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Phantoms of the Field

From frightening to folksy, scarecrows have long stood as icons of the fall harvest.

This past summer, yellow and black swallowtails flitted from orange to red zinnias in the flower garden of Goatfeathers Point farm. The butterflies were oblivious to the 6-foot-tall scarecrow with a faded face and purple hood — a menacing figure that looms large above a curtain of wild grape vines entwined in wire fencing.

But it wasn’t butterflies that prompted Boston Township farmers Terry and Cindy Smith to erect the scarecrow three years ago.

“One year I lost all my corn [to birds],” says Terry, who holds a 60-year lease on the 37-acre livestock operation through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. “I don’t know how well the scarecrow works. The head of a [plastic] owl next to it swirls in the wind, scaring away birds, too. But that’s not the only reason we have the scarecrow. We like the way it looks.”

Smith, a former commercial pilot and engineer, created his bearded scarecrow using two wooden boards, purple plastic bags and an old, bearded Halloween mask. The tattered clothing was Smith’s until he donated it to the plant protector.

Scarecrows have been used to frighten away hungry birds almost since man began planting crops. The Greeks fashioned purple scarecrows in the image of Priapus, the ugly son of Dionysius, to persuade birds to leave their grapes alone. Japanese rice farmers’ scarecrows wore reed raincoats. In more recent American history, Thomas Jefferson wrote of three scarecrows in his cornfield.

There is also the dark side of scarecrows in folklore and real life that gives them a scary pedigree.

But it was The Wonderful World of Oz by L. Frank Baum and the classic film “The Wizard of Oz” that created the scarecrow most people picture today.

“The book did more than anything else to popularize the scarecrow as a beloved figure of American mythology,” says C. Wesley Cowan, owner of Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati and a historic Americana expert for PBS television.Both Cowan and Diane Wachs, director of decorative arts for the auction house, question whether scarecrows are true folk art because neither has ever seen one sold at auction and because of the figure’s usually temporary nature. But today’s scarecrows are often a hybrid of a traditional straw man and garden sculpture, and can be quite artistic.

Wachs also says “the idea of recycling old clothes and growing your own food fits into today’s whole green movement and adds to the scarecrow’s charm.”

While mechanical, motion-detector and even computerized “scarecrow” machines are now used by many of Ohio’s largest farms to create loud noises, more traditional figures still hold court at smaller farms and backyard gardens.

Becky White-Schooner and her husband Don Schooner show off a number of whimsical scarecrows at their sustainable pick-your-own berry farm and pond management center, Schooner Farms, in Wood County’s Weston Village. White-Schooner is also an artist who positions her scarecrows, made from plant materials and recycled items, around the 20-acre property, much to the delight of customers.

This year, White-Schooner created a delightful hummingbird, a frogman chasing a dragonfly, a purse-carrying ladybug and a heron-man sitting on a bench fishing by a pond. The scarecrows will stand guard through mid-fall.

“I look at gourds and they tell me what they should be,” says White-Schooner, who has used the differently shaped vegetables for scarecrow heads or shoes. “Don’t be afraid to try different materials if you are making your own scarecrow. Just make sure the frame is strong enough. I tried old tomato cages, but didn’t like the way they looked.”

White-Schooner suggests that a “working scarecrow should be easy to move around to different spots so animals think they are moving on their own.” Aluminum pie tins, noisy in the wind, are also sometimes attached to her scarecrows.

Tom Bland, a former farrier who shoed horses, is now a contemporary metal artist. Bland and his wife, Linda Bland, live on Hammer Song Farm in Mount Vernon. Bland first created the 7-foot-tall Broomhilda (“Broomie”), a scarecrow garden sculpture, in 2002.

Since then, clients have commissioned 18 other steel Broomies with her wild red hair. All have the same face and galvanized broom stand. But clients can request a specific color of dress or additional accessories.

“Broomie always has that crabby look on her face. She’s not pleased with all the birds in the garden,” says Linda Bland.

Hammer Song Farm offers one-day metal sculpture workshops (no experience necessary) on Saturdays in January through May. A Broomie workshop is planned for 2014.

“Just make sure you come here with a vehicle big enough to take her home,” Bland says.