Explore the story of the Harwich bird carver Elmer Crowell at the reconstructed barn on the grounds of Brooks Academy Museum in Harwich.
This season we are proud to announce a brand new permanent exhibit about the life and work of A. Elmer Crowell, which includes actual video footage of Elmer in his workshop. The middle room of the barn features a display of work by Crowell and other carvers. Finally, see the actual workshop of the now world famous carver, furnished as it was during Crowell’s day. Watch a carving demonstration and chat with knowledgeable decoy maker Paul Phillips. Sponsored by the Town of Harwich, the project was funded by a grant from Community Preservation Funds. Reconstruction was done by David Ottinger, Antique Buildings & Materials.
(above) Chad Tragakis of the Potomac Decoy Collectors' Association presents Museum Director Janet Cassidy with a Crowell black duck decoy.
About Elmer Crowell and his son Cleon Crowell
“Probably but few people, comparatively, are aware of the artistic line of work under daily execution by Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, assisted by his son Cleon. The productions form a beautiful collection of all kinds of birds and some fish, whittled out of wood and embellished in native tints so true to the original that experts often are deceived in distinguishing between the real bird and the decoy.” – Harwich Independent, February 23, 1927
Anthony Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) was born into a family of mariners and cranberry farmers. As a boy, Elmer was captivated by the outdoors and like many young men of the period, he was always whittling.
Crowell set the decorative bird carving and painting standards, which many of today’s best carvers are still trying to emulate.
Just over 100 years ago, he went into business on Route 39, five miles east of the Brooks Academy Museum. Elmer was 50 years old at the time and athough he had been carving and selling decoys and decorative bird carvings of all types prior to that date, it is generally accepted that 1912 was the year when he began carving full time. He worked nine to five, six days a week, carving birds, decoys, and decorative fish plaques; building duck boats; and producing flat art.
Also a talented carver, Elmer’s son, Cleon Stanley (1891-1961), joined the shop in the 1920s, eventually taking over when Elmer’s rheumatism forced him to stop carving. Cleon continued the business until his death.
News of their talent and reputation spread quickly across North America and the world. Customers included Henry Ford, W. H. Hoover, the du Ponts, and many more. All this acclaim and adulation for a humble Harwich native carving masterpieces in an old shed wing of a barn on Route 39 in East Harwich.
(Information courtesy Ted Harmon, President, A.E. Crowell American Bird Decoy Foundation.)
For more information, please contact the Society at harwichhistoricalsociety.org)
Cleon Stanley Crowell
After graduating from the East Harwich school in 1907, Cleon attended the newly created YMCA’s Association Institute, where he studied in the Automotive Department and learned how to operate and repair cars. Cleon graduated in 1911 and spent several years working as a “chauffeur.”
A car enthusiast, Cleon took his family on many “motoring” trips and enjoyed motorcycling. Before his death, he was the proud owner of a 1958 Ford Thunderbird. Cleon was also an avid collector of Native American artifacts. In 1917, he married an East Harwich neighbor, Nellie Mae Moore, who had been graduated from Burdett College in Worcester. The couple had one daughter, Dorothy.
Cleon joined the Army in 1918 to serve in World War I but came down with the “Spanish Influenza” in training camp and was lucky to survive the deadly flu pandemic. After his return, he became a partner in his father’s shop. The two men worked together until the late 1930s.