Bob Brophy of Essex talks about his work like it’s the most natural thing in the world; like the Merrimack River, intricate wooden feathers and elegant bird necks have flowed from his hands for years.
Used for duck hunting, duck decoys are wooden duck replicas that bob along the water to attract real ducks. Historically, the decoys were carved by duck hunters in North America. The craft became an art form as demand for the decoys rose and carvers began to specialize in their creation.
Brophy is one of these carvers— a prolific one. Since the age of 14, he has produced over 3,000 duck decoys, each one intricate, colorful, and lifelike.
“Brophy’s Birds” are detailed, down to each feather and nostril. Upon entering Brophy’s home, you can see dozens of duck decoys lining the shelves in the foyer. A variety of different duck breeds make up this collection, including his favorite, the brightly-colored, crested North American Wood Duck, which sits elegantly on the top shelf.
Brophy’s love for carved wood doesn’t stop at decoys. This is why, over the last 50 years, Brophy became a rescuer of duck boats: boats used specifically for duck hunting in the Merrimack River Valley. Hunters use the vessels to quietly approach waterfowl.
As Brophy drove through riverside towns, he would spot a duck boat sitting on a front lawn and visit the house to ask the owner if they still wanted it. Most of the time, people were happy to give the boats away. Brophy fit them in the back of his Chevy pickup, several feet overhanging the tailgate, and brought them home to join the rest of his collection. He stored the boats in his garage, out of the elements, preserving their genuine workmanship, admiring their history, and sometimes using them to hunt.
“They just impress me,” he said.
Because he values the boats’ rich historical significance and craftsmanship, Brophy has offered the boats to museums in recent years. Maine Maritime museum took several of the duck boats to display in their collection, but “unfortunately, the museums don’t want them anymore,” he said.
When local museums lacked interest in the duck boats, Brophy began to dispose of them.
Jack and Shelagh Schylling, fellow Essex residents and close friends of Brophy, took notice. The couple, sharing Brophy’s sentiment that the boats should be preserved and appreciated, rescued the prized duck hunting vessels once more.
Jack Schylling said Brophy showed him the boats years ago, and he was fascinated by their history.
“When I saw that [Brophy] was beginning to dispose of them, I was incredulous. I asked why. He told me, ‘Jack, you’re the only person who has shown any interest in years.’ That’s when I said I would hold them at my place and try to find homes for them,” Schylling said.
The duck boats, now on the Schylling’s lawn, are of two varieties, Brophy explained, depending on the location in which they were crafted: Great Bay (New Hampshire) and Joppa Flats (Newburyport, Mass.). Design of the duck boats was regional, he said. If someone designed an effective boat in Newburyport, for instance, others in the area would mimic the design, Brophy said.
Aside from one boat engraved with a maker’s mark, the craftsmen of the other eight boats are unknown. Crafted in the 1940s, the styles of Great Bay and Joppa Flats duck boats are distinct.
Great Bay boats can be identified by wooden ribs on the bottom of the cockpit, and the stern is recessed to obscure the appearance of the sculling oar while in motion.
“If you’re going after a bunch of birds over there and another bunch over here, you don’t want them to see the oar as you go by because they’ll flush,” Brophy said.
The bow of a Joppa Flats boat is closed, similar to a kayak. Chicken wire over the closed portion of a Joppa Flats boat allows for camouflage by sticking grass and reeds through the wire.
In the back of each boat, a round hole allows an oar to scull discreetly. The boat quietly glides toward the ducks on the water.
To use the gunning boats for their intended purpose, one must lie down in the boat, scull across with the oar, turn it, and move it back to its original position in a figure-eight motion.
“You have the gun laying beside you, and you’re laying down, and... when you get close enough to the birds on the water, whether they’re geese or ducks, then you sit up, and before they take off, you can shoot them,” Brophy said.
He explained the significance of large notches in the bows of some of the boats. Duck hunters would place a lead weight in the notch to balance their own weight when sitting in the stern, he said.
