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Part 3: Decoy Makers of Charlestown

Gerard William Wittstadt, Jr., Esquire (c)2024

Chapter 9: John B. Graham

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Charlestown, Maryland, 1862. John Black Graham, born in Charlestown on September 5, 1822, the son of Zachariah Butcher Graham and Rebecca Lewis, was forty years old. It is fair to say that by his fortieth birthday, John B. Graham had achieved success in Charlestown, having succeeded his father in business after his death in 1854. Like his father and his father's father, John B. Graham was a carpenter, cabinetmaker, and undertaker. He was also a duck decoy maker. By the time of the Civil War, the making of decoys in Charlestown to support the market hunting on the North East River and Susquehanna Flats was in full production, and John B. Graham was the prominent maker, although he was not the first decoy maker in Charlestown. That distinction is held by Thomas E. Burnside, who was making "stools" as early as 1836 in Charlestown.

John B. Graham's grandfather was William Graham, who was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1754. He moved to Charlestown in 1777, and appears in the Census of 1790 living in Charlestown with his family. William Graham's first wife was Sarah Oldham, who died sometime between 1789 and 1793. William and Sarah Graham had four children: Casandra Graham (Jenkins) (b. 9/13/1777, d. 9/23/1832); Samuel Graham (b. 5/12/1779); Zachariah Butcher Graham (b. 7/1/1781, d. 1854); and Sarah Graham (Severson) (b. 12/15/1789, d. 1/3/1832).

William Graham's second wife was Lydia Brown, whose parents were Rebecca (b.1745, d. 9/25/1809) and Jesse Brown (b.1744, d. 9/18/1823). Together, William and Lydia Graham had seven children: Margaret Graham (b. 8/30/1794); Hannah Graham (b.11/17/1776); William E. G. Graham (b. 1/26/1799, d. 4/30/1847); Rachel Graham (b. 6/26/1801, d. 5/27/1827); Mary Ann Graham (Richardson) (b. 3/23/1804, d. 11/24/1887); Ellis C. Graham (b. 5/16/1807); and Rebecca Graham (Diffenderfer) (b. 12/30/1809, d. 9/8/1832).

John B. Graham's father, Zachariah B. Graham, married Rebecca Lewis on April 29, 1806. Her parents were Thomas Lewis and Catherine Cunningham, whose sister, Mary Ann Cunningham, married Zachariah's half-brother, William E. G. Graham. Zachariah and Rebecca Lewis had eleven children: Barratt Graham; George Washington Graham; A. Lewis Graham (b. 6/18/1807, d. 10/19/1832); William Graham; Sarah Graham (b. 1822); Mary Ann Graham (b. 1819); Alfred Zachariah Graham (b. 1829, d. 4/20/1893); Evaline Graham (b. 2/19/1820); John Black Graham (b. 9/5/1822, d. 12/7/1912); Francis Dailor Lafayette Graham (b. 1929, d. 3/21/1912); and Charles Carroll Graham (b. 6/30/1826, d. 1/10/1907).

On June 25, 1845, John B. Graham married Elizabeth Cooper. Their only child was John Cooper Graham (b. 4/3/1845, d. 4/2/1931). Elizabeth Cooper died on November 4, 1846, and John B. Graham remarried on March 4, 1850. His second wife was Caroline M. Richardson (b. 8/29/1829, d. 10/3/1920). That union resulted in the birth of three children: Rebecca Graham (b. 5/6/1851, d. 9/20/1852); Elizabeth Helen Graham (Mattingley) (b. 11/19/1853, d. 11/9/1941); and William Henry Graham (b. 1/15/1856, d. 8/11/1903).

The earliest document of record referring to John B. Graham is the 1850 Census, in which his occupation is listed as carpenter. It is interesting to note that by 1850, John B. Graham's first wife had died and his son, John Cooper Graham, who in 1850 was five years old, was living with Mary Graham, the widow of John B. Graham's brother William E. G. Graham.

At about 1853, just before the death of his father, John B. Graham began his undertaking business in Charlestown. Until the dedication of the present church in town, the Methodists had used a frame building at the corner of Caroline and Bladen Streets for their meetings. That building was sold to John B. Graham, where he continued his undertaking business until about 1895. That building burned in 1932.

In the 1870 Census, John B. Graham is listed as "cabinet maker." His wife, Caroline, and his three children were with him at home, as was his brother, Alfred Zachariah Graham. Interestingly, a fourteen-year-old Negro girl, Cornelia Johnson, listed as "house keeper," was also living in the household. John C. Graham, who in 1870 was twenty-five years old, is listed as a carpenter and was still living at home.

