by Phil Ryser
The area of New Jersey known as the Twin Rivers, located north of Pt. Pleasant - the Head of Barnegat Bay - has been long overlooked by decoy collectors. Prior to the 1870s the north river, the Navasink, was named the North Shrewsbury, and the south river, the Shrewsbury, was called the South Shrewsbury. The locals simply referred to these Twin Rivers as the North or South River.
The Twin Rivers feed into the Sea Bright Channel, which in turn empties into the Raritan Bay. The area’s shallow bays and estuaries contained large amounts of wild rice and eelgrass, which attracted huge flocks of scaup, canvasbacks, brant and other divers, even puddle ducks. Even today thousands and thousands of waterfowl use the Twin Rivers as their wintering quarters. In addition, flocks of shorebirds visit the area every spring and fall, affording additional opportunity for sports.
Located across the Bay from New York City, this area was populated and developed years before Pt. Pleasant, Tuckerton or the Mullica River attracted hunters to their shores. Tourism was a major industry here as early as the 1880s. Wealthy city people seeking an escape from their urban settings purchased large summer estates. Some settled here, commuting to their jobs in New York City by steamboat. President Ulysses S. Grant made Long Branch his home for a time, just one of many renowned dignitaries who flocked to these shores.
Historically, this waterfowl Mecca attracted hundreds of sportsmen from New York City for the duck hunting opportunities available here. Numerous hotels and guesthouses, some with as many as 80 rooms, provided lodging. They also offered guide services, complete with boats, decoys and sinkboxes. It was not unusual to see as many as 12 steamboats ferrying guests to the many hotels and boarding houses, such as Price’s Hotel (established 1854) on Pleasure Bay, or the New York Hotel (est. 1867) and the Riverside Hotel (est. 1890) on Branchport Creek. Other hotels in Little Silver and Red Bank provided similar amenities.
The hunting and fishing opportunities in the Twin Rivers area were so plentiful that an urgent demand for boats and decoys developed. The Huff family of Long Branch, recognizing the opportunity, accommodated that demand over three generations for 75 years. Boat builders, decoy makers and hunting guides, the Huffs earned their reputation as a hard working, respected, middle class family. Civic minded, they participated in various community events and played an active role in the Methodist Church.
Charles P. Huff, the patriarch of this family of boat builders, was born on December 4, 1822 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Information relative to his early years is unavailable, but it is known that he married Mary Craig and they raised two sons, Charles H. and George W. Huff. For a time the family lived in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Green Point in New York City, where the elder Huff earned a living as a boat builder.
The family moved to East Long Branch in 1861 and they were considered early settlers of the town. Soon after the move, Huff began to apply his skills as a boat builder, supplying lobster and pound boats to the locals. In 1868 Huff opened Huff’s Boat Yard with his older son Charles H., who was now in his early twenties. With the mounting need for good, seaworthy craft and the exploding demand for fresh seafood and waterfowl - which were supplied to the local communities and hotels, as well as New York City and Philadelphia - the business quickly grew over the years. So many fishermen lived in and around Long Branch that locals referred to it as Fishtown.
The Huff Boat Yard was located behind their house at 337 Liberty St. A pair of tracks from the boathouse led into Troutman’s Creek, a deepwater tributary that allowed large boats access to the Shrewsbury River and beyond. The family built numerous lobster and pound boats and miscellaneous small craft, including sneakboats. They also stored, repaired, repainted and maintained boats for others.
As did many locals who worked on the Twin Rivers, the Huff family turned to waterfowl hunting for both food and profit. They produced decoys for themselves and others and operated a duck hunting guide service. The two sons, supplemented with hired help, took out gunning parties throughout the season. The family owned several sneakboats and had a rig of 350 to 400 decoys, shorebirds included. They also raised ducks and geese, housed in pens next to the boathouse, for use as live callers. Most of the live duck and goose decoys were used on the eelgrass flats of the South River (the Shrewsbury). All the Huffs gunned for shorebirds in the spring and fall. Their shorebird decoys are marked with an “H” carved into the bodies.
Since their primary business was boat building, the Huff family usually purchased decoys from others. The estimated 400-600 decoys they produced over their careers were generally made during slack periods at the boatyard. The only exception was Oscar Huff, the son of Charles H., who carved a rig of decoys for his own use. Included in the family rig were many brant and geese by Harry V. Shourds, as well as decoys by Rowley Horner, Taylor Johnson and a number by several local carvers. As was the practice of many decoy makers, the Huffs repaired and repainted numerous decoys for others, including hundreds for Price’s Hotel on Pleasure Bay.
