DELMARVA ALMANAC

The Ward Brothers: Singing Barbers

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Lem and Steve Ward were not just barbers they were musicians. Hear them sing in their barbershop quartet.

Lem and Steve Ward, like their father before them, made their living as barbers during the early part of the twentieth century. Though they had their own business, they still lived close to the land, hunting and fishing like many of their neighbors in Somerset County. They began carving decoys for their own use, but their skills began to get a reputation and so they developed a side job selling their decoys.

The story of how their cottage industry helped sustain them through the Great Depression and led them to acclaim as folk artists is well known by Delmarva residents. You may even know that despite that success they did not give up their day job until retiring as barbers 1965. But what you may not know is that these sculptors of hair and wood were also musicians. Not surprisingly they sang in a barbershop quartet.

In 1962 their quartet which included Harlan and Lawrence Tyler was recognized in the Harmonizer the official magazine of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America. The four men had been singing together for 32 years and their chapter of the society had just been given its official license. Their repertoire included old time love songs and Christian hymns.

Lem and Steve ward only had an elementary school education, but they also wrote poetry which they sometimes affixed to the bottom of their decoys.

Steve wrote this about the life of a decoy:
I'M JUST AN OLD HAS BEEN DECOY.
NO RIBBONS I HAVE WON.
MY SIDES AND HEADARE FULL OF SHOT
FROM MANY A BLAZING GUN
MY HOME HAS BEEN BY THE RIVER
JUST DRIFTING ALONG WITH THE TIDE
NO ROOF HAVE I HAD FOR A SHELTER
NO PLACE WHERE I CAN ABIDE
I'VE ROCKED TO WINTER'S WILD FURY
I'VE SCORCHED INT THE HEAT OF THE SUN
I'VE DRIFTED, AND DRIFTED, AND DRIFTED
FOR TIDES NEVER CEASED TO RUN
I WAS PICKED UP BY SOME FOOL COLLECTOR,
WHO PUT ME UP HERE ON A SHELF.
BUT MY PLACE IS OUT ON THE RIVER
WHERE I CAN DRIFT ALL BY MYSELF.
I WANT TO GO BACK TO THE SHORELINE
WHERE FLYING CLOUDS HANG THICK AND LOW
AND GET THE TOUCH OF RAINDROPS
AND THE VELVETY SOFT TOUCH OF THE SNOW.

Though the sign on the decoy shop said: L.T. Ward & Brothers - Wildfowl Counterfeiters in Wood, they were indeed genuine artists inside and out.

Visit the Ward Museum in Salisbury or their workshop in Crisfield to find out more about Lem and Steve Ward and their primary claim to fame: decoy carving.

Visit the Ward Museum's website to see a 14 minute film about the life of the Ward Brothers.