by Richard Cowan and Richard La Fountain
Richard and Marion Harris are well known for their many years of service to Wildfowler Decoys when it was in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Strangely, their 25-year collaboration as carver and painter respectively of Harris Wild Duck Decoys is little known outside of the Old Saybrook area. Henry Chitwood in his book, "Connecticut Decoys," devoted only one paragraph to them and wrote, "Most of their carvings were made without keels and are better classified as decorative objects."
Richard Harris was born in 1910 in Durham, Connecticut. Marion Herpst was born in New Britain, Connecticut in 1914. They married in 1937 and set up housekeeping in Old Saybrook where they raised two boys and a girl. In 1942 Richard went to work in a local factory that manufactured gunstocks for the thousands of Thompson sub-machine guns needed during World War II. The factory was Wildfowler Decoys, who had largely, but not completely, curtailed its decoy production for the duration of the war. Marion came to work at Wildfowler in 1945, the year the war ended. She had been employed at another local factory, painting watercolor landscapes on lampshades. Richard and Marion were both to work for Wildfowler until its move to Quogue, New York in late 1957.
By 1955 Ted Mulliken, the owner of Wildfowler, had begun to consider a retirement to warmer climes. He discussed the sale of Wildfowler with the Harrises, among others, and although they were interested in making decoys, the purchase of Wildfowler was not among their plans. But Mulliken certainly endorsed their decision, because that very year they purchased a carving machine from Joseph Wysowski, whose company in nearby Westbrook, for years, rough-carved Wildfowler decoys. The spindle machine, a Victory Carving Machine made by the St. Paul Manufacturing Co., is still owned by Robert Harris, Richard and Marion’s son.
The new business, located on Ingham Hill Rd. in Old Saybrook, was named Harris Wild Duck Decoys. Soon after purchasing the machine they issued a small four-page catalog (6 ¼ x 3 ½ inches) and began making decorative carvings. The catalog featured decoy lamps, duck head gunning racks, flying ducks, flying duck lamps and ¾ scale ornamental ducks (about 10 ¼" long, 4 ½" wide and 5" high). All of the decorative carvings were made of high-grade eastern white pine. Gunning birds were not listed in the catalog. This may reflect an agreement with Mulliken, since they were still Wildfowler employees during their first two years of operation.
They did, however, produce gunning decoys. Although not advertised, they were made for local gunners from 1957 to 1975. Local hunters were accustomed to the term "Atlantic Coast Model" through the years of familiarity with Wildfowlers, and quickly applied the term to the Harris decoys, although Richard and Marion never used that name. Bob Harris estimates his parents made nearly 2000 gunning decoys, about 70% made of balsa, 20% cork and the rest pine.
The basic patterns of Harris Wild Duck Decoys are very similar to Wildfowlers, but the heads are more robust. The extra bulk added strength to the white pine used for the heads. White pine is a softwood, unlike the hardwoods used at Wildfowler. The scoter illustrated on the cover of "American Factory Decoys" by Henry Fleckenstein Jr. is actually a Harris decoy, not a Wildfowler. There is a signature fullness to the head and a lack of bill carving, another defining trait. About a dozen rigs of white-wing and surf scoters were made for local gunners. Harris also made rigs of black ducks, mallards, broadbills, whistlers and Canada geese. A few bufflehead, wigeon, green-winged teal, redhead, brant, pintail and canvasback decoys have also been located. And at least one rig of wood ducks and a few sleeper mallards and black ducks were sold.
When painting their own birds, Marion made several changes in the patterns she used at Wildfowler. The one change most easily noted is the use of black paint to separate the face from the bill and delineate the mandibles. While a few birds have the margin between the face and bill wood burned, the vast majority has only the black painted lines to indication bill separation. Working exclusively in oils, she also painted a more detailed feather pattern on the Harris decoys than on the Wildfowlers.
Richard made both solid and hollow pine hunting decoys, although the hollow models are quite rare. In the 1970s he also carved a number of decoys of western red cedar. They were made from mill ends obtained at a local factory that manufactured commercial and residential lighting posts. His cork gunning birds have a ¾-inch bottom board and a standard ¾ by 1 ¼-inch keel that was used on all the hunting decoys. Most of the gunning birds were made of high-density balsa, and collectors have found a surprising number far from their Old Saybrook origins.
Richard and Marion Harris, through their considerable contribution to Wildfowler Decoys and their successful venture of Harris Wild Duck Decoys, are indeed worthy members of Connecticut’s proud heritage of decoy makers and carvers. They deserve to be recognized and remembered.
The authors wish to thank Robert B. Harris for sharing his memories and his parent’s artifacts, and his son, Robert R. Harris, for the photos of the interior of his grandfather’s shop. Additional thanks to Howard Waddell and Edward Heiney for their assistance.
For the complete story, please see the Sept./Oct. 2001 issue of Decoy Magazine.
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