Charles P. Huff made his first decoys while living in Brooklyn in the 1840s. He brought his rig to Long Branch and began carving replacement decoys around 1863 in what would now be described as a Twin Rivers style. The decoys were hollow carved from cedar with a deep, wide body, narrow or pinched breast and a small, usually upturned, tail; the portion beneath the tail is somewhat pointed. The decoys, designed to handle fast waters, had an overall shape of a boat.
The hollowed bodies were held together with white lead and nails or screws. One or two small hardwood dowels run from the top of the bodies into the bottom section, helping to hold the seam, which floats just above the waterline, tight. For ballast, Huff used an oblong lead weight, approximately 2-1/2 inches long and one inch wide, held in place with two brass screws. An iron staple was driven into the breast to attach the anchor line. Bronze, brass or iron staples and screw eyes are commonly found on pre-1900 Twin River decoys. Huff carved an “X” on the bottom of many of his decoys.
The well-carved heads, upright and perky, were skillfully joined to the bodies, glued and nailed onto a small neck shelf on many. The bills on some have painted nostrils and nails; others are plain. Huff carved eyes in the heads and usually painted them black. They are so well done they appear to be glass.
All of Huff’s decoys have simple paint patterns and a minimum of colors. The paint used on the bills of his black ducks was also used for feathering on the back and sides as well as the ticking on the cheeks. A wide crescent design, approximately 3-1/2 inches long by a half-inch wide, Kelly green in the rear with the front portion black, was applied for the speculum. He also employed this technique to denote wings on his umber-colored black ducks. Huff is known to have made black ducks, mergansers and yellowlegs. He died on October 3, 1907.
Charles H. Huff was born in Brooklyn on March 11, 1846 and moved with his family to Long Branch in 1861. He married Anna Hulic and they raised a son and a daughter. The couple lived in a large, comfortable house on 331 Liberty St., just a few doors down from his parents and a short, convenient walk to the family boatyard. Young Huff, like his father, was a respected middle class citizen, an active member of the Methodist Church, a member of the Odd Fellows Lodge and a member of the Royal Arcanum. He died on December 16, 1925 at the age of 79.
Charles likely made his first decoys in the 1860s, not long after the family relocated to Long Branch. Throughout his career he experimented with carving styles and his work does vary. The majority was made in the classic Twin Rivers style, but he also produced solid flat-bottomed decoys with stout keels.
His round-bodied birds are well carved with smooth straight tails that lack the upsweep of his father’s decoys. The bodies are held together with either one or two wooden dowels in the back, white lead between the seams and nails spaced approximately a half-inch apart. The nail heads were covered with marine putty. Interestingly some decoys were nailed together from the top and others were nailed from the bottom. And not all of his decoys have seams that ride above the waterline, yet all known specimens are watertight after a hundred plus years of hard use. The ballast weights on the round-bodied decoys are oblong, similar in size and shape to his father’s. Some decoys have 1-1/2-inch holes drilled into the bottom where hot lead was poured. Later a brass screw was added to hold the weights in place. Charles used the same iron staple to attach the anchor line, but he also added a second smaller staple in the rear, allowing two decoys to be rigged in tandem to the same anchor. He carved an “xx” on the bottom of many of his decoys to distinguish his work from his father’s. Others have a “C” with two slashes superimposed over it with the letter “H” carved in the middle. Many decoys are branded “C.H. & G.W. Huff” or “C.H. & G.W. Huff, Boat Builders, East Long Branch, N.J.” Because of the size of the brand and the roundness of the decoys’ bottoms, part of the lettering is missing on most. Obviously they were designed to mark their boats.
The heads on Huff’s decoys are taller, thinner and not as refined as his father’s work. Glued and nailed to a small neck shelf, a wooden dowel was inserted through the top of the head into the body. Some of the bills have painted nails or nostrils though most are plain.
Most of Huff’s decoys have simple paint patterns. His black ducks, the majority of his work, were painted with only four colors, and two of those were on the speculum. The bodies are dark umber and the bills are an olive drab green. He mixed these two paints and used the resulting color to create the ticking on the face and to paint the feathers on the back and sides. The speculums were painted kelly green and black, similar to his father’s. Huff’s scaup decoys, while simply painted, are a little more stylish, as he applied the black on the breast in a scalloped pattern, a feature found on some of George’s bluebills as well.
