John Henry Downes

( - ) Townsend, VA

John Henry Downes was born and lived his entire life in Townsend, Virginia. He was the member of a crew that served a Life Saving Station on Smith Island, one of the barrier islands off the Atlantic coast of Eastern Virginia. Downes and his son, John Hanson Downes (1892 – 1987), were sometime carpenters and boat builders who spent a good deal of their spare time hunting in the marshes and fishing in the waters around Townsend.

Life saving station service on the off shore barrier islands often meant long periods of separation from one’s family. In order to make “good use” of his time away from home, John Henry Downes collaborated with several other members of the crew in carving shorebird decoys. He made two piece curlew, snipe and plover decoys with the head attached to the body similar to a duck decoy. He is also credited with having carved black duck decoys.

John Henry’s son, John Hanson carved mostly hollow bodied two piece black duck decoys with inletted heads for his own use. Both father and son carved their initials (“H”, “H.D.”, or “J. H. D.”) into the bottom of their decoys. Distinguishing between the work of father and son requires an experienced eye.

For additional information

Southern Decoys of Virginia and the Carolinas, 1983 by Henry A. Fleckenstein, Jr.