How iron influenced the wild waterfowling of the Chesapeake Bay.

Step outside along the Chesapeake Bay this time of year and you’ll hear it before you see it. Located along the Atlantic Flyway, the air is filled with the sound of more than a million birds, migrating south and settling along these waters as they have for countless centuries, with perhaps none more popular in our neck of the woods than that of the winter waterfowl.

For their beauty and grace, of course, but also because, come December, their chatter begins to mix with what could be mistaken for distant thunder, as hordes of hunters partake in another age-old ritual: trying their luck on gunning the many ducks and Canada geese who call this place their seasonal second home.

“As a youngster, when the geese would migrate, my parents would get me and my sister out of bed at night to hear the migrating flocks,” says Chesapeake historian C. John Sullivan, whose personal artifact collection includes countless antique decoys, vintage ammunition boxes, and various taxidermy throughout his home in Bel Air, Maryland. “Waterfowling is a tradition that is still alive and well, and I think will always be here.”

As the nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay has long been the mecca of waterfowl hunting, with the birds once so abundant that old-time hunters said they would blanket the waters and black out the skies. This included more than a quarter-million canvasback ducks alone—half of the species’ entire population. It was these birds, in particular, that gave us this region its revered reputation (not to mention us our cast-iron connection).

At the turn of the 20th century, these especially tasty diving ducks were considered the filet mignon of wild fowl, drawing presidents (Grover Cleveland) and celebrities (Annie Oakley) to hunting clubs of the Chesapeake headwaters. Along the mouth of the Susquehanna River, the low-lying upper bay “flats” had become hallowed ground, speckled with the bird’s favored food sources such as wild celery and widgeon grasses. With the expansion of railroads and the invention of refrigeration, canvasback became a widely sought-after delicacy, shipped from Baltimore to Boston to fine-dining establishments like the Waldorf Astoria in New York. 

Demand gave rise to a newfound market on the Susquehanna Flats, and with it came weaponry that could harvest their catch in greater numbers, from the punt gun—the size of a small cannon, capable of striking dozens of ducks with a single shot—to the sink box—a highly effective boat in which hunters would hide camouflaged and wait for their unsuspecting targets. The latter was a gamechanger, and as the name suggests, it was sunk down to water level using flat-bottomed cast-iron decoys, sold by the pound for just several cents apiece.

“At 24 pounds apiece and only 6 or 7 cents a pound, they clearly didn’t mean that much to them,” says Sullivan. “They were created for utilitarian purposes.”

 

Initialed decoys with iron elements by foundry owners. Images courtesy of C. John Sullivan.

This was a time when iron foundries were commonplace, including Maryland’s premier Principio Ironworks—one of the first iron furnaces in the United States, located a stone’s throw from the Flats. Before its foray into waterfowling gear, it supplied cannons and cannon balls to American troops during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, with George Washington’s father serving as a primary investor. The owners’ initials would eventually appear on the bottom of their very own cast-iron decoys.

“At this time, decoys weren’t signed, and they were no more to the hunter than a hammer would be to a carpenter,” says Sullivan, noting that these iron decoys were likely designed by the region’s soon-to-be-famous wood carvers. “And yet the foundry owner thought enough of his decoy rigs that he put his initials on them—it declared ownership”—as well as some potential sense of pride, towing the line between function and art.

In nearby Baltimore County, the owners of the A. Weiskittel & Son Stove Foundry also added initials to their own cast-iron anchor weights, which would be tied to the bottom of floating wooden decoys. For the broader public, they created miniature versions—painted in canvasback colors, no less—as decorative salesman samples fit for ash trays or paperweights to promote their cast-iron bathtubs. (These guys loved cast iron; even their local family crypt, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is made entirely out of the material.)

Known for their cast-iron stoves and architecture such as the George Peabody Library, the Bartlett-Hayward Company in Baltimore City played an especially notable role. As avid waterfowl hunters, they, too, forged their initials into cast-iron weights, this time in the ballast-style, appearing on the underside of the decoy. But in honor of their favorite pastime, they also made two life-size, cast-iron Newfoundlands to stand guard at their downtown offices. These were replicas of the region’s first real hunting dogs, which made their American debut via the Port of Baltimore in the early 1800s, and the predecessors of the modern-day Chesapeake Bay retriever.

 

 America’s first state dog—the Chesapeake Bay retriever.

 

About a century later, though, market hunting would come to an abrupt halt. The passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 eliminated the commercial trade of wild game and implemented the country’s first harvest limits in order to protect their quickly depleting populations. In turn, the sinkbox fell out of favor in local jurisdictions, and within less than two decades, it was federally banned forever.

“There’s speculation that many of those cast-iron decoys were just thrown overboard when the sinkbox was outlawed,” says Sullivan, noting that others might have been sold as scrap metal. “Some families repurposed them for lawn ornaments or doorstops.” And a few do appear in the occasional yard sale or estate auction.

At this time, the canvasback populations had already begun to decline, worsened over the decades by degrading water quality, then decimated by the loss of grasses following Hurricane Agnes in 1972. On a recreational scale, hunting shifted to other more abundant species, such as mallard ducks and Canada geese, where the smaller cast-iron decoy weights lived on until the industry’s decline left them to be replaced by the less cumbersome lead that is so common today.

Still, the imprint of those glory days—of both waterfowling and cast-iron—continues to linger on the Chesapeake. Though no longer in use, the Principio Furnace still stands, some 80 miles north of our offices, and all around it, uphill efforts are underway to improve bay water quality. Both state and federal regulations are in place to foster sustainable bird populations, with large rafts of canvasbacks even recently spotted in those wide, shallow, grass-strewn flats that have marked some of the finest waterfowl hunting in the world. 

This season, we’re rooting for the birds—and of course, the occasional wild game feast.

December 20, 2021 — Dennis Powell

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