Duck decoy exhibit part of Erie museum

ERIE — Frank Buchner made a living working on ships that traveled throughout the Great Lakes in the first half of the last century.

He was a captain and engineer on what were then known as “sand suckers,” which were large vessels, often converted freighters, deployed to dredge channels. The job involved long shifts and plenty of down time.

Buchner filled that time with the hobby that made him a household name, at least in households where conversations revolved around waterfowl hunting.

Several examples of Buchner’s work — individually-carved and ornately-decorated wooden duck decoys — are part of an exhibit at the Erie Art Museum.

The exhibit includes the work of several prominent carvers who once called the Erie area home, including Ken Chandley, Roger Ebisch, Jack Sweet and Harry Hahn, who was believed to be Erie County’s oldest resident when he died last fall at the age of 107.

But if the local community of carvers that all but disappeared with the arrival of plastic decoys in the 1950s had what amounted to a rock star, it would have been Buchner.

“He developed quite a reputation for making the best decoys, to the point where people were able to recognize his work without knowing who made it,” said Rick Hovis, an Erie resident whose extensive research into local carvers helped lead to the museum’s first exhibit of decoys in the early 1990s. “They were fantastic.”

And valuable, with some Buchner decoys fetching upward of $60,000 at auction, Hovis said.

Buchner died in 1946, not long before the painstaking process of carving decoys from wood became obsolete with the passage of laws allowing the use of cheap, mass-produced plastic versions by waterfowl hunters.

But his legacy lives on with decoys that continue to circulate, some in the hands of private owners and some in the archives of the Erie Art Museum, whose director, John Vanco, said they represent examples of folk art sculpture.

“He carved elaborate colors and patterns onto the backs of the ducks,” Vanco said. “That wasn’t something that was really functional or that made a big difference to the hunters, but it made his carvings very distinctive, and very beautiful.”

The duck decoy exhibit is located in the museum’s Little Things Gallery and likely will remain open for at least one year, Vanco said.

While what remains of the wooden decoy-carving community now is centered mainly in the Chesapeake Bay area, Vanco and Hovis said. Erie was a hub for carvers around the turn of the 20th century thanks in part to its proximity to a major waterfowl flyway.

Lake Erie, Pymatuning Reservoir and other smaller waterways in the region lie along a major waterfowl migration route that has long attracted duck hunting enthusiasts. As a result, local carvers never suffered from a lack of business.

“You just can’t find them anywhere now, except maybe in an exhibit,” Hovis said. “They’re probably out there, but it’s extremely rare to see one.”