by Allen Linkchorst
The small town of Edgely, Pennsylvania, located along the Delaware River, was once home to numerous duck hunters and decoy carvers. As a rule, they were a sturdy, self-reliant group. During the 1920s and 1930s many duck hunters, often due to the economic times, were required to make all of their equipment by hand, including their duck boats, oars, push poles, gunning boxes and gunning decoys. Welker’s life, in many ways, is a mirror of the day.
William Welker, one of George and Mabel Welker’s four children, was born on June 19, 1909 in Bristol, Pennsylvania. While he was still quite young, the family moved to nearby Edgely, just a few miles upriver. Bill’s mother died when he was 12 years old. After his father remarried, his stepmother, Sally, tended to his rearing.
Welker learned to hunt and fish at his father’s side. Stalking deer, small game and waterfowl, he became an enthusiastic hunter and remained an avid fisherman throughout his lifetime. While it’s unknown exactly when Welker made his first decoy, the family remembers he was hunting ducks by the time he was a teenager. His father, who was a skilled carpenter, encouraged him to make his own hunting rig and loaned him the necessary tools.
Welker also made most of the other tools that duck hunting required, including his own double-ender duck boat. Duck boats from Edgely were of a unique design due to the positioning of the oarlocks. On most boats the oarlocks rested on the deck, but Edgely hunters positioned their oar locks at the end of the deck, partly down the sides. Many believe that noted Delaware River carver, Joe King, pioneered this style, a design copied Welker as well as his friend and next door neighbor, Bob Freirich.
Welker carved his decoys in his basement workshop. The family remembers that he not only made and sold numerous decoys, but he repaired and repainted other hunter’s decoys as well. Freirich was a frequent visitor, and Welker’s decoys are very similar to his work.
Welker’s decoys are hollow-carved of spruce, pine or red cedar with pine heads. They exhibit incised raised-wing primaries and nicely carved tails. The two-piece body is held together with nails and white lead and the seam rides above the water line. Welker’s early decoys were more apt to be round-bottomed; later models have a flatter or flat bottoms. All were made in the Tullytown style – shallow bodies with a flat back and an overall oblong pear-shaped form that is wide at the rear and narrows to a somewhat pinched breast.
The heads on Welker’s decoys are well carved with incised nostrils and a distinctive nail, occasionally painted, on the end of the bills. All have quality glass eyes. Welker liked to vary the head positions on his decoys, believing they gave a more realistic appearance to a rig. Some heads were slightly turned, and they were made with high necks, a regular head position and as resting snugglers. Most are set upon a small neck shelf.
For ballast Welker used an oblong lead weight, three inches in length, held in place by two brass screws. He cast them himself, using a hardwood mold. Other than the name stamped into the weight, they are identical to those used on decoys made by Freirich. It’s unknown whether Freirich made his own or Welker produced them for him.
Welker stopped carving and duck hunting in the 1940s, although he continued to hunt deer and small game and fish. In 1956 he bought a house on the water in Tuckerton, New Jersey where he docked his 26-foot garvey. On one trip he reportedly caught 126 flounder. He also shared a hunting cabin in the Poconos with a few of his friends. He raised canaries and parakeets (he won numerous awards at bird shows) and enjoyed growing flowers.
Although Welker’s decoys are similar to Freirich’s, there are subtle contrasts. All of Frierich’s decoys have a single or double incised cut on the sides of the bodies, sometimes delineated with a stroke of paint, to denote wing speculums. There is also additional relief carving within the area of the raised V primaries. None of the birds from Welker’s rig include those details. And the incising within the raised wings themselves is better executed on Freirich’s decoys. Freirich also artistically blended his colors in a fluid wet on wet painting technique, a style Welker never mastered.
Welker died on January 4, 1985. Research indicates that this well-remembered family man, having spent many days of his life hunting and fishing on the river, had carved decoys for a period eclipsing 20 years. Both William Welker and his neighbor Robert Freirich produced quality decoys, among the finest of the Delaware River area. Unfortunately the lack of exposure has long denied Welker and his decoys the respect and recognition they deserve.
For the complete story, please see the Jan./Feb. 2001 issue of Decoy Magazine.
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