Charles E Wheeler

Charles E. “Shang” Wheeler was a wildfowl decoy and decorative carver. Born to a well-to-do Connecticut family, he left home at a young age to become a sailor. He returned to Connecticut, where his life’s path took him from the halls of the Connecticut Senate to oyster inspections with the Connecticut State Game Commission. He was always an avid hunter, fisherman, and carver, as well as a competent cartoonist. Decoy expert Adele Earnest (1901–1993) described Wheeler as a “handsome man with a full mustache,” a generous man who gave away, rather than sold, his decoys. His unusual nickname “Shang” was given to him by his classmates at Weston Military Institute of Nashville, Tennessee. Wheeler, a lanky teenager, six feet tall and as thin as a rail, drew the nickname from a combination of “landshang,” one of the tallest breeds of chicken, and “chang,” a sideshow giant with the P.T.Barnum circus.

Wheeler, along with decoy carvers Albert Laing (1811–1886) and Ben Holmes (1843–1912), formed the Stratford carving school, named for their neighboring town at the mouth of the Housatonic River along the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound. Their decoys are assessed to be superior in selections of woods, construction of bodies, appearance, and riding ability. Wheeler and his Stratford associates specialized in black ducks, scaup, and scoters. In 1923 Wheeler was awarded a Silver Cup at the first Decoy Show held in the United States for a pair of mallards and his skill as a decoy maker and plumage painter; these mallards are now at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.

Characteristic of the Stratford school of decoys are overhanging breasts designed to over-ride slush ice, uniformly low heads, and detailed attention to the tails and to plumage painting. In addition, most of their birds were flat-bottomed and rigged with the body weight aft, which also served to raise the breast and permitted wider clearance over the slush ice.

Wheeler’s decoy output was fewer than 500, testimony to the time and detail he spent on his carving and painting. Decoy bodies were often made of white-pine boards, one on top of the other, positioned to bring the seams above the water line and to hinder leakage. Some species required heavier material and he sometimes linked a very thick board to a thin bottom plank. He also fashioned both crude and sophisticated decoys from cork. These cork ducks often had tails made of other woods, as well as heads and necks positioned in sleep. Wheeler is also recognized as a carver of decorative mantle wildfowl.