by Richard Cowan and Richard LaFountain
Jay Cooke became one of the most powerful figures in America by the mid-19th century. He rubbed shoulders with the most important socialites, politicians and business moguls and mucked through marshlands with local hunters, guides and fishermen from the Midwest to the East Coast. He was someone directly involved in the mix of dramatic historical events unfolding around him; he had power and influence.
A long-standing controversy exists regarding the identities of makers of certain styles of early Delaware River waterfowl decoys. It is referred to as “the Blair Mystery.” Questions related to it have consistently ignored how the transmission or origin of design concepts occurred, perhaps resulting from a limited regionalized focus and perspective. Over the years many decoys have been sold at auction as “Blair school,” although through the markings on the bottoms of these decoys it has been ascertained that they were used at a number of gunning clubs in Ohio, some as early as 1850. While it is a fact that the decoys were used in Ohio, and were probably made in Ohio, it has been widely assumed without supporting facts that the designs used on these carvings originated along the Delaware River.
Viewed from a larger picture, Jay Cook may well have been the pivotal character in the true evolution of this design.
In 1977 author and publisher Hal Sorenson wrote an article in Decoy Collectors Guide, volume 6, titled, “The Blair Mystery.” He stated, “If you believe as many do that John Blair, Sr. was a banker, it is unlikely he either made or painted decoys.” We now know that Blair wasn’t a banker but rather a successful carriage manufacturer. It was puzzling until reading from Jay Cooke’s unedited memoirs. In it Cooke and his friends refer to him as “the Banker from Philadelphia.” Might this be relevant or is it merely a coincidence?
Jay Cooke was born in Sandusky, Ohio on August 10, 1821. The family home, overlooking Sandusky Bay and Lake Erie, was named “Ogontz” in honor of an old Indian chief who had once lived on the same land. Jay’s father, Eleutheros Cooke, and the mother, Martha Causwell, were well educated Easterners who possessed pioneering spirits. Their brave and difficult journey found them in the untamed Midwest as early as 1817. The general area where they settled was a paradise teeming with deer, waterfowl and fish. It was there that young 8-year-old Jay Cooke developed his life-long passion for hunting and fishing.
In addition to being an avid and adept outdoorsman, Cooke boasted of his creative talents. “Now I was skillful in fashioning little boats and rigging them, boats of all sizes from 4 to 20 inches in length and I even attained so far as to manufacture a ‘steam boat.’ It was 16 inches long, had paddle wheels, smoke stack, etc. and the motor power was derived from an old clock spring and when set in motion and with some burning gum placed in the smoke stack was a fair illustration of the rude steamers of those days.”
Surrounding Jay Cooke’s home on the south shore of Lake Erie were vast and rich marshlands, which provided idyllic waterfowl habitats. During the last half of the 19th century, over 50 shooting clubs were formed there. One of the most prominent and exclusive was and is the Winous Point Shooting Club, started in 1856. It continues today. However, well prior to the founding of the club, Cooke was already familiar with the area as he regularly hunted and fished those marshes and waters.
Jay Cooke became a registered member of the Winous Shooting Club in 1859. He also owned a fishing lodge, perhaps part of the Oquossoc Angling Association in far off Maine. While Cooke most likely was a member of other clubs, he certainly would have enjoyed being a frequent guest at numerous prestigious ones wherever he went, as was the custom of the day.
The banker from Philadelphia built a summer home, which he called “Gibraltar” and some referred to as “Cooke’s Castle,” on an island in Put-in-Bay. In 1866 he also owned a second home very near Philadelphia in Chelten Hills. In remembrance of his parent’s house and the old chief, he named that one “Ogontz.” It was conveniently located only six miles from prime hunting and fishing on the Delaware River. Two decades later it became the exclusive Ogontz School for Girls.
Starting around 1838, Cooke regularly traveled between Sandusky, Ohio, Philadelphia and New York, for both business and pleasure. A listing of his friends, acquaintances and associates would be quite long and tremendously impressive. It would include state governors, major bankers, railroad and ship owners, government officials, high-ranking military officers and several U.S. Presidents. His brother, Gov. H.D. Cooke of the District of Columbia helped found the Republican Party. Needless to say, Jay was extremely well connected. For instance, one morning while conducting business at the residence of the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase (former Ohio Senator and Governor), in Washington, a servant announced that Attorney General Edward Bates and President Abraham Lincoln were outside waiting in a carriage. Shortly, the four men left to meet with General George B. McClellan to review his troops, soon bound for battle. Interestingly, McClellan was born in Philadelphia and at one time, was vice president and president of two Midwest railroads, which typically could have been financed by Cooke’s bank. McClellan also commanded the Ohio militia. This was not a chance meeting.
In those days long distance journeys required frequent and multiple transfers by carriage, rail and ship. The affluent, like Cooke, traveled in comfort. In Ohio he owned a luxurious paddle wheel steamer christened the “Jay Cooke” in 1867; it was the equivalent of a grandiose modern day yacht. Utilizing his position and connections, Cooke convinced New York artist James Bard (1815-1897) to paint the new vessel as one of the very few ship portraits that Bard ever did outside of the East Coast.
