Celebrating The Big Duck’s Birthplace
Pictured Above: Members of the Flanders Village Historical Society, the Riverhead Town Board and descendants of one of the builders of The Big Duck celebrated the new marker on Nov. 19.
The Big Duck is pretty much synonymous with the Southampton hamlet of Flanders, a place of deep pine barrens and wetlands just south of Riverhead known for its sportsman’s havens and history of duck farming.
While the giant cement duck has spent much of its life in Flanders (and a brief stay in Hampton Bays), few people know that it was originally built on West Main Street in Riverhead, just east of the Roadhouse pizzeria and the Snowflake ice cream parlor.
It was on this site, at 1058 West Main Street, where George Pugsley, one of the earliest Long Island farmers to raise Pekin ducks at the beginning of the 20th Century, built his farm and home. Phillip Meyer eventually bought the farm, which was run by Martin Maurer, the man famous for coming up with the idea of The Big Duck.
Looking for a way to bring attention to the duck farm, Mr. Maurer worked together with carpenter George Reeve, who lived just up the road, to build the Big Duck in 1931, a roadside attraction used to excite customers about ducks and duck eggs for sale there.
In 1937, Mr Maurer decamped to Flanders with the Big Duck, opening his own duck farm on the site of what is now Big Duck Ranch, a historic site managed by Suffolk County and Southampton Town.
But on the original West Main Street site, there has been little visible reminder of the Big Duck’s humble origins there. A long wood-shingled brooder barn still sits to the rear of the property, next to a woods filled with brambles, where the remains of the original Big Duck foundation still stand.
On Nov. 19, an intrepid group of members of the Flanders Village Historical Society met at the site to celebrate a new roadside marker memorializing the location, made possible by a grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. The entire Riverhead Town Board showed up for a ribbon-cutting celebration.
“What you are doing to pay tribute to local duck farming history is important to the community and beyond,” said Paula Miller, Executive Director of the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, in a letter commemorating the occasion read by Janice Jay Young of the Flanders Village Historical Society at the ribbon-cutting. “We have funded over 1,250 roadside markers and plaques nationwide across all of our grant programs. We believe markers help educate the public, encourage pride of place, and promote historic tourism, economically benefiting the communities in which they are placed.”
At the base of the sign, members of the historical society had placed a historic photograph of the Big Duck at its original location, behind which you can see the iconic Pulaski Street Tin Man water tower, which still stands today, albeit obscured by taller trees.
“The project of placing an historic marker here was initiated in early 2019, when my wife and I trudged around the property in the freezing cold with Gil Cardillo, a Suffolk County Parks Trustee, who had remembered seeing the remains of the duck decades earlier when shopping for real estate,” said Friends of the Big Duck President Neil Young at the ribbon-cutting.
The Big Duck is famous not just for its significance on the East End.
Ruth Pollack, grandniece of George Reeve, pointed out that architecture students throughout the country consider The Big Duck the first example of a store shaped like what is sold inside, a style of architecture that is now known as “Duck” architecture.
Mr. Reeve’s granddaughter, Judy Teuber, who still lives on the family’s property, remembered growing up how “ducks would come into my grandmother’s yard and she would send them back home.”
Members of the Riverhead Town Board brimmed with pride as the sign was unveiled.
Councilman Frank Beyrodt said that, while ducks historically grown on Long Island were overwhelmingly Pekin ducks, they aren’t generally known as Pekin ducks.
“When you go around the country, you hear them called Long Island ducks,” said Mr. Beyrodt, who is a sod farmer and former President of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “We love our heritage in farming.”
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she hopes this historic marker and the Big Duck in Flanders can both be included in a walking tour she’s helping to put together of Riverhead landmarks.
As the council members cut the yellow ribbon around the sign with four pairs of scissors, Janice Young said the project took two years, and was originally undertaken by former Friends of the Big Duck President Fran Cobb.
Ms. Young took a bright yellow duck call out of her winter coat, put it in her mouth, and quacked and quacked a celebratory chorus as the wind whipped up a rustle among the woods full of leaves, and traffic hurdled down West Main Street past the spot where a little piece of local history began. — BY