In the 1878 publication of The Maryland Directory, published by J. Frank Lewis & Co. of Baltimore, John B. Graham and his brother Francis D. L. Graham are both listed as carpenters in Charlestown, and John B. Graham is also listed as an undertaker. The publication, in addition to listing the various patrons in Charlestown and their occupations, describes Charlestown as [Marco: If you make the following a block quote, delete quotation marks at the beginning and the end.]"near a station on the P. W. & B. R. R. of that name, 40 miles from Baltimore. It is beautifully [sic] located on the west bank of the North East River, and commands a picturesque view of the Chesapeake Bay for over 20 miles. It is regularly laid out into streets and squares, and is one of the most pleasant locations in the State for a town. You can in almost any part take in at a glance the North East, Elk, Sassafras and Susquehanna Rivers, with their hundreds of sails. It is healthy at all seasons; the farms are highly productive and worked by intelligent and enterprising men; fishing is carried on to a considerable extent from the waters in the vicinity which abound in fish of several varieties. The land is clay and sandy loam, principally cleared; can be bought at from $25 to $40 per acre, and yields 20 bus wheat, 50 oats, 100 potatoes, 40-50 corn, and 1 1/2 tons hey. M. E. Church, Rev. Samuel Logan. Public School, Geo. S. Mattingley and Miss Jennie Killough, teachers. Population 250. Wm. T. Richardson, Postmaster."

Two years later, according to the 1880 Census, John B. Graham was still making cabinets in Charlestown. The Grahams' housekeeper, Cornelia Johnson, had had a child, Charles, who was two years old; and George S. Mattingley, a twenty-seven-year-old schoolteacher, was living with the rest of the family. Alfred Zachariah Graham was also living in his brother's home.

On October 20, 1881, Helen Graham and George S. Mattingley (b. 12/12/1850, d. 1/28/1925) were married at the home of John B. Graham in Charlestown. The Elkton, Maryland-based newspaper, the Cecil Whig, announced the wedding:

On Thursday, the 20th inst., a bright and cheerful day, a pleasant party invited for the occasion were assembled to witness the marriage ceremony of Mr. George S. Mattingley, the gentlemanly Principal of the public school at Warwick, and Miss Helen Graham, the accomplished daughter of Mr. John B. Graham of Charlestown, in this county. The guests, friends and relatives of the family were from Wilmington, Del., Rising Sun and other places, and to the number of twenty couples were assembled in the parlor. At one o'clock the hour appointed for the ceremony, the bridal party, preceded by Miss Kate B. Richardson and W. H. Graham, the cousin and brother of the bride, entered the room. The bride looking very sweet and handsome was tastefully dressed in silk, decorated with a few choice and beautiful natural flowers. The ceremony was performed by Rev. Mr. Hammersley, pastor of Charlestown Circuit, assisted by Rev. J. D. Kemp, of Rising Sun. After the accustomed congratulations were over, all were seated at the splendid banquet, to which they did ample honor, and at its close the bride and groom took their departure for Baltimore, on their wedding tour, and the guests to their several homes. No more happy and joyous occasion has been witnessed in Charlestown for years.

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(Photograph above, October 20, 1881. Seated are John B. Graham and Caroline R. Graham, standing in the rear are newlyweds, E. Helen Graham and George S. Mattingley. Photograph courtesy of B. Woods Mattingley, San Jose, California.)

John B. Graham continued to work as a carpenter and undertaker. On February 3, 1883, the Cecil Whig published the announcement of the death of Mrs. Harriet Charshee. After a brief description of her family's genealogy, the article reported that "Mr. John B. Graham our townsman was the undertaker and furnished a handsome casket, lined so elegantly and with such profusion of flowers that death seemed to be robbed of its terror."

In the 1890s, researchers from the Chapman Publishing Company were interviewing prominent citizens of Harford and Cecil Counties, compiling biographical information to be published in 1897. The publication, Portrait and Biographical Records of Harford and Cecil Counties Maryland, is self-described as "containing portraits and biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens of the counties." The sketches were said to have been written from notes provided by the individuals being profiled.

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(John B. Graham and Caroline R. Graham, at their home in Charlestown, Maryland, circa 1897, courtesy of B. Woods Mattingley, San Jose, California.)

The 1897 publication contained the following biographical sketch of Mr. Graham:

JOHN B. GRAHAM. From a perusal of the life records of our prominent citizens may be gleaned much that is interesting to readers of mature years, as well as many lessons that may serve as examples to the young. Mr. Graham is one of those who have made their way to the front in his special line of trade. While during his long business life he has met with his share of reverses, he has not grown discouraged, but has worked steadily and energetically toward the fruition of his hopes. It is worthy of especial mention that, on the site where he now engages in business, members of his family have followed the same occupation for one hundred and twenty years, a record perhaps unequaled by any other family in Cecil County.

