by Richard Cowan and Richard LaFountain
In the late winter of 1961 Charlie Birdsall of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, took a trip to the south shore of Long Island. Whether he was going to look at antique cars at the Automobile Museum in Southampton or to the racetrack at Bridgehampton is unclear, but he made a stop in Quogue to visit the Wildfowler factory. To his surprise there was a sign on the shop door: "Closed. Business for Sale." Since he knew Rab Staniford, Charlie contacted him at his home in nearby Westhampton. Before the day was over Charlie had called his wife Pat in Pt. Pleasant and the Birdsalls had made a commitment to purchase the Wildfowler operation.
A few weeks later Charlie and some auto racing friends drove to Quogue and began to move the Wildfowler stock, patterns and machines to the Birdsall’s backyard in Pt. Pleasant. They utilized an existing garage to set up the operation. The garage at the head of the driveway became a paint shop. Space was laid out for a second building. The carving machines, which had made the trip from Long Island in a racecar trailer, were placed first and the new building was built around them. This building became a combination showroom and workshop.
Charles R. Birdsall was the fourth generation of a Barnegat Bay family that included several carpenters, decoy makers and watermen. Jesse had been the captain of a coastal schooner, Nathaniel was a boat builder and Eugene was a blacksmith and gunsmith. Eugene, Charlie’s grandfather, moved first to Toms River in 1883 and then moved again to Loveland Town (Pt. Pleasant today) in 1890. Charlie’s father and uncles were all decoy makers in the tradition of Charlie’s great-uncle, Jesse Birdsall.
After WW II Charlie and his brother James went into business as Birdsall Brothers Builders. In the early 1950s he began to work with a local mason named Johnny Hillman. A friendship developed that was to last for the rest of Charlie’s life. They hunted and made decoys together. For many years Tuesday night was their regular visiting time at one or the other’s home.
In 1958 Charlie was injured in a stock car race and while convalescing was diagnosed with a rare form of tuberculosis. He was hospitalized for nearly a year and after recovering could no longer practice his trade, building houses, although he never gave up his trademark cigars. When he discovered that Wildfowler was for sale in 1961, he was thrilled. During that phone call from Quogue, Pat had encouraged him to buy Wildfowler. Here was an opportunity to own and operate a business from home. Although he had some physical limitations after his illness, Charlie had enormous energy, and making decoys was a business he could easily handle. The house and the "factory in the back yard" became a social center for many local carvers and baymen.
The Birdsall family’s daily schedule ran around the decoys. Pat ran the household, manned the phone in the house and communicated by intercom with the operations in the workshops. Dinner was served at 4 P.M. because by five o’clock friends dropped by to chat or help out. According to Bernadine Pierce, Charlie’s youngest daughter, the entire family worked in the business, often until late in the evening.
During her high school days Bernie helped with most everything. She recalls sanding the assembled birds and sealing the pine ones with shellac for her father to paint. (The balsa birds weren’t primed.) During the daytime Don Kitchen, a local police officer who worked part-time at Wildfowler, often did these jobs. Later she learned how to insert the eyes and paint the base colors for the gunning birds before Charlie finished the feathering and details. As time went on she learned to burn feather details into the unpainted decoratives by using a wood-burning pen. Bernie’s feathered birds became a very popular gift shop item. Quite a few of these feathered decoys were made into planters by boring a hollow 3-inch hole in the back that was filled with half of a Styrofoam ball. Many of the burned and stained birds are dated and signed "Charles R. Birdsall" and "Bernadette Regan." Regan was her married name after high school and these birds are dated in the early 1970s. Between 400 and 500 stained mallards and pintails were made; most of the planters were pintails.
Patti, Bernie’s older sister, was a nurse and helped by accompanying her father to decoy and wildlife shows where she sold decoys to the public. She married Tommy Gamble and after his tour in Vietnam, he came to work full time for his father-in-law. Tommy did everything but painting. He carved, assembled, sanded, boxed, shipped the finished birds and sold items in the retail shop. Charlie Tilton, another full time employee, did most of the machine carving. Artie Birdsall, Charlie’s nephew, came to work in the fall of 1972. He also worked in all phases of the operation. Charlie himself did the painting of all the gunning birds. He did the planning for the business and could often be found manning the show room.
