Miles Hancock led an amazing life that could never have unfolded the way it did if he had lived anyplace else in the world. Born in Williamsville, Delaware in 1887, he was one of four children in a very hard-working farming family. When he was seven, his parents moved to Chincoteague.
The family had hoped by making the move to Chincoteague, they would be able to make a better living on a new farm. Hard luck seemed to follow them to their new home. Miles’ mother passed away suddenly, and his father was unable to care for the children and make the farm productive. His father placed the four children into Foster Care so that he could work every day. Out of this bleak backdrop, Hancock built a life-long string of entrepreneurial success stories.
By age 12, he had begun catching and raising terrapin. This salt-water-loving turtle had been a staple in human diets on the Shore since Native American times, but Hancock got into the business at just the right time. In the early years of the 20th century, rich folks up and down the East Coast decided that terrapin prepared in sherry and cream sauce ranked among life’s premier delicacies. Prices skyrocketed. Where the turtles had once sold for $6 a dozen, they were now going for as high as $128 a dozen.
Terrapins hibernate in winter, so Hancock started a side business for the colder months in “market gunning.” This is basically the mass slaughter of ducks and other birds, which were then shipped in barrels of salt to restaurants and markets in big cities, where recent influxes of immigrants meant skyrocketing demand for food. Market gunners had a lot of tricks up their sleeves. Sometimes they used multiple barrel guns. Other times they loaded up gigantic “punt” guns with up to a pound of shot and nails that would scatter through a flock with deadly force.
There were no limits on the treachery of “market gunners.” They would hunt in fleets of row boats all equipped with punt guns. Night hunting was big, too. They would sneak up on rafts of ducks in the middle of the night; with their “sneak boats,” and slaughter hundreds of ducks at time. Later in life Hancock boasted of killing 50 redheads with five shots and 100 birds in just two hours. One of the biggest challenges market gunners faced out in the field was coming up with a way to move hundreds of dead birds through the marsh and back to town. Over time, market hunting devastated the populations of migratory birds. In 1918, Congress passed The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which turned Hancock’s hunting business into a federal crime.
Then Prohibition arrived in 1920, and the demand for terrapin plummeted in the absence of cooking sherry. Some ecologists credit the sinking demand caused by Prohibition with saving the terrapin from extinction.
If things weren’t bad enough; the Great Depression hit the economy. But as we’ve seen, Miles Hancock was nothing if not resourceful. He outfitted a big houseboat, christened it Tarry Awhile, and became a very popular guide serving wealthy, big-city hunters. He also began helping a prolific Chincoteague decoy carver named Ira Hudson whenever Hudson was overwhelmed with too many orders.
In time, Hancock became quite the carver himself. Collectors say what makes his work distinctive is the way he gave his ducks a broad, flat-bottomed body and flat, paddle-shaped tails. Overall, modern experts say his style tended toward the primitive, folk-art end of the decoy spectrum. Online recently we found Hancock decoys selling for lows of around $200 to highs of around $800.
One dealer in his online comments put it this way: Hancock “didn’t make the prettiest decoy ever, but he probably forgot more about killing ducks than 90 percent” of his decoy-making contemporaries ever knew. One of his Miniature Black Ducks is pictured here.
Hancock lived to the age of 87, dying in 1974. It is estimated that he made an astounding 20,000 decoys by the time he was done.
I am happy to announce that our museum now has, perhaps the most complete Miles Hancock Collection of life size and miniature decoys on display until May 2021. I want to thank Bill Hall of Bloxom, VA for allowing us to put them on display.
The picture on the left was taken during the filming of the movie, Misty Of Chincoteague. It is Miles Hancock with actor David Ladd.