Charles Edward "Shang" Wheeler
- Written by William McDonald
Avid oysterman and duck carver
Charles Edward Wheeler was born in Westport in 1872, never married and lived 50 years with a family in Stratford. He spent 34 years across the river in Milford as general manager of Connecticut Oyster Farms Co., which, with seven boats, cultivated and harvested area oyster beds.
As general manager he saw the fleet off at 5 a.m., then took care of paperwork in his office. If there was time he’d go to his workshop next door to carve and paint decoy ducks for which he became famous. He'd greet the boats and go over the tally between 4 and 6 p.m.
All of his friends called him Shang.
The nickname was pinned on him at age 13 and lasted more than 60 years. Around the time he enrolled in Weston Military Institute in the 1880’s, one of the tallest breeds of chickens was known as Langshang. Showman P.T. Barnum, of Bridgeport had one sideshow giant in his entourage named Chang. Wheeler was thin and six feet tall. His classmates at WMI would call him Chang or Langshang. The nickname was later reduced to simply "Shang" Wheeler.
He filled out at 6 feet, 2 inches weighing between 190 and 220 pounds. He became very strong but with a gentle manner. He dropped out of Staples High School, left home and went to sea working on a fishing boat for the next several years out of Boston, eventually deciding he didn’t like it. He still wanted a job that kept him near water and where he could work with his hands. He found this in the 1890’s in the cultivating and harvesting of oysters in Milford which was the next town over from Stratford where he lived with a family.
Milford, with its good harbor, was part of a rich oyster growing area extending from Stamford to Guilford. The combination of tides, water temperature, salinity and food supplies produced an unusually succulent oyster prized by gourmets.
There was another aspect of Milford that also pleased Wheeler, the 800-acre salt marsh by Milford Point at the mouth of the Housatonic River. It was simply called Knell’s Island at the time due to the one true island in the midst of silted up channels of the marsh. It was a fine nesting area for ducks and other birds. That brought in duck hunters. For years Wheeler was a market gunner out of Knell’s Island, shooting ducks for stores and restaurants. And What did duck hunters need? Wooden decoys which they usually carved by themselves, Wheeler became an exceptionally good decoy carver.
As Stratford attorney Raymond Baldwin, a fishing buddy of Wheeler’s who became governor and state supreme court justice, said: “ when they (Wheeler’s decoys) are placed it the water, they…look as real and natural in size, shape, color and posture, as if alive.”
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