“If you get in rough water, and your bow is down, and you start taking water in the cockpit, you pull a rope. You pull that weight off with a float... and go back to find your weight later,” Brophy said. He said he’s done it himself while hunting.
Brophy grew up in a family of 11, with five brothers and three sisters. As a boy, he would hunt ducks with his father and siblings. His older sister’s boyfriend would join his father and brothers to go hunting, he said.
“We had quite a crew,” Brophy said.
At 14 years old, he made his first decoy.
“I wanted to go duck hunting, and nobody had any decoys, so I made some,” Brophy said.
Thus began a lifetime of carving that spread his decoys across the United States. Unlike hunting, which Brophy learned from his father, carving was entirely his own. Apprentice to himself, he became skilled enough to complete a decoy in just eight hours.
“I don’t know anybody else,” he said. In Cape Ann, he’s nearly one of a kind.
“There are very few guys like you left, and you’re just a legend.” Shelagh Schylling said.
“I don’t know how many people have told me that in the last year and a half. ‘You’re a legend.’” He grinned and chuckled, knowing he is.
Actor Daniel Day Lewis appreciated Brophy’s niche talent, expressing an interest in wood carving.
Brophy has a cameo in the 1996 film “The Crucible,” in which Lewis starred as John Proctor. As Proctor is led away to be hanged, Brophy’s character walks behind the wagon. From the crowd, he shouts, “God bless you, Rebecca. You’re a good man, John Proctor.” A spur-of-the-moment ad-lib, he said, but one that the directors were fond of.
Brophy charmed Lewis offscreen with his woodworking talents.
“He’d come over to my house... and spend a couple hours with me, and I gave him a few little things to work on. When we went on the set, he and I would be sitting over under a tree somewhere, carving. I brought him nice carving knives, and he was all psyched about it,” he said.
There’s no doubt that Brophy’s house itself impressed Lewis; it’s an altar to his craft; an aviary.
“I’m the only nut,” he told me more than once as he described his unique fascination and life’s work. The decoys appear exquisite to almost anyone, but hardly anyone truly understands them as acutely as Brophy. As we walked along the shelves in his home that held “Brophy’s Birds,” he named duck breeds from memory, pointing out those he had personally seen and some, hailing from places like Alaska, that he had created from only looking at photographs in books. Brophy’s hunting trophies, consisting mainly of various ducks and shorebirds, serve as models for his work.
He numbers and dates the bottom of each decoy. Currently, he said, he’s on decoy number 3,127.
Decoys and duck boats are both instruments of waterfowl hunting, both uniquely artistic in their own right. At the Schylling’s house, the duck boats are safe in a home that appreciates them as such.
The boats lie in the tall grass and weeds, as much a part of the local history as Bob Brophy himself. The boats are solid wood and fiberglass. They feel permanent, despite the fact that they are no longer in production. There is something enduring about these water- and wood-related traditions of the area; something so much older and more rugged than their age alone. While the duck boats are veritable artifacts of their time, their purpose and significance still feels present in the air; in the reeds and marshes bordering bodies of water; in wood waiting to be carved; in Bob Brophy himself. Perhaps these craftsmen breathed their workmanship into the lifeblood of local towns and cities, never suspecting the ways in which they might be remembered or forgotten.
Brophy is not in the business of forgetting; his home told me that. A large antique cast-iron stove occupies the corner of his workshop, as stoutly heavy and permanent as all other artifacts of the time. Brophy rescued the stove from abandonment just as he rescued duck boats through the years: one day, when it would have been discarded. He said he uses it each morning as he remembers his mother did when he was a child. The stove is beautiful in its intricacy; like the decoys lining the shelves; like each stuffed bird, expressions frozen mid-flight; like each notch and contour in a gunning boat. Nestled beneath the wings of Brophy’s decoys are whispers of tradition: a tradition that is becoming more scarce with the passage of time.
We can hear stories now from senior members of the community like Brophy, but we must also preserve the artifacts that can continue to speak to us— that is, if we choose to listen.