In Charlestown, where he now resides, John B. Graham was born September 5, 1822, and his entire life has passed at his present home. It is thought that the family is of Scotch descent. His grandfather, William Graham, was born in Chester County, Pa., but moved from there to Cecil County, Md., where his remaining years were spent. The father of our subject, Zachariah Butcher Graham, was born in Charlestown, a short distance from the place where his son began his earthly career. Like his father, he too engaged in the business as a cabinet-maker and undertaker, and being very handy with tools, he was kept busy at work in his shop. In the possession of our subject are some tools used by his father and grandfather, but they are so different from those now in vogue that cabinet-makers of today cannot tell for what they should be used. In politics Z. B. Graham was a Democrat. He was a leading man of the village and held the office of magistrate for thirty years. By all who knew him he was highly regarded. Considering the limited advantages he had, he was a well-informed man. In religious belief he was a Presbyterian, and in that faith he passed from earth in 1854. His wife, who bore the maiden name of Rebecca Lewis, was a native of Charlestown, Cecil County, and died in 1848; her maternal ancestors, the Cunninghams, were among the most prominent settlers of the county, and her two uncles were soldiers in the Revolutionary War. The paternal family consisted of twelve children, and of these three are living, namely: John B., the subject of this narrative; Charles, whose home is in Baltimore; and Lafayette, a resident of Wilmington, Del.

When our subject was young the schools were inferior to those of the present day, both as to quantity and quality of instruction; but then, as now, one who was studious and anxious to learn could gain considerable knowledge, no matter how discouraging the environments. He attended the neighboring schools and from the text books then used to store in his mind a valuable fund of information for future use. After leaving school he assisted his father in the work of cabinet-maker and also built bridges and sailing scows. In 1854 he succeeded his father in the management of the business, which he has since conducted, besides dealing in sand and clay, selling fish, and building boats. During the war, in 1864-65, he held the office of county collector. He keeps well posted regarding public issues, and favors protection of home industries. Though not a member of any denomination, he inclines to the Methodist Episcopal Church, with which his wife is identified. In addition to the business of which he is the sole owner, he owns considerable property in town and also seventy acres of farming land. Twice married, his first wife, Elizabeth Cooper bore him one child, John C., who is with his father. His second wife was Caroline Richardson, daughter of Henry Richardson, and member of an old family of the county. Two children blessed their union, namely: Helen, wife of George Matting [sic], of Wilmington, Del.; and William H., also of Wilmington.

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(Caroline Richardson Graham; above left, John Cooper Graham; and Elizabeth Helen Graham, each circa 1900. Photographs courtesy of B. Woods Mattingley, San Jose, California.)

By 1900, Mr. Graham was retired from the cabinetmaking and undertaking business, content to farm his seventy acres just outside town, although he continued to reside at the homestead in Charlestown with his wife; his son John C. Graham; and their servant, Charlie Johnson. The family business was now operated by John C. Graham, whose occupation was that of a carpenter and boatbuilder.

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(Above, left to right, John B. Graham, Caroline R. Graham and John C. Graham, circa 1900, courtesy B. Woods Mattingley, San Jose, California.)

The Graham undertaking business was still located at the corner of Caroline and Bladen Streets, but by this time was used for the most part by John C. Graham as a carpentry workshop where, among other things, caskets were made. It was here that John B. Graham carved thousands of duck decoys used on the Chesapeake Bay.

As indicated earlier, Helen Graham was married to George Sylvester Mattingley. Together they had three children: John Graham Mattingley (b. 7/26/1882, d. 4/7/1885); George Bernard Mattingley (b. 7/23/1884, d. 7/11/1969); and William Marrian Mattingley (b. 11/30/1887, d. 6/13/1931). William Marrian Mattingley was never married and had no children. George Bernard Mattingley married Virginia Marie Woods (b. 3/19/1884, d. 12/23/1921), of Langenburg, Pennsylvania, on May 7, 1906. They had three children: George B. Mattingley (b. 2/10/1907, d. 2/19/1907); Marie Marrian Mattingley (b. 4/17/1908), who had no children; and Bernard Woods Mattingley (b. 1/10/1901, d. 10/18/1994).

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(Left, George Sylvester Mattingley, circa 1900. Below, left to right seated, Helen Graham, Caroline R. Graham, Virginia Marie Woods Graham, holding Marie Marrian Mattingley. Standing, left to right, George Sylvester Mattingley, John B. Graham, and George Bernard Mattingley, December 25, 1908, courtesy B. Woods Mattingley, San Jose, California.)

