The evolution of a craftsman: Frank Middleton
By Ford Walpole
Clockwise from top left: Frank Middleton’s beautiful decoys, Frank in his workshop, Frank sculling, Frank’s Carolina parakeet, Guign Bradham in the boat with Haley. Images provided.
Charleston native and current Camden, Maine, resident Frank Middleton melds a passion for the outdoors with a need to create; the resulting crafts may provide access to our waters or capture the birds of our natural world.
On a trip from their downtown Charleston home to visit his grandparents on Wadmalaw Island, Frank’s mother took her young son to the rustic workshop of renowned carver and sculptor Grainger McKoy. As Frank explored the fascinating shop, his inquisitive nature caused him to place his finger inside the cage of a raptor, which summarily bit him. Though he might not have realized it, at that moment, the boy was bitten by the woodworking bug.
As a teenager, Frank bought books on woodcarving. While at Guilford College, he enrolled in a sculpture class “because the photography class was full. One day, we were having class outside on the lawn, and Jessie, my German shorthaired pointer, was pointing at a squirrel.” Frank’s professor, unaware that Jessie was a real dog, “thought that was magic, an incredible sculpture.” Was the scene life imitating art? Possibly, but more likely it was just a dog doing what pointers do. The same professor would declare that duck decoys failed to qualify as art, a claim “that probably postponed my evolution as a carver for a decade and a half!” Frank laughs.
Before graduation, Frank took a sabbatical from the ivory tower and worked for Mark Bayne at Sea Island Boatworks. He returned to college and received a degree in geology from Guilford. “Geology is a softer science,” he points out. “Geology includes problem solving, three-dimensional thinking, and it was intriguing and fascinating. I also got into hydrology. It all fed right into boat building.”
After a stint in commercial construction in Bozeman, Montana, Frank returned home to South Carolina, and in 2002, Middleton Boatworks was formed. More than a decade ago, the Mercury did an article featuring Frank as a boat builder. “I entered boat building not as the fisherman who wants a boat but rather as a craftsman who wants to build a boat he can take fishing,” Frank says. He opened up a shop on Yonges Island, and he began making wooden boats and high-end, cold-molded sportfishing yachts.
Esteemed carver Tom Boozer lived nearby, and he came by for scraps of mahogany, teak and juniper. Frank and Tom quickly became friends, and for Frank, an eventual visit to Tom’s shop stoked the banked-over ashes of a deeper calling. “I saw what he was doing,” Frank recalls of Tom’s carvings, “and I just was enamored with his decoys. Tom’s work seemed accessible, and it made me want to try my hand at carving a decoy.”
“They were horrible!” he laughs, describing his first four decoys. Tom Boozer was not impressed, but the mentor nonetheless mustered an encouraging reaction: “‘That’s a good start,’” he said. “I still remember his shock at how bad they were!” recalls Frank. “I let the kids paint over those first decoys, and they are now covered in about 18 layers of paint.”
The 2009 transition from building expensive yachts to carving decoys might not fit the world’s notion of personal advancement, “but it was definitely a forward step for me,” Frank says. “I carved a rig for myself for duck hunting: three black ducks and three mallards and four wood ducks and two green-winged teal. I used them on my trips to Maine, and I still hunt over them,” he continues.
Frank had first visited Maine to see his brother Arthur, then a student at Bowdoin College. Franklin Burroughs, Arthur’s professor, introduced Frank to duck hunting from a Merrymeeting Bay gunning float. In 2012, Frank, his wife, Mary, and their three children, Cassie, Connor and Cate, migrated north to Maine, where outdoor opportunities abound: duck hunting on public property, miles of nearby trails, freshwater and saltwater fishing, upland hunting and following big bucks through the snow.
