Carving a Niche
Duck decoys are a Caines family legacy
Jerry Caines and Roy Caines of Georgetown, South Carolina, draw strength and inspiration from their grandfather and great uncle’s renowned wooden duck decoys, continuing a family legacy of rare craftsmanship and fraternal partnership.
In the 1730s, the first Caines boarded a ship from England bound for the Colonies; they were dreaming of a new life in a place where they would own property. Wading and slashing through the thick, untamed Lowcountry jungle near present-day Hobcaw Barony, they found their claim and for more than 100 years developed their family homestead, establishing deep roots in Georgetown County. The Caines family lost ownership of the property some time after the Civil War to wealthier northern proprietors, colloquially known as “carpetbaggers,” who financially benefited from the aftermath of the war.
In 1905, Bernard M. Baruch, an economic advisor to presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, purchased the old Caines homestead as part of Hobcaw Barony. This mattered very little to Hucks Caines, the grandfather of Jerry and Roy Caines, and the rest of his family. From their perspective, their family had been hunting and fishing on the property since before the existence of the United States, and they did not intend to stop. Baruch sought justice regarding their poaching on what was now lawfully his land in the courts but found none because Hucks and his brothers kept close company with the judges and were also kin to some of them. Finding no legal remedy, Baruch decided to hire the Caines brothers, realizing they would be best suited for the task of maintaining Hobcaw Barony, guarding it from other trespassers and guiding his guests on epic hunting adventures.
Before the advent of plastic or Styrofoam, hunters lured in ducks with carved, wooden decoys. Beginning in the early 1900s, Hucks and Sawney, his brother, created their own wooden decoys from the wood of a tupelo gum tree. They branded each one with the initials “BMB” for their boss, Bernard M. Baruch. Each was carved from a single wood blank and hand painted in the color schemes of different duck species. Baruch would typically offer his guests a decoy as a souvenir. This tradition actually ensured their existence more than 100 years later because, according to Jerry and Roy, Hucks and Sawney would burn them as firewood during the winter when they were too lazy to fetch a log. One of the most famous examples of a Caines Brothers Decoy is the “snakey-neck mallard” from 1910, which sold for $189,000 in the late 1980s.
Hucksie Caines, Hucks’ son as well as Jerry and Roy’s father, was employed by Tom Yawkey, the one-time owner of the Boston Red Sox, in much the same fashion as his father. Tom found Hucksie trespassing on his South Island property and asked, “Do you know who I am?”
Hucksie replied in typical Caines fashion: “I don’t give a damn who you are.”
By this time, Hucksie had gained a reputation as someone not to be trifled with, having almost killed a man in a fight at the Georgetown fishing dock. In fact, Baruch had already told Yawkey of the Caines family reputation. Instead of fighting a losing legal battle, Yawkey offered Hucksie a job as caretaker of his estate. Hucksie accepted his offer and, after several years, started his own fish market with a loan from Yawkey, who later refused repayment.
Hucksie died in 1977 at the age of 69, having raised five children who grew up under the tutelage of their father. He taught them about living from the sea and what it meant to be a Caines. They heeded his lessons, paying meticulous attention to how they handled their catch and maintained their boats. As a result, any seafood received from the “Caines Boys,” as they came to be known, looked fresher than anything hauled in by other fishermen.
The Caines Boys caught anything from sharks to shad until the early 2000s when they could no longer make their living fishing commercially because government regulations and fishermen from East Asia depleted their business. They sold their boats and equipment, effectively ending a family tradition of Lowcountry living. Yet, Roy refused to give up the salty life and hired himself out to other boats, living from a suitcase while working up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Jerry did several odd jobs back in Georgetown to make ends meet and keep their family home. Roy finally saved enough money to comfortably move back to Georgetown, where he and Jerry lived and worked together doing construction and carpentry.
Picking Up Where Family Left Off
Today, in Jerry and Roy’s small tin shed shop, blocks of tupelo gum wood are stacked in the corner with a layer of sawdust coating the workbench and dirt floor. This is where the Caines family magic continues to happen. Each decoy begins as a rough cut, according to Jerry’s drawings. Roy uses various power tools from their carpentry trade to create a blank. He then sands the wood to a smooth finish. With the decoy now resembling something of a duck, Roy passes it to his brother, who carves feathered texture into the wood while also adding species-specific features and then finally lifelike paint schemes.
