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Barber bluebills and the Earnest denial.

In 2005, at the Midwest Decoy Show, a rig pair of bluebill decoys sat nearly unnoticed. The dealer attributed the pair to Joel Barber because the underside of the drake read:

“Pair Bluebill by Joel Barber - Adele Earnest”

Despite the Earnest inscription, everyone "earnestly" denied the fact that Barber made the decoys. The price was cheap, almost as if to concede the attribution to Barber was unlikely. The decoys were also stamped “L. MOORE” suggesting the possibility that Moore could have been the maker.

I thought that Barber’s well-known admiration of Stratford School decoys, especially the Centennial broadbill, may have inspired him to carve them. I purchased the pair.

Once home, I pulled out Barber’s book, Wild Fowl Decoys, and turned to his scaled drawing of the Centennial broadbill (Plate 7). The side, front and top views include precise dimensions of the bird’s length, width, and depth. I compared them to the broadbills and, sure enough, the measurements matched Barbers exactly.

I inspected the decoys for more clues. The bodies were made from firm Balsa wood with a counter sunk keel built flush the full length of the body. On page 73, Barber writes, “Decoys made of it [Balsa Wood] require special painting to prevent absorption of water and special ballasting to prevent their being too lively in the water. After several experiments in making decoys with this wood, I found it advisable to use a counter-sunk yellow pine keel the full length of the body. This keel, about one inch deep and one and one-half inches wide, was set flush with the bottom of the decoy and pinned to the Balsa wood with wooden pegs set at a slight pitch

There it was, Joel telling of his experience in making decoys from Balsa wood and counter-sinking a pine keel! Each decoy had the pitched wooden peg at either end of the counter suck keel to secure it into place.

I referred back to the book. Barber continues, “The head was made of white pine, secured to the body by a dowel three-eighths inch in diameter which extended downward through the keel. The keel thus added the necessary weight to the Balsa wood hull, gave a proper seat for the head dowel and furnished a solid fastening for the anchor strap and weight.”

These birds’ heads were attached precisely as he described having made them. The “special” painting was also evident as the decoys remained in remarkably good original paint. The paint pattern was perfectly matched to Barber’s Centennial drawings, done in the architect’s well-defined and simplified painting style (no combing). Even the hen, for which Barber didn’t have “Centennial” reference, was painted in the exact pattern for a hen broadbill in Barber’s Plate C of Plumage Patterns.

It seems a reasonable conclusion that “L.MOORE” was the lucky recipient of Barber’s experimental Balsa decoys. After serving in “active duty” the decoys were acquired by Adele Earnest. She inscribed the bottom with Barber’s name and her signature hoping to ensure that they should not be overlooked by future collectors when considering the body of work of Mr. Joel Barber. Thanks to Adele Earnest - the decoys remain correctly creditted to Joel Barber.

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