By Peter Vankevich
Ocracoke’s first Waterfowl Festival on April 21 in the school gym will celebrate renowned island carver Dave O’Neal.
When you step inside his Down Point Decoys Shop, you may feel you have wandered into an earlier time. The small building that once served as the island’s post office is “downtown,” in front of Captain’s Landing. It brims with decoys–from small flying ducks about six inches long to a life-sized Common Eider, North America’s largest duck.
Among these historic working decoys are also contemporary, decorative birds—shorebirds, and woodpeckers and owls carved by Len Skinner.
Ready to talk all things decoys, O’Neal, except for his career in the Coast Guard, is a lifetime islander.
Duck hunting is a major winter activity here, and he was schooled in the art of making decoys from older islanders.
William Garrish, his wife’s grandfather, particularly liked carving flying ducks, a form he taught O’Neal. Several examples are in the store.
Another mentor was Wilbur Gaskill.
“They’d hand me some wood and a knife and say, ‘Start carving,’” O’Neal said, chuckling. “Sometimes I’d cut my finger.”
After graduating from the Ocracoke School class of 1971 (seven students), O’Neal joined the Coast Guard from 1973 to 1993 when his interest in carving became a passion.
It didn’t go unnoticed.
On a wall is a framed piece showing he was the feature story in an autumn 1986 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine
“Back then, we all called it whittling,” he said, noting that only a few islanders continue the art these days. Maybe that could change.
So, to bring attention to the island’s rich carving history and to attract people to the art, O’Neal and several others, including his brother Vince O’Neal, Scotty Robinson and John Simpson, in January formed the Ocracoke Island Decoy Carvers Guild.
With helpful advice from the well-established Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild on Harkers Island, the guild holds monthly meetings with topics including the history of carving and workshops on techniques.
Root head goose decoy by Ike O’Neal on Ocracoke, N.C.
The guild quickly drew attention by launching the upcoming Ocracoke Waterfowl Festival from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 21.
Along with decoys on display and for sale, activities will include carving presentations, a decoy head-carving competition, decoy painting for kids, artifact and hunting-blind displays, a raffle for a decoy and local seafood provided by Ocracoke Seafood Company.
While there, you may learn about root head goose decoys, and one carved on the island in the 1920s by Ike O’Neal. The guild chose this one as its logo.
The bodies of these decoys are made of Atlantic white cedar and the neck and head from a red cedar limb. Red cedar is the common tree on Ocracoke, while white cedar, which floats better, is found only on wetlands on the mainland.
“In the old days, people would find cedar limbs washed up on the beach,” O’Neal said. The head and neck would be carved from those, then secured to the body.
O’Neal’s shop also has vintage, factory-made decoys, including several made by one of the most famous, Mason’s Decoy Factory, that operated in Detroit from 1896 to 1924.
“There were a lot of small decoy companies, especially in the 1920s and 30s, sometimes as small as a person’s garage,” he said.
Decoys originally were viewed as utilitarian, to lure wild ducks in close enough to be shot. They were crafted not only to attract wild ducks but also to withstand the harsh water environment.
Carvers had individual styles and took care and pride in their work. These old decoys are now considered to be American folk art and can fetch a lot of money.
Finding historic decoys for sale can be a challenge.
“There are not many old North Carolina decoys on the market these days,” O’Neal said. “Most are held by collectors.”
In the quiet winter months, islanders would whittle. One of their favorite duck subjects was the Redhead, a bird that can be seen around the island in the thousands.
Casey Arthur, a Core Sound carver from Stacy, Carteret County, and long-time member and a director of the Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild, is an O’Neal fan.
“David O’Neal is an Ocracoke carving icon and his persistent passion for decoys, whether it be carving or collecting, has led to inspiration of all who come in contact with him,” he said.
South Point Decoy Shop is a must-visit shop for collectors and carvers.
“People from all over the country drop in to talk decoys,” O’Neal said.
Visitors will get a bonus by hearing the famous Ocracoke “hoi toide” (high tide) brogue, and his is as real as it can get.
To read the story about the Ocracoke Decoy Carver’s Guild’s first meeting, click here.