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.
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.)
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.
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