Several people painted the decorative birds. They worked on a piecework basis and usually worked at home. Charlie used the paint shop primarily to paint the gunning decoys. The painters of the ornamental decoys can be identified by the initials painted under the bills of the birds. "DC" was Dottie Clayton, "AB" was Anne Bennett, "LB" was Lettie Bennett and "AL" indicates birds done by both Anne and Lettie, who were sisters. Some of the finest decorative decoys, marked "WC," were done by Bill Cranmer of Beach Haven, a well-known carver in his own right. Bill Keim of Neptune, one of Charlie’s former gunning partners, also painted decoratives. Some of Keim’s birds are marked "WKeim" and some "WK." Many decorative decoys have a rubber –stamped "Charles R. Birdsall," an ink signature by Charlie, and the painter’s initials under the bill. Many of the later (1970s) models have a "cats-eye" speculum.
Slowly the Wildfowler paint patterns changed to reflect Charlie’s style. All of the puddle ducks and geese have a right-angle slash across the leading edge of the primaries. It’s assumed this distinctive mark was used continuously on the gunning birds from 1961 until 1977. Some decoys stamped "Old Saybrook" exhibit this slash, suggesting that Charlie must have completed and/or painted decoys inherited from the Connecticut and Long Island operations. In general, the feathering is much more detailed than the paint on birds from Quogue. One important identifying mark is the absence of lathe carving around the bills of all but the earliest decoys from Point Pleasant. However, many of the gunning birds do have a wood-burned separation of the bill from the face.
Benjamin Moore oil-based house paint was used exclusively on the gunning birds. The resulting finish has more depth and a higher sheen than the paint on the Quogue decoys. The pine and cedar birds have already begun to develop a fine patina such as is associated with Old Saybrook decoys.
Part of Charlie’s vision for the future of the company was to include birds carved by well-known decoy carvers. He developed a line of historical decoys that included a black duck and a goose copied from Harry V. Shourds. He did two traditional New Jersey style brant, one by Shourds and the second modeled from a Rowley Horner decoys. Inserts in the 1962, 1966 and 1971 catalogs list a Barnegat model brant that could be ordered as a snow goose (white brant), white front goose (speckled belly) or blue goose. They were all special order only.
Several active carvers contributed designs that became popular Wildfowler items. Full-size and ½-size swans were sent by Charlie’s good friend, Madison Mitchell, of Havre de Grace, Maryland. Lem Ward of Crisfield, Maryland contributed patterns for broadbill, canvasback, pintail and goldeneye decoys. Bill Cranmer carved a broadbill to be included in the line. George Walker made a loon and Lloyd Johnson of Bay Head, New Jersey carved a Mason style curlew. "The Ward style birds were good gunners and quite a few of them were sold locally," says Artie Birdsall. Surprisingly, few of these special birds have come to the decoy market in recent years.
As a gunner himself, Charlie had come to appreciate the stability of the flat-bottomed Wildfowler pattern compared to the more stylish, round-bottomed Barnegat Bay birds. He produced 5000 or more gunning decoys a year largely following the Wildfowler style. The 1960’s catalogs even use the same photos that were originated in Old Saybrook. Superior model birds were produced in balsa, select pine and hollow cedar. Atlantic Coast freshwater coots were available in pine. All oversize birds were made of high-density balsa with flat ¾ by 1-inch keels. Occasionally a run of large balsa birds would be hollowed because the wood was so dense. Teals were made of pine with ¾-inch square keels that were later ½-inch square. No production records are known, but surviving decoys suggest that most gunning birds were made in balsa or select pine. The more expensive cedar was a special-order item and Charlie had to pick it up himself from a source in Trenton.
