Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Decoy Carver of Lake Mattamuskeet

The Carawans have been in eastern North Carolina since at least the early 1700s. The extended family is part of the fabric of one of my favorite regions in the United States -- Down East Carolina. Alvin Percival "Percy" Carawan was born in Lowland, North Carolina, on 16 April 1910 to Alvin Rufus and Sarah Elizabeth (Potter) Carawan. He was one of eighteen children. He spent his life around the Pamlico sound living in Pamlico, Beaufort, Dare, Craven and Hyde counties. He died on 13 January 2005 at the age of 95.

Percy Carawan; photograph originally shared by Ancestry.com member

You might say Percy is a collateral of a collateral on my family tree. But that doesn't begin to describe my connection to a man who was described in a 2000 article that appeared in Life on the Pamlico as "...a seemingly youthful, active man who graciously shares with all, loves and respects nature and humankind, and lives his life to the fullest every day."

I knew about Percy Carawan before I knew I had a tenuous connection to him.

Connection between Percy Carawan and myself (lower right)

On one of my trips to visit my family, who had moved to Pamlico County in 1978, I purchased a decoy carved by Percy, who was then famous throughout the region for his carvings. I paid a pretty penny for it at the time. Sadly, it was lost during a move from Virginia to Michigan in the winter of 1984 when the moving truck went off the road during a snow and ice storm and several of my boxes were lost.

Percy was a boat builder, hunting guide, trapper, and decoy carver. He described making decoys to Bill Mansfield, who included it in his book Song of an Unsung Place: Living Traditions by the Pamlico Sound:

"I just make a working decoy. I don't make a fancy decoy. I'm not good enough to make real fancy decoys. A wooden block -- a decoy -- a wild goose will come to it quicker than he will a boughten decoy. I don't care how pretty they are...are too light and bob around too much. A wooden decoy...they lay on the water like a goose. When a bunch of geese comes in with them just sitting there, nodding in the water, they look like geese. It's because of the way they set on the water and hang to the lines. Real geese knows more than the man -- unless the man's got experience."

Canada Geese decoys in the process of being finished by Percy Carawan;
photograph from Percy Carawan: Decoy Maker of Lake Mattamuskeet by
Sandy Carawan

"I go in the woods and go in a black gum swamp. You'll find these roots that come up out of the ground, turn and go back down. Then I get this crook. If you put a head up there sawed from a board, it will split right off. If you hit it, it will split. A gum root won't. My daddy always made them out of gum roots. I make them out of roots."

Percy on Lake Mattamuskeet holding his working decoys; photograph
from NC GenWeb

Percy Carawan was featured in the March/April 1991 issue of Decoy Magazine as well as Jack Dudley's book Mattamuskeet & Ocracoke Waterfowl Heritage. In the 1991 article, he described surviving the Depression by working for the WPA earning $0.50 a day as a hunting guide on Lake Mattamuskeet, which had opened as a wildlife refugee in 1937. He could earn another $7.00 a day in tips from four hunters. And if you were a hunter, you always wanted Percy as your guide.

According to the article in Decoy Magazine, "...upon approaching his blind you would see his magnificent decoy rig, consisting of four swans, 60 ducks and 60 geese. Percy's geese were his favorite decoys and he was a master at carving them. The juniper bodies were large and well-shaped. Most had holes in the bottom for occasional use as stick-ups. Leather straps were placed in the front and rear to enable him to tie them end to end. The geese had large, flat bottoms to ride well in rough water. All of Percy's decoys had black gum root heads. The gum roots came from a swamp on Oyster Creek Road. The gum roots grew in an upside down 'U' shape in the swamp water. He chopped out the basic form of the head pattern while it was still attached to the stump..." so he wouldn't have to haul any excess wood out of the swamp. "The roots added strength to the neck and bills because of the continuous grain throughout the head, plus they created an endless variety of head positions and attitudes."

Percy Carawan after a successful day of hunting
in 1954; photograph courtesy of Sandy Carawan

The same article described why Percy was such a favorite among hunters for his knowledge of waterfowl behavior was second to none:

His blind was located in some cypress trees 80 yards out in the lake. "I would always put out the geese [decoys] blind and the ducks were put out to the leeward of the geese." Ducks typically feed on grasses or spoils pulled up by the larger geese. Often hunters would want him to rig the geese in front of the blind. He responded, "Don't geese normally land 60 to 100 yards short of their feeding are and swim in?" The hunters would agree. "Then that should put them right near the blind."

That made the geese the hunters brought down in the lake much easier for the dogs to retrieve and return to the blind. Waterfowl hunting season in North Carolina occurs from October through January. No one wants their dog to freeze in the cold waters, nor do they want their dog shaking that cold water off his body in the blind. So Percy had a separate, smaller blind just for his dog, which the dog would return to after delivering the game to the entrance of Percy's blind.

I continue to stalk eBay and several decoy auction houses for another Percy Carawan decoy.


  1. I enjoyed reading this. My dad, Guy Carawan, was Percy’s youngest brother. He was the youngest of the 18. Sadly, of course, some of his siblings he never knew. He became my dad when I was 17 years old. He was my “Pop” and I was his “baby” and I say that proudly! I only had the privilege of meeting Uncle Percy once, but he was a sweet, sweet soul. Pop passed away in 2018 and my heart still bleeds for him. I’ll always be a Carawan at heart.

    1. I'm glad you found this blog post and that it brought back happy memories.

    2. Thank you so much!