Charles A. Safford (1877-1957)
Newburyport, MA, c. 1920
27 by 15 by 10 1/2 in.
“Although Charles Safford was a member of an old respected family descended from Newburyport’s first English settler, it quickly became evident that as an adult, he had very little use for any restrictions imposed by the proper social life.
He was schooled locally, proved to be bright and talented, did skilled work with his hands and was drawn to the outdoor life; he was a natural at hunting and shooting. He was small, but wiry and strong, and famous for sculling his sneak float (gunning boat) up-current against the mighty Merrimack River…
As a young man, Charlie apprenticed at his great-grandfather’s cabinetmaking shop, Safford and Sons, where he became known for his meticulous craftsmanship...
Safford had built himself a gunning camp and goose stand at Hale’s Cove on Plum Island, the eight-mile-long barrier beach just south of his hometown. He was now a crack shot, a successful market gunner and a highly sought-after hunting guide. At this point his needs were minimal, and being the gifted craftsman that he was, he could get a job at any firm, including his great-grandfather’s shop or next door at the prestigious Molten Silversmiths. He could create anything in wood from an elegant casket to an elegant seaworthy boat. He worked readily both as a designer and artist in gold and silver (or any other metal). In fact, he quickly mastered any medium to which he turned his attention. He was an inventor as well, employed as a tool maker and machinist when in his forties...
In the early 1920s, Safford made himself a fine rig of big goose decoys, and designed them to sit three-apiece on flat iron triangles. These spent the hunting season out on the marsh. They were intelligently constructed: the birds’ upright necks were carved from separate blocks that put the grain north-to-south, making them well-nigh unbreakable.
In 1934, Plum Island, Safford’s home hunting grounds, became a protected bird sanctuary. Happily, Charlie was invited to stay on as the property’s game warden, and he readily accepted the post.
This change meant that, virtually overnight, Charlie went from gunner to defender of waterfowl. He patrolled his wildlands every day on horseback, or occasionally by car if the weather was foul, and compiled detailed bird lists which Mass Audubon published in its monthly newsletters.
Eight years on, in 1942, the sanctuary was incorporated into the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, and Safford, just turned sixty-five, retired and moved down to Lynn, a small coastal city, where he spent the rest of his life with his housekeeper. He kept in touch with his former profession by carving miniature ducks and geese...”
- Special thanks to "The Museum of American Bird Art", Mass Audubon, and Massachusetts Masterpieces curator and author Gwladys (Gigi) Hopkins for providing this biographical content.
As a multi-talented craftsman, Safford brought his considerable skills to bear when carving his grand decoys. These carvings from his personal rig were mammoth in both size and weight. The rotund bodies measure nearly three feet in circumference, with proud breasts and clean lines that resolve with stout, yet subtly refined, tails. Rather than using solid blocks of wood, which were difficult to procure and prone to checking, Safford used fine boards which he painstakingly laminated to create the over-size bodies. This time-consuming construction technique added strength and durability to the finished carving.
The heads and necks were two joined pieces mounted on a raised neck seat. The heads were then finished with two-tone glass eyes and intricate bill carving.
The telling scale of Safford geese and their special method of use, affixed to triangle rigs, dictated that they saw prolonged exposure to the elements during the long hunting season. Hence the vast majority of Safford decoys are found in heavily worn condition, often with seam separations and cracks. Examples in original paint with tight lamination joints are rarely found, making this decoy one the finest Safford geese known to exist.
The underside is marked with Safford’s personal “C. A. SAFFORD” brand and also bears the incised Roman numerals “VII.” The top of the bird has a corresponding stencil painted “7” on the back. The surface of this decoy is nice and dry, applied by a confident and skilled painter. Original paint with gunning wear and some darkening to flaking.
Provenance: Charles A. Safford Rig
Private Collection, Massachusetts
Literature: Gwladys Hopkins, Massachusetts Masterpieces, Lincoln, MA, 2016, pp. 78-79.
Jay S. Williamson, Decoys of the Newburys, Plum Island and Surrounding Communities: Catalog of an Exhibition at the Cushing House Museum, Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1999, pp. 41-42, rigmate illustrated.
Robert Shaw, Bird Decoys of North America, New York, NY, 2010, p. 156.
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