In addition to building cabinets and caskets, John B. Graham was also a boatbuilder. The "Summer Duck" was built by Mr. Graham sometime before 1900. This boat was used for railbirding, or "reed birding," as it was locally called at the time it was built. This venture was not so much a commercial enterprise as a late summer vacation for the watermen. "By September, Sora Rail, Blue Wing Teal and Wood Duck (Summer Duck) were migrating through the area in quantity and the local marshes were very pleasant places to relax, use up last year's shells and sharpen up for the duck season." The late Nelson H. McCall, 1967, Charlestown, Maryland.

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The boat pictured above is the same boat pictured on page, wherein Otto Eisenlohr is pictured along with Captain Joseph Heisler of Charlestown. This boat is currently on loan from the McCall family to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland. (This article appeared in the July/August 1997 edition of Decoy Magazine.)

John B. Graham died at his home in Charlestown on December 7, 1912, and his wife died on October 3, 1920 at the home in Charlestown. According to the Graham Family Bible, both John and his wife, Caroline Richardson Graham, died at home of "old age." Today, 101 years after his death, John B. Graham's work lives on. It is interesting Mr, Graham's fame comes not from his boatbuilding or even his carpentry, as one might have thought in 1897 when the Portrait was published, but rather from his duck decoy making. Acknowledged by most waterfowling historians familiar with the Upper Chesapeake Bay, Mr. Graham is widely considered the grandfather of the Cecil County school of duck decoy carving. There can be no doubt that Graham's decoys inspired the next generation of Charlestown's decoy makers: Scott Jackson, Will Heverin, Wash Barnes, and Wally Algard, all of whom were neighbors of Mr. Graham's.

In the 2003 publication Waterfowling on the Chesapeake 1819-1936, C. John Sullivan makes a compelling argument that John B. Graham was not the only Graham in Charlestown who carved duck decoys. He opines that John B. may have made decoys under the tutelage of his father, Zachariah B. Graham, and that John C. Graham most likely joined with his father at some point. It is also very likely that John B.'s brother Francis Dailor Lafayette Graham also assisted in the production of these birds, as he, too, was a carpenter in Charlestown and associated with the family business. Although there are no documents to support these theories and no decoys bearing a brand other than that of John B. Graham, given the quantity of birds attributed to John B. and the subtle differences between these ducks, it will remain a mystery as to whether they all were, in fact, the work of John B. Graham alone.

John B. Graham made primarily Canvasbacks, including highhead models. He also carved Redheads, Blackducks, Blackducks, Mallards, and other species. The majority of the birds he made were produced for sale to local gunners, but he made a few for his own personal rig and branded them "J B GRAHAM."

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(Graham decoys this page from the collection of Frank Fox.)

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(Above, Canvasback Drake by John B. Graham, Charlestown, Maryland, circa 1880.)

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(Above, Redhead Drake by John B. Graham, Charlestown, Maryland, circa 1880.)

In more modern times, the grandnephew of John B. Graham, Horace Disston Graham, also carved decoys. Horace D. Graham was born on January 22, 1893, the son of Jonathan James "Jim" Graham (b. 10/22/1865, d. 1/2/1927) and Sarah May Howell (b. 8/14/1871, d. 6/22/1948). He was the oldest of four children. Jim Graham's father was Francis D. L. Graham, who was the younger brother of John B. Graham. Jim Graham owned and operated a general store in Charlestown located on Bladen Street, near the old Blacksmith and Wheelwright Shop.

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(At left,Graham Store on Bladen Street in Charlestown, Maryland, circa 1919. Pictured, left to right, are Sarah May Graham, Francis D.L. Graham (b.10/20/1909 d. 6/13/1994); and Jim Graham. Photograph courtesy of Warren Graham, Alexandria, Virginia.)

Horace Disston Graham was named after Horace Disston of Philadelphia, who in the late 1800s owned the Seneca Point Farm. Horace D. Graham worked as a young man at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia as a carpenter. He was married to Elsie Norman and together they had one child, Virginia Graham.

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(Above, Graham Store, circa 1909. Pictured are Carrie Murphy Patchell and Reba Graham, holding her brother Francis D. L. Graham.)

After his retirement in 1955, Horace Graham began making decoys in the basement of his home in Charlestown and made them up to 1978. Horace Graham made all species of decoys, including geese and swan. He also made miniature decoys.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, collectors visited with Mr. Graham in his basement, where thousands of birds were bought, sold, and traded.

Horace Graham was color-blind, and many of the more exotic species of decoys are evidence of this disability.

He died on March 4, 1985.

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(Photograph above, Horace D. Graham, in the basement workshop of his Charlestown home, 1973, courtesy of Virginia Graham, West Collingswood, New Jersey.)

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(Canvasback miniature pair, 1968, Horace D. Graham, Charlestown, Maryland.)

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(Above, Canvasback Drake, Horace D. Graham, circa 1965, Charlestown, Maryland.)