“Only once, as far is known, did Bard ever depart from the environs of the Hudson River for his background. This was in a portrait of the steamer ‘Jay Cooke,’ shown against what must be the island called Gibraltar in Put-in-Bay, Lake Erie. It is assumed that the mansion shown on the hillside beyond the vessel is the summer home of Jay Cooke himself, noted Philadelphia financier and owner of the steamer,” it’s written in “The Bard Brothers: Painting America Under Steam and Sail” by Anthony J. Peluso Jr. and the Mariner’s Museum.
In typical Bard fashion the pure white vessel was bedecked with flamboyant flags and banners. Bard’s pre-Civil War patrons were Cooke’s peers and each expected precision. Bard’s art reflected their status. Cooke also commissioned other recognized American artists like Thomas Moran (1837-1926) for various projects.
Jay Cooke was honored with a partnership in the banking firm of E.W. Clark and Company in Philadelphia in 1839. He was only 18-years-old! By 1860 he established his own bank, Jay Cooke and Company, which handled the majority of United States bonds issued during the Civil War. His bank was also responsible for helping finance significant commercial projects like the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad.
How is such information relevant to the history of decoy making?
Traditional thinking speculates that the normal transmission of ideas moved from east to west as the continent was settled. However, in special cases that may not be true. For example, the movements of people of serious influence, like Jay Cooke, challenge those premises. In the Delaware River region, John Blair Sr. (1842-1928) and John English (1848-1915) are considered the founding fathers of Delaware River decoy styles. If an age of 20 is assigned to each to establish the beginnings of mature carving periods, then 1862 and 1868 respectively represent the start of their careers as quality makers. “He (John Blair) made his first decoys of record soon after the Civil War, around 1866, a rig of 17 mallards,” so wrote Huster and Knight in their book “Floating Sculpture: The Decoys of the Delaware River.” Who were their influences? John Blair was a member of two southeastern Pennsylvania shooting clubs, one in Frankford and one in Bridesburg, both now part of Philadelphia. Jay Cooke’s home, Ogontz, was directly upstream a few miles on Tacony Creek. It became a fishing retreat visited by Herbert Hoover and many others. The Tacony flows into the Delaware River at Bridesburg.
For comparison, Ned John Hauser (1826-1900) was an accomplished decoy maker in Sandusky, Ohio by 1850. His most prolific period of production lasted until 1880. Hauser was creating hollow decoys with classic lines in Ohio when Blair and English were only children. It is important to note that Hauser was employed as a master painter and decorator by the Sandusky, Mansfield and Newark Railroad, which later became the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. With his skill and in that position in Sandusky, he was most certainly known by Jay Cooke.
The Winous Point Shooting Club formed in 1856 on grounds actively hunted over decades earlier. From its beginnings, classic decoys were in use there. Members’ initials, like “G.A.S.” for George A. Stanley (Winous member from 1857-1884), were customarily branded into the bottoms of club decoys. Those brands help confirm their in-use periods. For 40 years, numbers of those decoys have been erroneously identified as “East Coast” in books, auction catalogs and articles, compounding “the mystery.” Some “Blair School” decoys have Ohio brands; some Ohio decoys have brands from currently unknown sources.
As indicated, Jay Cooke first discovered the joy of hunting local Ohio marshes in 1828. By 1838 he was working and enjoying a gentleman’s sporting life in and around Philadelphia. At that point neither Blair nor English had been born. An examination of the chronological record of historical events and a comparative analysis of early decoys from Ohio and the Delaware River has convinced this author that the earliest Ohio decoys are indeed native to Ohio. John Hauser and several unknown local peers developed decoy forms specifically for hunting on Ohio marshes and rivers for an elite clientele who afforded and expected only the best. Some of those decoys have brands, which date them prior to the classic productivity of Blair or English.
It is a highly likely scenario that Jay Cooke owned and used such decoys quite early in Ohio, although the evidence is circumstantial. It is also probable that he transported his personal hunting rig, favorite guns and tailored gentleman’s gear by steamboat and trains to his second home near the Delaware. Perhaps he took samples to serve as reference models for local craftsmen.
Undoubtedly, he was either a member of or invited guest at the exclusive shooting clubs in areas in which he lived or visited. Several possibilities exist for the development of regional ideas and designs. One, these events resulted from pure spontaneous inspiration or incredible coincidence. Two, regional styles in North America evolved independently. Three, there were interactive influences from various sources, like Cooke.
Hopefully this information will provide the stimulus for a reexamination of accepted orthodox theories regarding the origins of decoy forms. And just maybe an Ohio decoy maker will be credited for creating - or at least providing the design - for some of those unknown “Blair School” decoys.
For the complete story, please see the Nov./Dec. 2002 issue of Decoy Magazine.
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