By Chris Benson, MWF Program and Events Coordinator
The basement workshop I walked into looked like something from Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein novel, body parts, eyes, and heads were strewn over most surfaces, some half-finished, stitched together projects waiting to finally be brought to life. Saws, knives, and other tools of the trade hung on the walls or in boxes until they are called upon to gouge and shape these new creations. Although this was no mad scientist laboratory, it was Harry William’s decoy carving workshop. At the time of writing this piece, Halloween was fast approaching so you will have to excuse me for making this grisly comparison!
Harry Williams, a retired Winnipeg city police officer whose imposing presence and gruff, gravelly voice may have given many of Winnipeg’s ne’er-do-wells second thoughts about their career path. Sitting down with Harry however, you find that despite the commanding appearance he is a kind-hearted, jovial, and generous person. He also has wealth of stories to tell, in his quiet unassuming sort of way. If given the chance he might tell you about the time he hiked across Baffin Island in Canada’s Arctic, or about the late-night game of Cribbage at Delta Marsh where he gambled away a rig of his hand carved decoys, or the many adventures he has had at The Lodge at Little Duck on Neganilini Lake in Manitoba’s north, chasing Caribou with his close friend Jim Richardson.
As a carver he has produced well over 340 working waterfowl decoys and he is the recipient of the Master Carver award from the local Prairie Canada Carvers Association. His favorite species to carve are the divers – Canvasback, Scaup, Ringneck, Goldeneye, Redheads and Buffleheads. To find another species carved by Harry is a rarity, for the simple reason according to Harry that diving ducks are easier to paint. A splash of white and black and the decoy is nearly half done! Harry got his start carving in 1993 when he took part in the late Frank Baldwin Sr. decoy carving classes at the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Center, now called the Harry J. Enns Wetlands Discovery Centre. Harry enjoyed the classes and carving decoys so much that he along with Ross Gage founded the Oak Hammock Marsh Carving Guild. As he gained experience as a carver, he also began to help Frank with the carving classes. With Frank’s unfortunate passing, Harry, along with carvers John Frye, and Ross Gauge took over the legacy of the decoy carving classes. They continued for about 12 years until just before Covid hit, when they finally retired from teaching the classes.
Despite retiring, Harry has never slowed down. The workshop in his basement, and Harry for that matter, is perpetually covered in cork dust and paint splotches. Decoys at various stages of completion sit waiting for that final coat of paint or finishing touches of the Dremel. With over 340 decoys to his name, you would think that the house would be filled to brim with decoys. Harry however doesn’t carve decoys for his own rig anymore. He also doesn’t sell them, despite the many generous offers to buy his decoys. He donates them to charity to help raise funds for the various non-profit organizations he identifies with. When they go to auction, they tend to command a premium bid.
Recently, Harry made a generous donation of a few hand-carved decoys to the Manitoba Wildlife Federation, including one of Harry’s first generation of decoys which he has shot over for years throughout Manitoba. These decoys will be featured in upcoming fundraising efforts which will go to support our programs and conservation efforts. The MWF would like to sincerely thank Harry for this incredible donation, and here’s to the next 340!