“People often ask us how we can get along so well. It’s because we don’t compete with each other. We never have. I’m good at what I do, and Jerry is good at what he does. He’s the artist,” Roy explains.
It took a while for the brothers to pick back up the family tradition of decoy carving, but they are happy they did. Jerry had already gained fame in the community as a still life and portrait painter, having his work featured in several local galleries. When his art was not selling, he decided to put the brushes down until one day he was asked to paint his grandfather’s famous duck decoys. Collectors and admirers of Caines Brothers Decoys wanted portraits painted by the grandson, and Jerry was more than happy to oblige. He was paid $1,000 for the first painting, and, as more requests came, the price increased to as high as $3,000. He also sold several numbered prints of his decoy paintings.
Buddy McCutchen owned a local hardware store featuring Jerry’s work, and in 2005 while Jerry was making a delivery of prints, Buddy suggested that he carve his own duck decoys like his grandfather. Jerry replied, “I couldn’t carve a toothpick from a matchstick with the help of a pencil sharpener!”
Fortunately, his brother Roy could shape a piece of wood into anything. Roy said, “If you can draw it, I can cut it.” They decided Buddy was onto something and set themselves to the task of learning to carve wooden duck decoys. The Caines Boys received their initial training from public library books. They started out carving with hand tools but decided that would take too long.
“There was a show in Conway where they taught some carving techniques, but we didn’t want to pay the $600 fees to attend the class,” they share.
They struggled through their first decoy, but after six months of work felt they had something worth showing, an intricately carved pintail drake. Lessons learned while creating their prototype helped them streamline their process, and they added two more drakes to their flock, a canvasback and green-winged teal. The effort made by Jerry and Roy to carve these decoys paid dividends when they decided to showcase their art.
Jerry and Roy entered their first show in 2006 in Ocean City, Maryland. Decoys featured at these shows are called “decorative” decoys, as opposed to “gunning” decoys used for hunting.
The criteria for judging ranges from realistic appearance to floatability. In order to avoid confusion with the legacy of their grandfather’s decoys, known as Caines Brothers Decoys, Jerry and Roy dubbed themselves Caines Boys Decoys.
“We didn’t want anybody confusing us with our grandfather, and down at the fishing docks they’d call us the ‘Caines Boys’ anyway. So it just made sense,” Roy says with a laugh.
From the appearances of the other booths, Jerry and Roy found themselves in uncharted waters. They sized up their competition and saw colorful tablecloths, banners, and illuminated displays of life-like duck decoys.
“We had no idea what we were doing!” Jerry says. “All we brought were the decoys and the prints we’d been selling.”
Nevertheless, the Caines Boys knew they had pieces worthy to show, and thanks to the help of some “good Samaritans,” they assembled a presentable booth for the judges.
Whatever negative prejudices the Caines Boys suffered for the appearance of their booth, they more than made up in the attention paid to the quality of their decoys. After viewing their work, contest officials decided the Caines Boys would need to compete at the intermediate level instead of as novices.
“There was a man that came up to us and said, ‘Your first is better than my best,’” Roy says with a chuckle.
Several judges slowly circled the booth of the Caines Boys, visually scrutinizing each detail of their ducks. The pintail got the greatest amount of attention, but so did the pintail of a neighboring competitor. It came down to a battle of the pintail drakes for the first and second overall prizes in the intermediate division. Each of the wooden ducks was weighed and delicately handled by the judges and then carefully placed in a bucket of water to ensure it would float. Several moments passed as Jerry, Roy, and their competitor stood watching the judges during the examination.
Finally, a ruling was passed, and the Caines Boys wound up receiving second place overall for their pintail and third place overall for their canvasback in the intermediate division. Several other carvers from across the nation were impressed by their first showing. Jerry and Roy entered the next show better prepared, capturing first place overall with a blue-winged teal drake.
Since that time, the Caines Boys have rarely gone home from a show empty handed, capturing several ribbons in the highly competitive open division. They will part with one of their decoys only if the price is right, usually between $2,000 and $3,000. They also make smaller scale versions priced in the $300 to $500 range. All full-scale, award-winning decoys are sold with the accompanying ribbons and accolades.
“The award belongs to the decoy, not us,” Jerry says.
For Jerry and Roy Caines, their work amounts to so much more than wooden duck decoys or paintings; their work is their legacy, and it offers proof of their existence for posterity, just as their grandfather and great uncle’s work did for them.