BREC’s Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center was filled with the calls of quacking ducks Saturday, but the noise wasn’t coming from the hundreds of duck decoys on display, the quacking came from dozens of boys and girls blowing enthusiastically into their plastic toy beaks and real duck calls.
Hundreds of people, among them many families, crowded into the nature center for the second annual Antique Decoy Show, also called “Duck, Duck, Goose,” — a nod to the family friendly setting, said Claire Coco, Nature Center director.
Last year, the first event was geared to the older generation of carvers and collectors, Coco said, to honor the memory of renowned decoy collector Charles Frank. Part of his extensive collection of decoys is now on permanent display at the center.
“This year we wanted to attract families with kids and get the next generation excited,” Coco said. Their plans were realized, especially outside of the nature center’s building, where children played in the inflatable “Duck House,” examined an oversized duck nest, painted small plaster ducks with markers and even petted live ducklings retrieved from a wading pool.
“It’s so soft,” cooed Elise Ford, 6, as she petted a duckling. She and her dad, Bennett Ford, her mother Kim, and brother Jackson, 8, were there to participate in the activities and also because Bennett is a serious hunter.
“The kids came here to the (nature) camp and told us about it,” Bennett Ford said, adding he wanted to see the decoys, some of which are valued in the tens of thousands of dollars. When asked about his duck hunting, he admitted, at his wife’s good-natured prompting, “there are some occasional challenges to our marriage each year when I’m off chasing ducks.”
Joe Burke and his son, Owen Burke, 10, drove in from Breaux Bridge to see the displays that filled more than two dozen tables inside the building. They also wanted to see the snakes, turtles and other animals in the Nature Center. As they walked through the crowd, Owen happily blew on the duck call he won as a door prize and made plans with his dad for their next hunting venture into the swamps.
Gary Lipham, show coordinator for the Antique Collectors group, said they had more than 40 displays. He characterized the show as “a good partnership” with BREC and they hope it will continue to grow each year. Exhibitors came from as far away as Florida and Texas, but most were from Louisiana, he said.
“We think decoys were first carved about or before the Civil War — the 1860s,” Lipham said. Many decoys can be identified by their maker’s marks or styles, and many have stories attached to them, such as those lost — or found — due to hurricanes.
Some decoys were priced below $100 while many would sell for several hundred dollars and some others were valued in the thousands. The most valuable one, from the Charles Frank collection, is worth $22,000, Lipham said.
“These things were made to hunt ducks — they weren’t made as decorative items,” Lipham said. “The many cultures in Louisiana basically put their own cultures into their decoys. There are Creole and Cajun carvers and western Louisiana carvers and Slavic carvers — they are similar but different.”
Lipham characterized Saturday’s turnout as “overwhelming,” double last year’s attendance.
A dedication ceremony was held for Eric Hutchison, 56, of New Orleans, who grew up duck hunting, carving and painting decoys and other wildlife art with his late father Charles and late uncle Rudolph, both well-known artists. Lipham called Hutchison, “the last of the Creole carvers.”
Hutchison said he carves because he is following his family’s tradition and he and his father and uncle together had created thousands of decoys.
“You can spend days on it or hours on it, depending on the detail you put into it,” Hutchison said. Many of his decoys and other carved birds sell for thousands of dollars.
While several men were carving decoys with some very sharp tools, children in a nearby classroom were whittling tiny ducks from bars of soap. They were using dull-edged wooden pottery-modeling tools with guidance from Pelican Woodcarvers Association volunteers.
“It’s fun,” said Morgan Williams, 5, as she and her sister Avery Williams, 6, worked the aromatic bars into duck-like images. Their grandparents, Bryan and Margie Landry, looked on.
Members of Baton Rouge’s Savario family — David and Melissa and son Jack, 10 — said they had a “great experience” at the event. Jack recently passed his hunter safety course, his mother said, and he was looking forward to hunting with his dad.
“I wanted to learn more about duck calls and duck hunting,” Jack Savario said. They had not hunted ducks together, his dad said, but they will this fall, probably at a state Wildlife Management Area.
That was good news to Mike Patterson who was manning a Ducks Unlimited table near the front door, passing out magazines and signing up new members, about two dozen by midmorning, he said.
“Most of our new members are young people,” Patterson said. “They are our future.”