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The amazing life that Miles Hancock led could never have unfolded the way it did if he had lived anyplace else in the world. Born in Williamsville, Delaware in 1887, he was one of four children in a farming family. When he was seven, his parents moved to Chincoteague.

 

Miniature Black Duck by Miles Hancock of Chincoteague

Miniature Black Duck by Miles Hancock

That’s when things got tough. First, his mother died. Then, his father couldn’t make enough money to support the family. He put all four kids into foster care. Out of this bleak backdrop Hancock built a life-long string of entrepreneurial success stories.

By age 12, he had begun catching and raising terrapin. This salt-water-loving turtle had been a staple in human diets on the Shore since Native American times, but Hancock got into the business at just the right time. In the early years of 20th century, rich folks up and down the East Coast decided that terrapin prepared in sherry and cream sauce ranked among life’s premier delicacies.

Prices skyrocketed. Where the turtles had once sold for $6 a dozen, they were now going for as high as $128 a dozen. (The photo up top here shows Hancock in his terrapin-raising days.)

Eastern Shore Classics: Notecards by Secrets of the Eastern Shore

Terrapins hibernate in winter, so Hancock started a side business for the colder months in “market gunning.” This is basically the mass slaughter of ducks and other birds, which were then shipped on ice to restaurants and markets in big cities where recent influxes of immigrants meant skyrocketing demand for food.

Market gunners had a lot of tricks up their sleeves. Sometimes they used multiple barrel guns. Other times they loaded up gigantic “punt” guns with up to a pound of shot and nails that would scatter through a flock with deadly force. Night hunting was big, too. It seems that the phrase “deer in the headlights” also applies to ducks and kerosene lanterns.

Later in life Hancock boasted of killing 50 redheads with five shots and 100 birds in just two hours. One of the biggest challenges market gunners faced out in the field was coming up with a way to move hundreds of dead birds through the marsh and back to town.

Miles Hancock of Chincoteague on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Miles Hancock Carving Decoys

Over time, market hunting devastated the populations of migratory birds. In 1918, Congress passed The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which turned Hancock’s hunting business into a federal crime. Then Prohibition arrived in 1920, and the demand for terrapin plummeted in the absence of cooking sherry. (Some ecologists credit the sinking demand caused by Prohibition with saving the terrapin from extinction.)

But as we’ve seen, Miles Hancock was nothing if not resourceful. He outfitted a big houseboat, christened it Tarry Awhile, and became a very popular guide serving wealthy, big-city hunters. He also began helping a prolific Chincoteague decoy carver named Ira Hudson whenever Hudson was overwhelmed with too many orders.

In time, Hancock became quite the carver himself. Collectors say what makes his work distinctive is the way he gave his ducks a broad, flat-bottomed body and flat, paddle-shaped tails. Overall, modern experts say his style tended toward the primitive, folk-art end of the decoy spectrum. I looked around online recently and found Hancock decoys selling for lows of around $200 to highs of around $800.

One dealer in his online comments put it this way: Hancock “didn’t make the prettiest decoy ever, but he probably forgot more about killing ducks than 90 percent” of his decoy-making contemporaries ever knew. One of his Miniature Black Ducks is pictured here.

Hancock lived to the age of 87, dying in 1974. It’s estimated that he made an astounding 20,000 decoys by the time he was done.

–research & writing by Jim Duffy

 

11 Comments

  • […] • If you are interested in Chincoteague stories, there are a few other things you might find of interest on this site. Here is a daytrip to Assateague Island. Here is “The True Tale of Misty, Stormy, and maybe the worst nor’easter of them all.” Here, on the occasion of its 90th birthday in 2015, is the history of the famous midsummer pony swim in Chincoteague. And finally, here is a little piece about a one-of-a-kind character from Chincoteague, the decoy carver Miles Hancock. […]

  • I was 9 when he passed. I was truly fortunate to know all my great grandparents. Audrey Clark(another Chincoteague native) was the last. She passed when I was 30.

  • I enjoyed visiting Uncle Miles as a pre- teen & teenager when visiting my grandparents on Chincoteague during summertime. He lived just down the road from my grandparents. I often looked at the Terrapins and would watch him carving. It was history in action and of course Ihad no idea at that time. I often caught crabs with a “handline” and would stop and give them to Uncle Miles & his wife Aunt Bertha. I wish visitors could view the Chincoteague of
    Yesteryear, so nice back then.