"Uncle Charlie had the best of both worlds. He made lots of fine gunning birds and also many decoratives," says Artie Birdsall. Indeed, under Charlie’s ownership the production of ornamental decoys began to outstrip that of the gunning birds and the method of distribution changed significantly. In addition to a small but very active retail shop, Birdsall developed several large commercial accounts. In the early days he rented several tables at the Asbury Park boat show each year. For many years Point Pleasant Hardware carried an excellent selection of Wildfowler decoys, as did Abercrombie and Fitch and Crossroads of Sport in New York City. He developed a major account with the Lane Chair Company of Spring Lake, New Jersey, manufacturers of Lane cedar chests. Lane marketed many decoratives to smaller retailers through the Gift Distribution Center at 225 5th Avenue in NYC. Lane also showed Wildfowler decoys at major merchandizing shows in Texas and the Middle West. The decoys produced for Lane were largely stained birds with a heavy emphasis on small birds, such as teal and bufflehead. Such broad marketing resulted in orders from all 50 states and several foreign countries. In addition, he continued to advertise gunning decoys in sporting magazines, such as Outdoor Life, as well as the new decoy magazines, Decoy Collectors Guide, The Toller Trader and Decoy World.
For the first two years the business struggled a bit. In the first year he had to chisel the word "Quogue" off the tool used to burn the brand before he could afford to get a new electric branding iron. Some early Point Pleasant birds are found without a location evident in the seal. But within two years, with Charlie’s business acumen and energy, plus the family’s total commitment, the business was doing very well.
With success came many innovative ideas. He increased the number of styles offered for some species. For example, four different brant were made: oversized, undersized, Shourds model and Horner model. Standing black ducks were made for field or marsh use. In addition to standard geese, some turned head and hissing birds were made. The historical models were certainly innovative among decoy factories. The number of decorative models was significantly increased, as ornamentals became a larger share of the market. One rig of 36 Horner style brant was made by Charlie and painted by Johnny Hillman for their personal use. It can be identified by the Roman numerals I to XXXVI hand carved in the bottoms.
Not all Point Pleasant birds are branded, but the vast majority of the gunning decoys were marked with a round seal containing a canvasback. An electric branding iron was mounted in a cradle that held the decoys, assuring uniform placement of the brands. As the hot brand was used it began to gum-up, and the brand became less distinct or lopsided. Therefore collectors often find birds with partial brands on Point Pleasant as well as Old Saybrook and Quogue decoys.
The bottoms of the decorative birds, or their bases, were marked with a rubber stamp. Most are also signed in ink, "Charles R. Birdsall." After he sold the business in 1977, Charlie would sometimes sign previously unstamped Point Pleasant Wildfowlers. He also had a rubber stamp inscribed "Charles R. Birdsall" that he used in addition to a personal signature. His own personal rigs from the 1962 to 1977 period had both the Wildfowler brand and "CRB." He also drove a small brass escutcheon pin in the eye of the canvasback inside the Wildfowler seal on these birds.
Charlie was a fascinating and multi-talented man with enormous energy. A lifelong racing enthusiast, he raced stock cars and during the Wildfowler years owned five Harley-Davidson motorcycles, including a pink model with "Charlie and Pat" inscribed on the gas tank. Racing was often a family affair with everyone going off on Sundays to tracks in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Charlie was also an excellent musician. He was a stand-up bass player and even played with Nelson Riddle’s big band in the 1940s. He was well known in the jazz clubs of New York City. He and his family band often played locally. Charlie played bass, Bernie played guitar, Patti played vibes and Tommy Gamble was the drummer. In retirement in southern Florida, Charlie played in a 16-piece jazz band called The Second Time Around.
Charlie ran the business until his retirement in 1977. He sold the business to Amel and Karen Massa of Babylon, New York who moved Wildfowler back to Long Island. After he moved to Florida, and until his death in 1986, he continued to carve. Each summer he would return to Point Pleasant to visit and sell his own decoys at the Barnegat Bay Decoys showroom owned by Rick Brown and housed in the very buildings Birdsall had used to operate Wildfowler so successfully. More recently the house and the former factory buildings have returned to the family and Bernie lives in the family home.
The Point Pleasant era was a very successful one for Wildfowler. The business would continue to prosper in Babylon, as Karen and Amel Massa were to incorporate and expand on the innovations begun by Charlie Birdsall. The next segment in the series will follow the Babylon years and discuss how the Massas adapted to a changing decoy market.
Thanks to Artie Birdsall, James Deevy, Kurt Marsolek, Bernadine Pierce, Jamie Reason and JoeTonelli for information provided for this story.
For the complete story, please see the May/June 2001 issue of Decoy Magazine.
Read Part One | Read Part Two | Read Part Three | Read Part Four | Read Part Five
Tidbits Main Index