Kroghie Andresen is single-handedly preserving the lost art of Down East duck carving
In 1979, Kroghie Andresen’s wife, Ross, brought home an antique wooden decoy for the mantel of their newly built home. He was unsure what to make of it.
“What did you pay for it?” he recalls asking.
“Fifty dollars,” she replied.
“That sounds like a lot of money for an old beat-up thing. Let’s take it back.”
But the battered bird on the mantel soon seized Andresen’s fancy—evoking an era when vast flocks of waterfowl moved like weather systems up and down the Atlantic Flyway.
As a lifelong Tar Heel and sportsman, Andresen had shot his first ducks over handmade decoys. He had listened to the old-timers talk of the days before bag limits, when ducks by the boatload were considered a waterman’s birthright, an infinite resource.
So Andresen decided he ought to investigate the old decoys further. Suffice it to say he was charmed, because that first decoy his wife brought home has been replaced by the largest, most thoroughly researched collection of North Carolina decoys anywhere. Some 1,100 blocks—swans, geese, ducks, and shorebirds fashioned from timber, canvas, and iron—reside with the Andre-sens today. Climb the stairs above his garage in the leafy Charlotte neighborhood where they live, and you will enter an airy chamber with hundreds of decoys, row after row, mounted on the walls. This unique take on the sportsman’s trophy room offers up the works of renowned North Carolina carvers such as Ned Burgess and Lee Dudley surrounded by those of artists virtually unknown outside their tiny coastal communities.
Andresen’s recent book, Gunnin’ Birds, sheds lights on these carvers, providing a detailed study of the decoys as well as the lore of North Carolina’s Currituck and Dare counties and Virginia’s Back Bay, which North Carolina claims as part of its waterfowling heritage. For eight years, Andresen scoured those areas for anyone acquainted with notable carvers, poring through their family albums, listening to their stories, and finally establishing the provenance long lacked by serious collectors of North Carolina decoys.
But this drive to truly champion this genre of decoy came later. Early in Andresen’s collecting, accessibility steered him toward Southern decoys since Northern collectors, who dominated the market, considered them crude. Perhaps they had inherited their prejudice from the Northern industrialists with names like Rockefeller and Forbes, who brought their own decoys down when they established the South’s first gun clubs. This sporting elite was for a while suspicious of native craftsmanship, despite good evidence that the more durable local decoys appealed to waterfowl as much as their finely finished Northern counterparts.
Without a doubt, North Carolina decoy carvers had little interest in whittling anything inconsequential to their quarry, and they found that embellishment mattered little to ducks. One Currituck Sound carver featured in Gunnin’ Birds had this prescription for decoys: “You simply take a piece of wood and cut out everything that doesn’t look like a duck.”
Also distinguishing the North Carolina decoy school is its preponderance of ruddy ducks carved in the early twentieth century. Before then, the small ruddies garnered little respect, but, with so many on the water that hunters tallied them by the acre, Bode White of Currituck Inlet hatched a marketing coup. In 1900, White traveled with local housewives and a mess of ruddy ducks to the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where they cooked an Outer Banks feast.“It was such a hit that the restaurants in New York wanted ruddy ducks with the canvasbacks and redheads,” Andresen says. “Of course, the ruddy duck is not particularly good to eat, so I don’t know how they made them want to eat it.”
The appeal of the decoys, though, wasn’t so immediate. “The Northern guys early on didn’t like them,” Andresen says. “Then I started buying them, and the primitive look became very tasteful and the value went way up.”