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Stratford Decoy Carvers

   The "Stratford School" of decoy carvers was informally founded in the 1860s when Albert Laing moved to Stratford from Rahway, New Jersey. Albert Laing was already a proficient carver prior to relocating to Stratford. Since Stratford was home to several hunters and "market gunners" in the 1800s, many Stratford men learned the art of decoy carving, directly or indirectly, from Albert Laing.

   Generations of Stratford men practiced the art of decoy carving. Each carver copied the skills of the others and perfected their own specific styles. Roswell Bliss was the only Stratford carver who actually made a profession out of carving. Most Stratford carvers created their decoys for their own use in hunting at the mouth of the Housatonic River and along Stratford's Long Island Sound shoreline.

   Charles "Shang" Wheeler is widely considered one of the finest, if not the finest, decoy carvers of all time. Shang moved to Stratford in the early 1900s while in his late teens and became a local "roust-a-bout". In Shang's early years he was a fine prizefighter at the Bond prizefighting camp at Bond's Dock. In Shang's early 20's he discovered decoy carving and quickly apprenticed himself to the "Stratford School." 

   Shang was very close to the Bond family and spent the rest of his life living in their home. As Shang matured he became an Oysterman by profession. Shang aged into a well-known and respected local politician who mentored Governor Raymond Baldwin as a young, aspiring politician. In addition to being a renowned carver, Shang was also a Connecticut state senator, artist, and political cartoonist.

   Despite the fact that Shang's carvings sell today at auction for tens of thousands of dollars, Shang never sold one of his carvings. (A black duck decoy of Shang's sold for $115,000 in August 2014.  Read the story of the auction here).  He gave his carvings away to his friends and freely shared his carving skills with anyone showing an interest in carving.

   Shang's carvings were "discovered" in the 1920's by Joel Barber, a wealthy and renowned decoy collector. Mr. Barber entered a Shang decoy in a Long Island exhibition in the 1920s and Shang, unknown outside of Stratford, won that competition. Shang went on to win every competition in which his work was entered.  He eventually ceased entering carving competitions because he would always win.

   Shang died in 1949.  His legacy lives on in a number of local Stratford artisan carvers including Jack Tierney (now deceased), Hank Sprouse and Don Schuler.

Charles "Shang" Wheeler in his office in 1934 (photo from the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Vermont)

The above informational sign is posted in the decoy carving exhibit at the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Vermont.

Black ducks were once extremely common in Stratford and many hunters shot black ducks. Consequently, most decoy carvers carved a number of black duck decoys including Shang Wheeler. This decoy is a Shang black duck. (photo from the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Vermont)

Black ducks by Albert Laing ca. 1865 (photo from the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Vermont)

Scaup drake by Benjamin Holmes ca. 1875 (photo from the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Vermont)
All decoys pictured below are on display at the Stratford Historical Society

Black duck by Roswell Bliss
Broadbill drake by Charles "Shang" Wheeler
Unfinished decoy by Roswell Bliss

Broadbill Drake by C. Ralph Welles
Black duck by Willard C. Baldwin
Black duck by Swan Brewster

Broadbill Drake by Benjamin Holmes
Black duck by Benjamin Holmes
Broadbill Drake by Willard C. Baldwin

Black duck by William Bentley

Decoy collection at Stratford Historical Society
By Lew Knapp, May 14, 1987.

Albert Laing's home on Shore Road. Photo courtesy of the Stratford Historical Society.

Goldeneye drake by Albert Davids Laing c. 1865

Scaup Drake, ca. 1865, by Albert Davids Laing - Repainted by Shang Wheeler
     Over a hundred years ago, as you passed the old house on Shore Road, you would see Albert Laing sitting in his upstairs window alcove whittling away at a duck decoy.  Mr. Laing had grown up loving duck hunting, and when he moved to Stratford in about 1860 he began to carve his own decoys.  Today, the "Stratford school" of decoy carving is famous worldwide and Laing's ducks are among the earliest and most numerous.  When Laing died in 1886, his estate listed one hundred eleven decoys.  The Stratford decoy could usually be identified by its unusual breast shape, designed to counter the heavy currents of the Housatonic in winter slush and ice. Laing's decoys were usually branded with his name in 5/8 inch high letters.

   Albert Laing was also a market gardener, with nearly ten acres under cultivation.  He grew strawberries and other produce for shipment by train to New York.  He kept detailed records of income and expences; one recurring item is "Ale and peanuts -10c."

   His house dates from about 1800, the transition period between colonial and Federal styles.  The earliest part is of post and beam construction, set on a dry laid foundation made up more of cobblestones than fieldstone.  Its diamond paned windows, porch and rear ell are later additions.  In 1824 it was the home of Captain Porter; then a Mrs. Hale owned it until Laing moved in.  Bachelor Laing willed the property to the Beers family who had taken care of him.  His decoys seem to have gone to Cappy Wicks, Shang Wheeler and other Stratford men.

   Jennie Beach Gasper and her husband, the French Count Gasper, owned it, then Harvey and duVivier. Old photos show a greenhouse attached and a windmill, whose foundation is still visible. The deed reads "middle of Selbie's Pond to edge of the channel in the river."