  • Tom Elliott Ft. Myers, Fl. says:

    As a youngster my grandfather, Cpt. Jim Jester, on occasion would give me a diamondback terrapin caught in his crab pots in Chincoteague Bay. It was a long bicycle ride from our house Up-The-Neck to Mr. Hancock’s turtle farm in Deep-hole on the other side of the island but the turtles always seemed content during the ride inside a small gunny sack slung over the handlebars. The price was usually $1.00 but on a few occasions $1.50 for a large one. Many times I would find Mr. Miles in his small workshop cutting out working decoys with a small hatchet.

  • Dawn Chesser says:

    I am writing this comment for my husband, Grayson Chesser. I am 70 years old and met Miles Hancock when I was about 12. He was my friend and mentor. He was never too busy to stop and talk to you or help you. From the time I was a boy, I always wanted to be a decoy carver and hunting guide. I achieved that dream, in a large part thanks to him. I tried to pass on the things he taught me to anyone who wanted to learn. It is my way of repaying him. I have had many honors in my life. I value none higher than being asked to be a pallbearer for Miss Bertha and Mr. Hancock. If I had to describe Miles Hancock in one sentence, it would be some men were better carvers but none was a better men. It was a great honor to be called his friend.

  • Elery Caskey says:

    Jim et al, I just now learned about SES, signed up, and look forward to future issues as well as reviewing previous ones. I’ve been a boater, primarily under sail, up and down the Chesapeake Bay and around the eastern shore since the 1950s. I had not heard of Miles Hancock until this summer when I bought a skipjack model which was attributed to him or a member of his family. Frankly, I was skeptical of the provenance given that Miles died more than 40 years ago and the model seems clearly of recent vintage, but it is nicely detailed and complements my modest collection of nautical books and bookends, small anchors and other artifacts as well as small boat models. I don’t know about Miles’ family and their possible pursuits in boat model building, but I would like to learn more about my skipjack if possible. It is 20″ high from mast top to the bottom of the keel and 22-1/2 ” long from bowsprit to boom end. I have a couple pics but am having trouble attaching them to this post. I welcome any information that you or your readers can provide. Thanks.

  • DANIEL JESTER says:

    DECEMBER 8, 2017
    HI TO EVERY ONE WHO READS THIS.
    MY NAME IS DANIEL JESTER. MILES HANCOCK WAS MY GRANDFATHER ON MY MOTHER’S SIDE.
    WE LIVED ACROSS FROM HIM. FROM OUR KITCHEN WINDOW WE HAD A FULL VIEW OF HIS HOUSE.
    AS A YOUNG BOY I WORKED WITH MY GRANDFATHER DOING JUST ABOUT EVERY THING HE NEEDED.
    HE TAUGHT ME A LOT ABOUT WORKING ON THE WATER, FARMING TURTLES, FISHING WITH NETS, CARVING DECOYS, MAKING CRAB POTS, SINKERS, COOKING TURTLES AND CANNING THEM AND MAILING TO HOTELS IN MAJOR CITIES. MORE THINGS THAN I HAVE TIME TO TELL.
    HE WAS A KIND MAN. I NEVER SAW HIM GET MAD OR LOOKED DISGUSTED.
    HE WAS MY HERO.
    I WORKED WITH HIM UP TO THE TIME I GRADUATED FROM HIGH SCHOOL., THEN JOINED THE COAST GUARD AND MOVED AWAY.
    AT THE PRESENT TIME, THE CHINCOTEAGUE MUSEUM IS MOVING HIS WORKSHOP FROM HIS HOME TO THE LOCATION OF THE MUSEUM.

  • DANIEL JESTER says:

    DECEMBER 8, 2017

    ON MY POST I FORGOT TO MENTION THAT THE PICTURE OF MILES AND THE TWO CHILDREN AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE IN THE TURTLE PIN IS MILES ON THE LEFT. THE LITTLE BOY IS ME AT 4 YEARS OLD AND THE OLDER BOY IS MY BROTHER RICHARD LEE JESTER. HE WAS 13 YEARS OLD.

  • Elery Caskey, Jr. says:

    Hi folks. Can anyone help me with my inquiry posted on September 11, 2017? Any information would be appreciated. Thanks

  • Robert Storment says:

    I love stories like this about the classic decoys makers….those who made gunning decoys- mostly for their own use-with carving and painting skills and techniques that have not easily been duplicated since. Their productions combined with time make for some beautiful pieces.

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