When J.B. Garton was sixteen, he got his first hunting license and borrowed his grandfather’s double twelve gauge, beginning a lifetime of duck hunting. The following year, in August of 1942, he contracted polio-myelitis, which caused paralysis on his right side and a speech impediment. Garton’s uncle was a duck hunter and decided to give him a project to get him moving. He gave Garton a D.W. Nichol decoy for a model along with a little book of instructions: How to Shape, Finish, and Paint. Garton set out to make himself a rig. It was a challenge for Garton to work left-handed, but within two months, he managed to produce fourteen decoys for his own use. Though they were pretty rough, they did the job that fall.
While shaping the blocks with a draw-knife, Garton’s right arm became stronger as well as his leg. The homemade therapy worked! A few years later, Garton became acquainted with Davey Nichol, the maker of his first decoy, and began to learn a lot about feathering. His next fourteen decoys were given some wing and tail detail and finished very smoothly for the new technique of painting feathers, which greatly improved the look of the ducks.
Twenty years later, Garton met and befriended another local carver, Robert Kerr, who had a great collection of all the common species. Kerr, with his ear to the wind, learned of a decoy contest to be held in Syracuse, N.Y. in March of 1963. The following year Garton and Kerr went to Syracuse together and came away with a of couple ribbons. It was at this show that the pair of friends met Lem Ward from Crisfield, Maryland. Unfortunately his canvasback pair was disqualified because his name was on the bottom, but they became Garton’s inspiration. The Canadian National Sportsman Show started a decoy contest in 1965 and the duo plunged into the contest era with a vengeance.
In the spring of 1967 Bob Kerr, Clarence Miller, and Garton were visiting Davey Nichol in his workshop. Nichol showed the men a letter he had received from the Orvis Company of Manchester, Vermont. The company wanted to purchase miniature decoys for their store. Garton sent a set of samples for consideration, launching a job that lasted twenty years. It was to be a great learning experience, with improvements in shape and painting which ultimately increased the values of his carvings.
During Garton’s miniature era, he continued to carve contest decoys. In 1970, he entered the new Ward Foundation Wildfowl Art Show to test the waters. The Salisbury contest called for a matched pair of any species, plain carved, no raised wings, no texture – just a decoy. Drawing on a childhood memory, he decided to make a pair of teal for each class: world, open, and decorative, to compare paint jobs and make changes.
Garton recalls, “Finally came the hour of decision and all eyes were focused on the judging tank. I can recall Cigar Daisey standing by the bleachers, smiling as the judges took my teal out of the tank. I was surprised when they said “Best in World,” and my mind went back to a day in Manitoba in May 1930 when I was with my father, tying up the team of horses in front of the General Store in Poplar Point. At that exact moment, a blue-winged drake teal hit the telegraph line directly overhead and fell fluttering between the horses. My father reached down, picked it up, and gave it to me still quivering in all its beauty. In retrospect that incident probably helped to shape the rest of my life and allowed to me develop friendships with the wonderful people I met and the numerous roads traveled in the search of a perfect decoy.”