Decoy and Shorebird Collector Jim Allen of Tuckerton Lives and Loves the History

By PAT JOHNSON | Sep 20, 2017
Photo by: Pat Johnson Tim Allen of Tuckerton inspects a decoy given to the Tuckerton Seaport.

Jim Allen grew up in 1960s Tuckerton, working in his mom and dad’s grocery store, Horner’s, on Main Street. He can remember when the town was 50 years behind the times: when people took a pickle from the pickle barrel, walked the short boardwalk in front of the Carlton House and stood on the corner to chat with a neighbor. They would see a town that hadn’t changed much since the turn of the last century. This was before a fire took out the old Methodist Church with its distinct onion dome and the old Gerber’s store, before Wawa took over Bower’s Pharmacy and the community movie theatre.

Allen remembers seeing flocks of migrating Canada geese alight on the empty meadows that are now Tuckerton Beach.

On Wednesday, Sept. 13 in the Hunting Shanty at the Tuckerton Seaport, he talked more about decoy carvers and his love of collecting these works of folk art for the Lunch N’ Learn Program put on in the fall and winter by the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Seaport.

“I started the hobby as a young kid,” said Allen. "I had a love for the outdoors that I got from my father, grandfathers and uncles, who were all avid hunters. I can remember my father always had Chesapeake Bay retrievers and he would say, ‘If you ever get stuck in the bay, just put a rope around the dog and say, pull me in.’

“I had a Barnegat Bay sneakbox that some call a devil’s coffin, and I learned to row them. My first day hunting with my dad and we were in an area of the ‘crick’ waiting for the day to begin and three teal came into the decoys. I was waiting for my dad to tell me to go and I see that he’s sound asleep. I said, ‘There’s ducks on the decoys,’ and he said, ‘Well, shoot them.’”

His father, Belford Allen, gave him his first decoy, an 1890 “old squaw” Shourds decoy.

“It had no paint, but that was my start.”

Allen also had a working rig of nine decoys made by Alex Barker, who lived and worked from his home on South Green Street. “It was made in the 1920s or earlier. He passed in 1930.”

Allen remembers John Hillman coming into his family’s store in his hip boots. “He was a decoy collector in the 1940s and 1950s and I met him in the ’60s. Over time we became close friends. Johnny coached me in what history he had learned. He was a carpenter by trade, a local guy from Sea Girt. In 1996 or ’97 his collection sold for $15 million.

“He learned like I did, just by putting your face in at clubs and meetings of decoy collectors.”

Allen did not collect shorebirds at first. Shorebirds are stand-up decoys that would be stuck in the mud or used as confidence birds.

“After 1906 there was no more shooting of shorebirds and I’m sure there were some law-abiding citizens who stopped shooting them. Pre-1900 shorebirds were found in basements or garages. I met a woman who had $10,000 of shorebirds in her basement; her grandfather was the cook at Marshelder Gun Club and he kept them. There are still artifacts out there to be found.”

Allen’s exhibit in the Hunting Shanty includes family pieces and family photos.

“When my family started collecting, my brother started carving. I remember my mother taking him to Chris Sprague in Beach Haven to learn to paint. My son made a miniature goose when he was 10 years old. My daughter Jen wasn’t a year old when I plopped her on a Bob Rutter decoy. He was my father’s best friend and hunting partner.”

Attending decoy shows allowed Allen to meet other collectors and gain information. “For a local boy from Clamtown, it opened a door for me.”

The passion of collecting decoys got a hold of him. “The first time I spent $60 on a decoy my wife jumped all over me – ‘we need that for groceries!’

“At first you want to buy everything, but then you learn to be selective. There are plenty of investors: doctors and lawyers who are investing in waterfowl decoys. They usually buy on the high end, the top quality from top makers, but it’s a great hobby that you can start at any point.

“I love the family time together and the history. I love the history. I’ve found relatives I didn’t know I had.”

Allen can remember the very first decoy show held in Tuckerton was in the Carlton House in 1970 or ’71 and put on by Armand and Pam Carney, owners of the Ugly Duck gift shop that used to be on the corner of Clay and Green streets.

And though he is humble about it, a conversation he had with Ocean County Parks and Recreation Director Mike Mangum was instrumental in starting the Decoy and Gunning Show in Tuckerton, a premier outdoor venue for hunters, carvers and collectors.

“We used to have tailgate parties where we would grab a dozen decoys and meet at someone’s house to do horse trading. Then I went to the county to see if we could use the (Tip Seaman) park for a cookout and Mike Mangum said, ‘I have a better idea. What about a decoy show?

“And that was 35 years ago and look what came out of it.”

The Jim and Deb Allen exhibit will be in the Hunting Shanty on the Tuckerton Seaport grounds for the Decoy and Gunning Show, Sept. 23-24. .

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