up in town but when we [wife Lori] got married, we bought land and moved out here [still in Havre de Grace]."
What is it about Havre de Grace and decoys?
"Havre de Grace was a fishing community, with commercial fishing and all that. Plus you had the racetrack here … Out there on the flats by the museum, that was great for hunting back in the 1800s all the way through the '50s and then the celery [grass] died off.
"This area is the decoy capital of the world because there was a lot of gunning here. But not only here, all over. It was a way of life.
"You know, like anything else, things change. It’s died off, declined over the years. They still hunt and fish and it used to be you could go anywhere you want. But there’s restrictions and stuff with all the developments, it’s just changed."
Talk about some of the changes you’ve seen?
"Now, since the late '70s, 90 percent of these decoys [we make] are going to collectors. You’re taking the time and do what we call—gingerbread them up—make them neat. Collectors don’t use them for purposeful hunting.
"That generation that collected decoys are the older people that died off. The younger generation—it’s not there anymore. Most of the people today, both parents are working to pay the house payment, the car payment, the world has changed.
"Years ago decoys were made for something to kill to put something on the table. Now we can go to the supermarket and as long as you got the money and buy anything you want. You want duck, you can buy duck."
What attracted you to the art of decoy carving?
"I enjoy making them because they're what you call tools for the trade to hunt. Nowadays, people want everything modern. People don’t make things by hand anymore. Everything is manufactured.
"In Havre de Grace, you are a waterman so you work the water. Or you work the canneries. You built your own boats. You are a decoy maker because you couldn’t afford to buy decoys. "
What's the best part of making a decoy?
"I like it all. I enjoy the painting [which is done in stages].
"I like doing things with my hands, building things. When I retired I built a guest house. I built my own house. I was in construction. I did a lot of things. I just like doing things. I keep busy.
"But the most fun about it is the people you meet. We’ve met some really great people. You know, all you hear about is the bad side of life but life’s good. And 95 percent of the people in this world are good."