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Because She Couldn’t Sew

By David Wright
Town Historian

Because She Couldn’t Sew – America’s Only Female Decoy Carver

Florence Lewis was a force of nature in her own right. Former Stratford Historical Society President, Todd Lovell, described Florence as an “accomplished carver”. Long before Florence was known for her Shang Wheeler mentored carving skills, Florence was recognized by Harold Lovell, Todd’s father, for her service to Stratford’s Red Cross Chapter in 1959.

Florence was employed by Warner Brothers, of Bridgeport, as head nurse, for 38 years. As the United States was pulled into World War I, Miss Lewis attempted to enlist as a nurse. When that proved impossible, she signed up with the Red Cross and left for training in Oswego, New York, in August of 1918. She rapidly rose to the position of head nurse at her station in Oswego.

Florence was responsible for administering to the inductees during the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918. She was one of the first nurses deployed to Europe during World War I, and she was one of the last nurses to return to the U.S. at the end of the war.

At Warner Brothers, Miss Lewis organized the first women’s bowling team and served as a governor of the Warner “20 Year Club”. She passed away at the age of 91 in 1977.

Florence’s brother-in-law was an expert duck decoy carver, and Florence decided to become a carver herself since she’d never learned to sew. She was also mentored by world famous Stratford decoy carver Shang Wheeler.

The following was excerpted from the February 26, 1951, New York Herald Tribune.

“Miss Florence Lewis, who took a first prize’ in the North American Decoy Makers Contest at the National Sportsmen’s Show in Grand Central Palace, New York, with a pair of blue-wing teal, explained her unusual talent today with the modest apology, ‘I can’t sew.’

Miss Lewis’ talent—she won the 1948 contest with a pair of green-wing teal—makes parlor conversation in the homes of all the amateur decoy makers in the land. She is the first woman to break into the business, they say, and they wonder why and how she does it.

Miss Lewis, sixty-four, lives here in a canary-colored house 150 years old, where she was born. The house is shielded from the road by a row of blue spruce, with a wide view of the Housatonic River across a half mile of flatland where her pointers, Fly Gal and Hannah, skitter after rabbits, mice and pheasants.

… ‘I don’t make mantel models,’ Miss Lewis said, accounting for the absence of meticulous coloration on her decoys. ‘With decoys, the silhouette is the main thing.’ Nevertheless, she prefers to carve teal, one of the most handsome ducks, to the relatively drab black duck, which her brother carves.

…Stephen Lewis, her great-great-grandfather, a settler of Stratford, ‘grew rocks and raised sheep—the only things that could get between the rocks,’ she said. The field had been cleared, but the riverfront is hemmed with sedge and cattail. Miss Lewis used to hide in this natural blind on days when an east storm pressed black ducks upriver from Long Island Sound, three miles away.

She shot many ducks and dressed them for the dinner table. She held many in hand, and with an innate skill and some prodding and a set of knives from the late Charles E. Wheeler, the sportsman, took to carving ducks the way they take to water.

That was four years ago. In 1948, Miss Lewis scored her success, with her green-wing teal and hen, and in the contest that ended today, with the blue-wing.”

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