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Written by Donna Belinko!!
Havre de Grace,
One of these contemporary carvers is Captain Harry Jobes, a unique individual. You can often spot him at a decoy show decked out in his Panama hat, suspenders and duck pants, and one of his famous handknitted "Captain Jobes" sweaters.
Even his shop, which is located behind his home in Maryland, is not the typical decoy shop. Easy to spot because of the American and Maryland flags hanging in front of his house, a visit to his shop is a delight. At first glance, the shop will remind you of others – the smell of pine; a coating of sawdust on benches, windows, and patterns; the lathe, bandsaw, sanding machine, spoke shaves, and drawknives; the paint table, near the woodstove, with a variety of paint cans, thinners, and brushes, drying racks holding row after row of decoys; and bodies and heads in various stages of completion on the floor and in baskets throughout the shop.
But that’s where the similarity to other shops ends. Hanging on the wall are two pin-ups of "Elvira." His 13 year old granddaughter Monica is puttying ducks while her black Lab puppy chews the head of a finished woodduck. However, Captain Jobes looks at the puppy, laughs and says, "He’s in the doghouse now!"
And, anyone who knows Harry will tell you what a dry sense of humor he has. For instance, when he’s working in the shop and the phone rings, he might answer, "Nobody here but the chickens!" Or, when asked if he’s made any decoys, he replies, "They’re in the incubator."
Harry’s interest in carving decoys goes back to his childhood days where he was born and raised in Havre de Grace. His carving career began in Charles Nelson Barnard’s decoy shop which was located two blocks up the street from his home.
"I was about 8 or 10. I’d run in and out of the shop, sand duck heads, then run out and play football, kick the can, and wrassle, then run back in and sand another head." In fact, Harry grew up in the midst of several other famous Havre de Grace carvers, such as Bob McGaw and Jim Currier, and can tell stories about most of them. "I also used to run in and out of McGaw’s shop…but he was a little on the contrary side. You didn’t touch a tool in Bob’s shop – indeed you didn’t. He didn’t want no kids in there."
After working in Barnard’s shop for two or three years, young Harry decided to enter one of his decoys in an art show being held at the Havre de Grace High School. He laughed, "I was in the elementary school then, and it (his decoy) looked like a chicken had painted it with his feet. But I took it up to the show, and I thought it looked pretty good to me."
When he got there, he met a lady by the name of Helen Mitchell, who had several decoys made by her husband, the now famous R. Madison Mitchell. When he saw Mitchell’s decoys he said, "Hell, I might as well take my decoys home."
But Mrs. Mitchell was very friendly and started talking to him because she knew his grandfather. She even invited him to go to work for her husband; but since Harry was already working for Mr. Barnard, he refused the offer. And, he did win a ribbon in the art contest. "…a pink ribbon or a red ribbon or something," exclaimed Harry.
However, a year later Barnard died, and Harry went down to Mitchell’s funeral home. When Mom Mitchell answered the door, she told him to go around back to Pop’s shop. "And I worked for Mitchell for 28 years," replied Harry. "I made twenty-five cents an hour after school…I spoke shaved decoys…run the machines…I got so I could do just about anything…it didn’t make any difference it it was painting or making the heads. I did anything in the shop.
Sometimes there were as many as five to six woodcarvers in the shop at one time. According to Harry, Bailey Moltz, Bud McKinney, Cats Wilson, Jimmy Pierce, Bob Mathews and Titbird Bauer whittling heads while Ed Sampson did all the drawknifing. Harry sawed them out.
"Bailey Moltz was the best headcarver on the East Coast; he’s the one who really taught me how to whittle a head. But, the painting I learned off Mitchell. He has had the biggest influence on me as a decoy maker…no question about it…"
When asked what it was like working for Mitchell, he stated. "We didn’t make a lot of money, but we left a lot of memories and had a lot of fun. The memories they can’t take away from us."
