As I turned off Highway 17 onto West Virginia Road, snowy mountains and the blue-green Kanawha River came to mind, but neither snow nor mountains waited in Carolina Rice Country. Legendary folk artists waited—The Caines Boys. Now right here let’s get clear on names. The Caines Brothers are dead and gone. The Caines Boys, Jerry and Roy, live on. The first time I heard of Caines decoys, it was a reference to the Caines Brothers who came to fame in Georgetown in the first half of the last century. They worked as gunners, made moonshine, and toiled as watermen. Built boats. Whatever put bread on the table.
The Caines Boys’ granddad and uncles were early rising weather-beaten outdoorsmen and they knew the land here like the back of their hand, as they should. Their ancestors came here in 1735 and owned a lot of land until “carpetbaggers came in” as Jerry put it. So, the Caines have lived here nigh 300 years in the vicinity of a point of land known as the Waccamaw Neck. Think of this region and you think of water: Winyah Bay and rivers, the Waccamaw, Sampit, Great Pee Dee, and Black, Indian names all, ’cept for the Black. Indians called it Wee Nee, “Dark Water.” Looked like black coffee to settlers, thus Black stuck.
Far as duck hunting goes, in the early 1900s if a man wanted to draw ducks in, he made his own decoys or someone made ’em for him. Weren’t any plastic, store-bought decoys back then. The Caines Brothers answered the call, turning blocks of gum tupelo into snaky-necked mallards. They got really good at it. Today, Caines Brothers descendants, Jerry and Roy, carry on the family tradition of carving decoys. (Sportsman Alert: They don’t carve gunning decoys; they carve decorative decoys for shows and collectors.)
Just off West Virginia Road, that road resurrecting mountain memories, I spent two afternoons with the Caines Boys February 9 and 10 talking about the path that led them to their grandfather’s calling. Before carving, Jerry and Roy Caines worked the coastline as shrimpers. “We’re married to the sea,” said Jerry. Neither man has ever been married and that’s fine with them. They’re independent souls. “We’ve always been self employed,” said Jerry, reminding me of something my granddad used to say. “If you can make money for the man, you can make it for yourself.” My granddad was born about the same time the Caines Brothers were, at the turn of the last century, an era producing self-reliant, wood-and-water-savvy men.
As for the Caines Boys’ dad, he worked the salt. He was a commercial fisherman, no carving for him. He taught his boys to treat fish like they’d treat themselves. Things like how to hold a fish without grabbing its gills and bloodying it up. Folks preferred buying their cleaner, healthier fish as a result.
The Caines Boys fished and shrimped but things they do change, and shrimping’s no exception. Now a lot of folks far removed from the coast don’t know just how much shrimping has changed. Shrimpers today have to compete with imported shrimp, and it isn’t easy. That and onerous regulations make shrimping a losing deal nowadays. The Caines Boys never crabbed but they did some shad fishing and fished for sturgeon and caviar. Regulations made those pursuits difficult too, so when the pickings got slim, when The Little Shrimper, the Caines Boy’s boat, met its demise, rot, in their back yard, a local hardware store owner made a suggestion. “Why don’t you carve decoys like your granddad did?”
They started carving in 2005. “We both work on decoys,” said Roy. “I do the rough cut and Jerry does the art.” It took six months to make their first decoy. Tupelo gum is the preferred wood although Jerry said they’ve carved some from cedar. They get cured tupelo wood from a man who makes serving trays. They use Dremel tools. The big challenges when carving a decoy are getting the tail feathers and wing positions right. Getting a duck anatomically correct is important too. The Caines Boys use a Sabre Detail Master IV to burn in fine details. They carve heads separately. “It’s so hard to carve an entire duck from one block of wood,” said Jerry. “It takes too much wood,” adds Roy. They make oversized decoys like their granddad did unless it is for a show. The decoys they make for shows are realistic sizes and highly detailed. “Every blue ribbon we’ve won was justified,” said Jerry.
The Caines Boys sell their decoys for $2,000 and up. Their miniature wood ducks are very popular and go for $350. A fellow familiar with shows and auctions gave the Caines Boys some advice. “I don’t know what your prices are and I don’t care, but when you sell your decoys triple the price.”
The Caines Boys’ granddad, Hucks Caines, didn’t sell decoys back in his day. He traded them for groceries. Out of some 500 decoys carved only 50 remain today, hence their value. A Hucks Caines snaky-necked mallard and its mate set a record when they went for $258,000 at an auction.
The Caines Boys don’t know what tools their granddad used but said it took him a week to carve a decoy. He was famous for his snaky-necked decoys, with their neck elongated and flexed into an S shape. Jerry thinks his granddad carved snaky-neck decoys because they assume that position briefly when taking off.
And take off is what Caines Brothers’ decoys did. Take off in the sense of popularity among collectors. They possess a provenance tracing back to two names synonymous over in rice country—Caines and Baruch. Investor Bernard M. Baruch, who established Hobcaw Barony, a 16,000-acre estate, hired the Caines Brothers to serve as hunting guides and to run off poachers. He owned a lot of the Caines Brothers’ decoys. Most had “BMB” on the bottom. Millionaires came to Hobcaw to hobnob and shoot ducks over those decoys but time and change marched on. The Baruchs died and somehow Caines Brothers’ decoys ended up all over the place. If you were to stumble across one of their old decoys, do nothing to it. An old decoy is like an old coin, clean it and you lessen its value, but the truth is there’s little chance of coming across a Caines Brother’s decoy. If you want a rice country heirloom, and you can see here how beautiful they are, contact the Caines Boys.
One more thing. Back on a cold winter day when the woodpile was low, the Caines Boys’ granddad would toss a few decoys into the stove. If only he could have seen the future. A small fortune, a princely sum, went up in smoke. And something else. Art. What would someday be known as folk art.