The keeled decoys were an attempt to combat the fast currents of the Sea Bright Channel and the Shrewsbury River Island areas. The flat solid bodies were made from 2-1/4 to 2-1/2-inch thick cedar planks, and a bolt was driven from the bottom of the decoy into the head. This bolt was later covered by the keel, which was glued to the bottom with nails or screws added. The keels were made of a heavy stock of wood that was tapered on four sides and a lead ballast weight was attached to a flat spot on the bottom. The keels were branded or marked similarly to his other decoys. Mergansers and scaup decoys have been found with these large attached keels.
Charles H. Huff is known to have made black ducks, buffleheads, mergansers, goldeneyes and scaup. Some of the decoys are obviously the combined efforts of father and son, and some of the decoys were the work of the two brothers. This would account for the similarities and differences within their body of work.
George W. Huff, born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1859, was still an infant when the family moved to Long Branch and grew up at the family boatyard, eventually helping his father and older brother operate the business. He married Harriet Wooley and they raised a son and daughter. George lived at the family home on 337 Liberty St., taking ownership of the property after his parent’s death. A respected member of the community, he was active in the Methodist Church - as were all the Huffs - and held offices in several fire companies. George lived a long life, passing away on October 15, 1945, just before the end of World War II. He witnessed more changes during his lifetime than people of most eras, from the horse and buggy days of his early years to the advent of the jet age.
Huff’s decoys, hollow carved from cedar, are larger and more rounded than those of his father and brother. The two-piece bodies are held together with while lead and nails or screws spaced approximately 1-1/2 inches apart. Like his brother, he sometimes drove the nails from either the top or bottom, and sometimes the body seams lie below the waterline. They are also ballasted in style identical to his brother’s work, with an oblong or embedded circle weight secured with brass screws. An iron staple and a second smaller staple served to attach the anchor line. Either of the family brands was used on many of his decoys.
The heads of George’s decoys are also a little heavier than the family style, probably to stay in proportion with his larger decoys. He also attached them differently, using a long, thin nail or screw that was driven from the top of the head into the body after he glued and nailed them onto a small raised neck shelf. George used glass eyes or tacks and some of the bills have painted nostrils and nails while others are plain. The paint patterns are typical Huff family style, with a minimum of colors and the identical speculums. George is credited with making black ducks, bluebills, goldeneyes and buffleheads. Like other Huff decoys, many were the work of George and his brother, as well as Oscar, Charles’s son, who eventually contributed to the family’s business.
Oscar H. Huff was born in Long Branch in 1888 and followed in the family traditions of duck hunting and decoy making. An avid gunner, he began making decoys as a teenager, mainly for his personal rig, although he did contribute to the family efforts and provided guiding services. He also helped at the boatyard, but primarily earned a living as a steamfitter and plumber. It appears that the Seaman Boat Works, established by William Seaman in 1879 on Manahasset Creek, had progressed further than the Huffs boat building business. Seaman, who produced a variety of boats, is credited with designing the Sea Bright Skiff. Their progress likely dampened the success of the Huff’s family business.
Oscar used his father and grandfather’s patterns to make his hollow cedar decoys, yet they are the blockiest and least refined of all the family’s work. While his black ducks are somewhat rounded, the scaup are flat-bottomed, devoid of the scalloped paint patterns his father applied to the breasts. The black ducks have more feathering on the back and sides of any of the Huff decoys and the bills, particularly on the scaup, are thicker. He also used glass eyes on all of his decoys. Some of the decoys have “O.H.” carved into the bottoms; others have a large “O” with an “H” carved on the inside of it. He made a much more limited number of decoys than the first two generations, and black ducks and scaup are the only two species he is credited with producing. He died in 1970 at the age of 81.
The Huff family boatyard was operated from 1868 to 1943. The Huff boathouse was intact until 1945, when half of the building was torn down. The final demolition occurred in 1967.
The Twin Rivers area was clearly an established waterfowling Mecca by the time of the Civil War. Its geographic location in relation to New York City provided a convenient draw for sports and a natural outlet for market hunters. Although collectors and historians have mostly overlooked the area, its carvers may have produced New Jersey’s earliest decoys.
For the complete story, please see the July/Aug. 2002 issue of Decoy Magazine.
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