Harry remembers a time back in the 50’s when Mitchell had 500 canvasback decoys in his north garage that they couldn’t sell because shooting canvasbacks had been outlawed. Eventually Harry contacted a boy up in Wilmington who bought 250 at seven dollars a piece, but they still had 250 left Harry recalls, "We took the other 250 brand new decoys, freshly painted, and sawed the heads off them and threw the bodies on the dump where the A&P used to be in Havre de Grace…took ‘em down ther and burned the bodies up. And Ed Sampson drawknived the heads to look like black ducks. Couldn’t sell decoys in those days…you couldn’t give them away. You couldn’t gun diving ducks so nobody wanted them."
Jobes told another story about the time he and Brother (Mitchell’s son) were working at the shop one night, jackplaning the spots on the bodies where the heads go on. Brother took the plane apart and sharpened it. But when he put it back together, the blade was sideways instead of straight; and it took off more on one side than it did on the other. "We planed off 500 bodies with the side cut unevenly."
About six o’clock the next morning Eddie Mauldin and Harry were eyeing ducks when Pop Mitchell walked in, picked up one of those decoys sideways, looked at it, and saw that it and all the others had been planed off crookedly. Harry Laughed, "He was a pistol…I got the blame for it. But when I explained what had happened, Brother got his ear bent when he came to work." When asked what they did with the decoys, he commented, "We just nailed the heads on and let them go. They were just a looking at you sideways a little bit. They were only gunning decoys. Of course, if you could find three or four now, they’d be worth something."
While working with Mitchell as his mentor for 28 years, Harry also spent much of his life working on the water running research vessels for the states of Maryland and Virginia, and working for the government at Aberdeen Proving Ground piloting a patrol boat. He also operated his own charter boat business – hence the sobriquet "Captain." But, somehow, like all others, decoy carving became an avocation, the long hours spent at night, weekends, and holidays, that sustained his spirit; so three years ago, he decided to retire and devote all of his time and energies to carving decoys.
Unlike some of his colleagues, Captain Jobes makes decoys all year ‘round and has created a very demanding business. It is no longer a part-time occupation; and even though he spends endless hours in his shop, the demand for his decoys constantly exceeds his ability to produce them. He commented, "Decoys have been damn good to me. I’ve worked at it…stayed at it.’
His wife and business partner Helen, a very gracious lady who endures, with good humor, visitors at their home and shop at all hours of any day, replied, "I used to get a break when he went to work. Now that he’s retired he works three shifts – morning, afternoon, and evening. When there’s nobody here at night. I usually get the night shift."
When asked by others what she does, she used to reply "sweep floors." However, Helen takes care of the perpetual paperwork of the business – recording orders, packing decoys, sending them out, etc. – work that most collectors never dream about when purchasing a Jobes’ decoy.
Indeed, the Jobes’ decoy business has become a family tradition. Just as Harry learned from Mitchell, his three sons, Bobby, Charles, and Joey, have also learned from their father. All three of his sons started carving in his shop when only children. "Bobby, the oldest, used to stand up on a fish box in order to reach the vise," replied Harry. His stepson, Jeff, who also worked in the decoy shop, is now the co-publisher of Decoy Magazine.
Harry recalls the time Mitchell called hem and wanted to know if he could recommend someone to replace Ed Sampson when he retired from drawknifing heads. "Bobby can drawknife," replied Harry, "so Bobby went to work for Mitchell and left me holding the bag!"
All of Harry’s sons now carve decoys as a full time profession. It is quite obvious that Harry is very proud of them. "I have raised three boys, and they can do anything to a decoy that needs to be done." Bobby specializes in miniatures, Charles in half-size, and Joey in full-size decoys. "All three are good. They’re all better than I am," commented Harry. "Let’s put it this way, there’s always somebody better than you are. It doesn’t make any difference what you do."
However, Captain Jobes is a craftsman whose talent is reflected in his decoys which are so admired and sought after today. His popularity in the Havre de Grace area has been demonstrated by the fact that he was chosen as the Honorary Chairman of the 1988 Havre de Grace Decoy Festival. When asked how he felt about being selected for this honor, he stated. "It’s good; I guess I was surprised." Then, his dry sense of humor surfaced once again as he smiled and said, "The day before the show I’m getting’ two splints put on my hands so I don’t have to sign all those ducks."