Frank’s friend Riley Bradham paid $100 for a pair of mottled duck decoys, which marked his first decoy sale. “I have shot a lot of ducks over Frank’s decoys — so many that there is now plenty of shot in the wood,” Riley says. “Frank’s decoys float extremely well, which indicates that his boat-building expertise goes into them. Frank is a wood-engineering master who is very mechanical in his craft. He can build decoys, boats, boat paddles, spoons, knife handles, as well as complete carpentry projects.”
Riley and his son Guign recently returned from a Maine duck hunting trip with Frank. Bradham describes pursuing waterfowl from a Merrymeeting Bay gunning float: “It is a hunting method as opposed to a sit-and-shoot method. You scout the birds, lie down in the narrow boat and scull through the wild rice to jump-shoot the ducks.
“Ducks are everywhere up there,” Riley continues. “Guign and I had an awesome hunt with Frank. We shot black ducks, mallards and green-winged teal; Guign even shot a banded teal, and he saw a lot more ducks than he would ever see down here. Frank is a knowledgeable and patient guide and is also really good with working his dogs, which are Deutsch-Drahthaars.”
“Frank and I have been buddies for years,” adds David H. Maybank who has also shot ducks with Frank in Maine. David commissioned Frank to carve blue-winged teal, pintails and black ducks. Additional works — past and future — include a wild turkey hen with poults, snipe, a staff with woodcock beaks and a wooden duck boat. “I have Frank’s birds all over my house and in my office, and I hunt over his decoys,” David says. “I just love everything he does. Frank really can do anything, and I never tell him what to do; he just pulls it off, and he has never let me down. His work just keeps getting better!”
“Our families have known each other forever, and Frank and I are good friends,” Roy Maybank says. Frank carved Roy a wild turkey gobbler, hen and chicks, which were very popular at SEWE. Roy’s subsequent commission of five Carolina parakeets coming into a cocklebur bush will be displayed in a glass case at the 2022 SEWE.
“I grew up down at Jehossee [now part of the Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge], and I had a natural appreciation for Lowcountry wildlife,” Roy says. “The impetus behind the parakeet project was my grandparents’ house on Meeting Street. They had a lot of Audubon artwork around the house, and the extinct Carolina parakeet stuck out to me because it just epitomized the Lowcountry — I always thought the bird was so beautiful and vibrant.
“Grainger McKoy had done a bronze Carolina parakeet, which I purchased,” Roy says. He soon wanted carvings of parakeets, so he commissioned Frank. “I knew Frank had a great eye for detail,” Roy says. Frank visited The Charleston Museum to see the preserved Carolina parakeets. “Frank examined them to get an understanding of the birds and their composition.”
“It’s a three-dimensional portrait of Audubon’s interpretation of parakeets with five birds. What Audubon did was to try to showcase the physiology of the bird — how the shoulder hinged and how the primary feathers looked in certain situations,” Frank says. “These birds can strike a chord in so many different ways. You have the fact that we had a tropical bird on our continent. It’s stunning — their distribution throughout the United States. Apparently, there was not enough room for parakeets and humans. Unfortunately, parakeets were not as smart as crows; they were much easier to dispatch, and they became extinct.”
Roy Maybank offers a teaser of an upcoming collaboration with Frank: “I have commissioned another extinct species that formerly inhabited the Southeast. I know it is going to be something!” he declares with anticipation.
“I would say that half of my decoys go on the shelf, and the other half go to work,” Frank says. “Commissions are based on a verbal commitment that my work will result in putting a smile on someone’s face. The clients get gratification when it is all said and done,” he notes. “I recently did a 26-foot center-console, high-end sportfishing boat. My next commission is a Merrymeeting Bay gunning float.
“I look at a thing every day, and I see its warts, but I know it will be good when I finish the edits,” Frank says, reflecting on his craft. “I am just kicking it down the field. I was recently asked whether I consider myself an artist,” he remarks. “I don’t think so. I have scars on my hands and aches in my knees. I am pretty sure I am a craftsman. It’s what I like to do, but I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up!”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at email@example.com.