Guest Author - Karen Joyce Williams
First is the big, white head, then a huge red taillight of an eye, and then all of a sudden, at the side of a fairly undistinguished road in Flanders, Long Island, you are facing The Big Duck, or the Flanders Duck as most of the locals call it. The Big Duck is a functioning national historical site, a perfect example of advertising literalism and the only place in the United States where you can meet someone INSIDE of a Peking Duck.
THE RISE OF THE DUCK
At first glance, this 20 foot high white duck is ridiculous-looking, even frightening; but give it a second look and you are drawn in by its simplicity and realism. Who wouldn't want to explore a museum shaped like a duck in the middle of nowhere? The Big Duck is actually at the symbolic entrance to the "new" East End of Long Island, the gateway to The Hamptons and wine country and miles of shoreline. What it represents is Long Island's past, a late 19th Century and early 20th Century farming culture that saw ducks, potatoes and shellfish as building blocks to a secure economic future for the region.
At its peak in 1930, Long Island duck farming produced over six million Peking ducklings a year from 90 farms. Started in the late 1800s from one man's bright idea and a conservative import of 25 ducks from Peking, China, the East End of Long Island became the largest producer of Peking ducks in the world within 40 years, many of the ducks being frozen and even sent to China as export for restaurants. At the same time, potato farmers were also cultivating eastern Long Island and the Baymen worked both the western and eastern underwater shellfish beds of The Great South Bay creating more industry and wealth for the region.
...AND ITS FALL
By 1960, duck production had peaked and began a fast nosedive into oblivion. There were just too many duck farms, too many ducks and while profits plummeted because of saturation and the rising cost of feed, another cause for the death of the Peking duck industry on Long Island was growing and gaining momentum.
Growing up on Long Island in the 1960s, I remember that anywhere there was a freshwater stream or river, there were Long Island ducks, as the huge white ducks came to be known all over the world. Their numbers began polluting the East End's freshwater sources.
The streams flowed into the larger bodies of water where fishermen, boaters and bathers were affected. People wanted clean water and the environmental movement that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s was the vehicle to change the landscape. Legislation on water remediation became law and along with that came large expenses for farmers... and even larger fines if they did not or could not comply. As a result, all of the farms and "ranches", as the largest ones were called, except two, either closed up shop or moved production out of the state.
Potato farming also began to take a hit around the same time with a combination cycle of pests destroying crops, farmers destroying pests with pesticides and the pesticides leeching into the ground water and the beaches. By 1970, potato farm acreage was cut in half on both the North Fork and the South Fork, the two regions on the eastern end of Long Island. It became more fortuitous for the old farming families to sell prime farmland for luxury real estate development than to literally "lose the farm" through higher and higher costs of production and rising taxes. As for the scallop and oyster harvesters and clammers, the Baymen, they are still toiling at their trade, albeit in smaller numbers due to recurring toxic marine algae, known as brown tide, a scourge that comes and goes killing their sea crops, increased government restrictions on catches and the high costs of commercial boating. Evolution, pollution, progress, change.
A MONUMENT TO RELEVANCE
So, back to The Big Duck. As a national historic site, it gives a permanent time, place and importance to the agricultural foundation of Long Island's East End. It is used as a souvenir spot and tourist information center where rubber ducks stamped "Flanders, NY" and duck-shaped candy can be purchased along with information about he entrepreneurial duck farmer in 1931 who created this cement legacy.
The Big Duck is open seven day a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day as a tourist information station and is located on Route 24 South in Flanders, New York. On your next trip out east to enjoy the wine, the beachfronts and the social scene, stop by The Big Duck and ponder over this remnant of the agricultural revolution that made The Hamptons possible.