Although Harry makes both working and ornamental decoys in that famous Havre de Grace style, all of the decoys he donated for this years show auction are working decoys. A set of 25 full-size and miniature decoys include the following species: regular and highheaded canvasbacks, redheads, blackheads, mallards, buffleheads, baldplates, cinnamon teals, ringnecks, shovelers, old squaws, pintails, goldeneyes, blackducks, woodducks, a white wing scoter, a coot, a Canada goose, a blue goose, a snow goose, a brant, and a swan.
Captain Jobes explained, "There’s a whole different ballgame between gunning and ornamentals. A working decoy you can sit it on a shelf and listen to it talk for two hours. Ornamentals can’t do that. When we made decoys years ago, we made them to go gunnin’ with, not to sit on a shelf…when you look at gunnin’ decoys from the 1900’s to the 60’s, the only people who made ‘em were those who lived around the river shores. Now they make gunnin’ decoys in New York City. Two thirds don’t even touch the water anymore. You wonder where they to. You’re like Babe Ruth – you played a good game and never got paid."
When questioned about carving more miniatures, he exclaimed, "When these are done, there ain’t gonna be no more of them. I can make ten full-size heads while I make one of these miniatures." So collectors who desire a Captain Jobes miniature will find it quite difficult to purchase one.
Harry continued, "The year Mom Mitchell died I made a boxcar load of these miniatures. I had ‘em in the cellar by the bushel basket full, and you don’t hardly ever see one." If a collector were fortunate enough to discover one of those old miniatures, he would indeed have found a very valuable decoy!
Another time Captain Jobes was recognized for his outstanding decoys was in 1986 when Continental Can requested that he do a magazine advertisement for Coca Cola’s 100th birthday celebration. Many hours were spent preparing for the production of the ad. The day the production crew arrived, make-up artists worked on Harry before the photographers could film. Harry laughed, "They even brought lunch, but they forgot the Coke for the ad and had to go up to 7-11 to buy them." The final full page color ad featured Harry, working in his shop, painting a pintail drake, while his young grandson Shannon looked on. This photograph appears on the cover of the 1988 Havre de Grace Decoy Festival booklet.
Today Harry sells decoys to collectors and businesses located all over the United States and in foreign countries. "I ship them all over the place. I’ve got good friends in Holland. I ship decoys they ship tulips, I trade ‘em decoys for Tulips," he said. However, not all of the people he sells to own shops; many are hunters and sportsmen. "I got the president of Hardees Corporation that’s got gunning marshes down in the Carolina. I made a 100 for him – 50 pair of woodducks – and he guns them." Laughing, he said, "Yeah, it was a couple days of painting."
Although born and raised on the Susquehanna Flats, Captain Jobes does very little hunting now. "Then you could look up and see thousands of cans. Now you can’t see nothin’." He remembers a time when 10-12 blinds were built on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay where bushwackers used to hunt. "I was one on the last ones to gun on the western flats. I’ve seen the best of this old Chesapeake."
When questioned about anything unusual that he had made, he recounted a time about ten years ago when he made 50 swan at once time. "Most swan ever built around here at one time. It took a barrel of time to make those bodies and several cords of wood." About 30 years ago, Harry made the DuPonts four stand-up woodducks. "They were painted in pure oil colors – took two months to dry. I ain’t gonna make no more of them things – no way!" He also once made 50 stand-up geese for Billy DuPont.
Asked if he had any hobbies, he replied. "I used to piddle with model trains, but I don’t have time to anymore, I guess I got my hobby right here. As Mitchell used to say. "It’s a damn expensive one."
According to the Captain, his plans for the future are, "Just gonna make more decoys." Then he paused and said in that drawl of his, "I would like to take one more time and put a bushwhacking rig together and relive some of the days I had years ago. But you’ll never see that again there’s no question about it."
Although those days of bushwhacking reside mostly in memory, Captain Jobes has taken his place among a select group of craftsmen who have made the Upper Chesapeake Bay region the decoy capital of the world.