Celebrating 50 years!
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
Art, hunting and conservation
collided 50 years ago to create a festival like no other
Compiled by Amelia Blades Steward
A Look Back
In 1971, the first Waterfowl Festival was a showcase of sporting and traditional ‘arts’ of the day including decoys, decoy collecting, carving and paintings. It was a coming together of families and friends to fashion an event that would “capture the true romance, the
excitement, engendered by the [area’s] wild birds and the hunting sport they create.” It was an event intended to generate funding to support conservation efforts for healthy duck, goose and swan populations and their habitats. Founders hoped the festival would “grow into something extraordinary.” And so it has.
Today’s Waterfowl Festival is still firmly rooted in those initial intentions and expectations. The venues and activities have evolved over the decades to engage audiences of all kinds in our Eastern Shore heritage and community. The Festival's fine art galleries have dramatically expanded the range of mediums and subject matter over the years, representing the natural world and wildlife from across the world. While some say this is a departure from the past, it could be said to be part of a larger evolution in both our national awareness of the importance of wild places, wildlife and conservation and also perhaps the next iteration in the long, evolving history of wildlife-related art.
Wildlife has been depicted for centuries in various artistic manners across the globe — from ancient cave art to John James Audubon’s beautiful scientific studies. What we today call “sporting art” arose as its own genre in the mid-nineteenth century, largely as a result of the Industrial Revolution, which spurred the rise of a middle class with time for leisure pursuits such as hunting and fishing and the technical advancements that made wide-scale production of images possible. During roughly the same time, the writings of authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged Americans to find solace and spiritual growth in nature. The subjects and scenes of today’s sculptures, paintings and photographs — and how we view them — traces not only to this period in American history but far beyond.
Although there have been many advocates and activists for the natural world over the decades, the 1970s was the dawn of what many might say is the modern conservation ethos. In that decade alone, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Chesapeake Bay Program, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay were born. In Talbot County, the Waterfowl Festival was born from a deep love and concern about changing landscapes and habitats for migratory birds.
Now in our 50th year, our Festival and the range of artistic offerings is indeed extraordinary. It is the Mid-Shore’s “homecoming” for thousands of waterfowl and people every fall. It is a celebration of art, nature and heritage; “. . . a community-wide undertaking, planned and conducted by residents whose objective is the preservation of the wildlife environment of the Eastern Shore.” (1971 Festival Program “Welcome”)
The Festival's Hunting Heritage
From its beginnings in 1971, the Waterfowl Festival’s heritage was built around hunting, once a mainstay of the Eastern Shore’s economy. After World War II, when ducks were still prolific, the Canada goose began to visit this region. As farming practices changed from growing animals to growing grain for the expanding poultry industry, the geese began to winter on the Shore. Early on, their food source was greater and the hunting pressures less on the Eastern Shore than they were in North Carolina.
Following the years of the “outlaw gunners,” as Harry Walsh, M.D., a local physician and outdoor enthusiast, depicts in his book, The Outlaw Gunner, hunters and conservationists alike began to focus on wildlife conservation in the Mid-Atlantic region. By the early ’70s, most knew that the number of geese and ducks that blackened the skies on the Eastern Shore would not last forever without serious conservationist efforts locally.
Aware of the need in 1969, Dr. Walsh and Bill Perry, an outdoor writer, journalist, photographer and longtime director of the Maryland State Fishing Tournament, came up with the idea to hold a festival honoring the Canada goose. During this time, Easton had been the site of an art show featuring waterfowl paintings sponsored by the local Lions Club. Bill Corkran, a member of the Lions Club and organizer of the art show, remembers the Gold Room of the Tidewater Inn hosting the art show for a few years. The show featured local painters, as well as those from outside the area.
Perry and Walsh followed this event with the first Waterfowl Festival in November 1971. It was no coincidence that the Festival coincided with the arrival of the Canada goose and the beginning of hunting season. Its origins were founded on the hunting heritage that made the Eastern Shore a mecca for hunters and sportsmen of all kinds. During the early years, hunting provided the backdrop for the Festival’s focus on artwork and conservation.
Remembrance: Our 30th Year
“Easton is a Feeling”
Mine eyes have seen the glory the likes I may never see again. I have witnessed a quarter of a century of Easton Waterfowl Festivals. We are older and wiser now, with larger clothes and wrinkles to spare. We walk the same old streets of yesteryear and visualize the good times we share with friends.
I think back and remember the snow drifts and rosy cheeks as folks would hustle and bustle for shelter in the Tidewater Inn. The ember glow of the hickory logs would cast a luring light on the centerpiece carving as we sat by the fireplace on those cold November nights. In the morning, you hear the distant call of the wild goose and feel that crisp Canadian air. That is the Easton I know.
Easton’s Waterfowl Festival weekend is a feeling of excitement, like your first Saturday night dance…butterflies in your stomach as the anticipation of the weekend becomes reality. The familiar faces of friends dressed in leather or tweed, kicking sycamore leaves as they shop for treasures along the quaint little streets of Easton. The mystique of Old English charm and the bay windows fits somewhere between Brigadoon and Shangri-La. Treat yourself to an event that almost feels religious in a sense, where husband and wife feel an equal lure to belong. That is the Easton feeling. The time of year, the warmth of friends, the great art and the aroma of Eastern Shore cooking all add to your weekend.
What makes it the blue ribbon of festivals? Who knows? It could be the memory of having a cup of soup with the girls while shopping or maybe the time we met at the Crab Claw in the snow drift. Could it be the Saturday night we danced to “Old Cape Cod” in the Crystal Room — “As Times Go By?” Music by the Shoremen made us all “Great Pretenders.” We danced the night away to the “Tennessee Waltz” the whole “Enchanted Evening.”
That is the Easton I preach about. The wild deer, the flocks of geese. Those cold, crisp Canadian winds when the moon lights the way to Oxford and St. Michaels to feast on the bounty of the Chesapeake.
A Vision Fulfilled
The introduction of the first event program describes an event that will “capture the true romance, the excitement, engendered by the wildbirds and hunting sport they create.” Those early expectations were that the event would “grow into something extraordinary.”
Few would argue that the vision has not been fulfilled over the past four decades. The Waterfowl Festival has grown from three small exhibits in downtown Easton to more than a dozen venues throughout the town.
The event’s first exhibits were Carvings, Paintings and Artifacts. Ten years later, there were 11 exhibits and two events, the Decoy Auction and Calling Contest, with buses already introduced to get people around town to all the venues. By the time of the 20th Waterfowl Festival, the number of exhibits had grown to 15, with four events, including the immediately popular Retriever Demonstrations. Food, music, kids’ activities and more special events went along with the growth of the Festival, broadening its appeal to families and those simply looking for a fun weekend getaway.
The nonprofit organization’s benefits to conservation have grown from initial proceeds to $7,500 donated to Ducks Unlimited to a total of $5 million to conservation grants to hundreds of projects by more than 50 organizations.
Going beyond its original strategy of investing event proceeds in other organizations’ conservation and education projects, the Waterfowl Festival now actively partners with some grant recipients in collaborative efforts. Direct participation allows it to enlist multiple organizations and agencies to larger-scale projects with greater environmental significance.