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Sunday, May 26, 2024

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A Local Carver Weaves County History with Art

Hand in Dennis Township guiding friends duck hunting and paddling back to decoy spread. 

By Camille Sailer

GOSHEN – “I want to be remembered as a historian. That’s what I’d like as the first line on my tombstone; to be considered as a chronicler of my people,” shares Jamie Hand.
Hand has a near-legendary passion for keeping alive the spirit of old Cape May County. As he talks, he stands ankle-deep in white cedar shavings on the floor of his workshop in rural Goshen. 
Rescue cats–his favorite animal–patrol the tranquil 50 acres of the farm along with other members of the animal world, from hand-fed deer to geese. He watches over it all each day. 
Carved ducks​ lie all around, looking like they could take flight from their shelves. They are made from iconic and aromatic native wood​ and​ are headed to collections and destinations both locally and around the world. 
One would think that Hand, who is officially James Perry Hand or J. P. Hand as he is formally known, spends most of his time whittling, planing, sanding, painting, and wresting just-like-nature fowl from blocks of cedar. It’s true that Hand has made a living, and a worldwide reputation, from this truly American folk art. 
But his true heart lies at the intersection of his role as guardian of Cape May County’s roots and the waterbirds he knows so well. Hand tells the story of his forbearers.
The sons of John and Alice Hand came to Cape May, when that term designated the entire county and not just the city. They arrived ​in circuitous fashion ​from Kent County​,​ England. 
“I term ​Lynn, Massachusetts the ‘English Ellis Island’ because thousands came from southeast England to ​Lynn during that era. Landing ​there in the mid-17th century​, the first Hands here had ‘yeoman’ status, as usually prosperous farmers, who owned their own land,” he explains. “By the 1640s, making their way to Long Island, New York,​ ​they ultimately came to our area when the Hand surname accounted for 11 out of the 70 founding families in Cape May County.” 
His love for discovering new facts about the people who have lived​ in the county while correcting some of the old facts was inspired by his favorite aunt. She developed the Hand history up until World War II. Hand took over and has been filling in the gaps and uncovering the ties of continuity between the Hands of 2022 and the Hands of over 350 years ago. 
Upon the death of his father when he was just seven years old, Hand was eligible to attend the prestigious Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania. That’s where his affinity for researching the past especially blossomed. 
Hand became more and more engrossed in reading centuries-old wills, journals, deeds, census lists, ship manifests, newspaper articles, and any other documents he could find. He hoped the papers would shed light, however dim, on life in those days of yore. 
As he studied, he began teaching himself the art of decoy carving when he was 18 years old. The impetus was natural: he wanted to hunt ducks for food and could not afford to buy decoys. ​
Fifty years on, Hand is a renowned preeminent carver. ​
“Wood decoys are a pure American invention. Hunting in England, for example, depended on specially bred ‘call ducks’ which were known for their high-pitched and constant quacking. These were, in effect, live decoys that served to attract prey,” said Hand. ”​Europeans in pre-Civil War America then devised what they termed ‘stool ducks’ which were painted wooden likenesses of waterfowl. They were essentially a bridge between the live ducks of Europe with our authentic American folk art of wood decoys.” 
Hand addressed the issue of those who hunt merely for the so-called thrill. He is adamant that “a conscientious hunter does not hunt for sport only. Ethically, decoy carvers highly respect waterfowl. We study them and love to sit by the water with no purpose other than to observe them in their habitats.” 
He’s passed this lesson on to many. “I guess I can safely say that I may have mentored probably the largest number of novice carvers of anyone in the ​nation. Our community of carvers is vibrant and totally invested in the sustainability and health of the waterfowl​. I want to pass on the cumulative knowledge and drive to care​ for the thriving of the ducks​ that have been instilled in me by earlier car​v​ing generations.” 
As Hand sat for the interview, he was in the midst of preparing for the ​40th annual Old Time Barnegat Decoy Show in Tuckerton, held Sept. 24 and 25. The show is ​a magnet for carvers, including those at the pinnacle of their craft, serving as the premier venue to showcase that work.  
How will Hand enhance the appreciation of Cape May County’s remarkable history beyond ​himself​?
“I like to say you can’t legislate culture,” jokes Hand. He believes it’s individuals who will make the difference in ensuring no one forgets. His own father passed by a local monument without realizing that it commemorated his third great-grandfather’s heroism during the American Revolution. 
Hand shows talent and commitment to ​ the responsibility and role of historian and carver. He has served on a variety of boards for organizations that educate and inform. 
He also writes extensively on the subject. His most recent book, titled “The Cape May Navy” is about the exploits of Delaware Bay privateers during the American Revolution. 
He has another, about to be published, called “Cape May Letters.” It’s comprised of 43 pieces of correspondence over 300 years that evoke the “you are there” moments of important episodes in county and sometimes national history. 
His body of work is meant to stimulate wide interest and create ripples that extend beyond immediate readers. He hopes that all can appreciate the wealth of the past represented by our county, whether through art or history. 
Thoughts? Email csailer@cmcherald.com.

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