Inside the Big Duck is a fan to tell its tail
Janice Jay Young has a job that would be the envy of many kids: She spends her days inside The Big Duck, talking duck trivia with visitors.
Young is one of two docents who work at The Big Duck — the 20-foot-tall, duck-shaped building in Flanders. For the past 13 years, Young has worked inside the landmark, passing along her knowledge of the Duck to those who stop by the iconic Long Island attraction.
“We don’t have a grocery store. We don’t have a bank. We don’t have a ZIP code. It’s like no man’s land, you know?” Young said of Flanders, a hamlet that shares a ZIP code with Riverhead. “But we do have a duck.”
When Young, 75, was looking for work 13 years ago, she jumped at the chance to work inside the whimsical duck, which had been a part of her life since she was a kid and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“When we saw the Duck, we knew that we were almost to our summer house,” she said of the drive from the family’s home in West Hempstead. “We would honk as we drove past the Duck. We still do.”
It didn’t hurt that Young lived a mile up the road from the Big Duck. This proximity made her a perfect candidate for the job, but not for the reason people might think.
When Young first took the job in 2009, the oversize waterfowl didn’t have a bathroom. Employees would have to temporarily close the roadside attraction and drive home when they had to use the bathroom. Young was the perfect candidate because she could quickly drive home and back.
Luckily for Young, and for travelers in need, The Friends of the Big Duck, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving the landmark, has since added a restroom. In addition to raising funds for the Big Duck, the organization runs the barn that sits on Big Duck Ranch, the property around the Big Duck. Inside is an exhibit about the history of duck farming on eastern Long Island.
All things duck
Although it might be a peculiar place to work, the Big Duck is definitely not a strange place to visit — judging by the number of people who come from around the world to see it. “We’ve had people from New Zealand, Australia and Newfoundland,” said Young. “At one point I guessed we had about 10,000 visitors a year.”
After taking just one step inside, visitors are surrounded by all things duck: duck posters, duck keychains, duck T-shirts, duck ornaments, duck paintings, duck hats and duck stuffed animals. Name any item that you would see in a gift shop, and it is there, but duck-themed. There are also binders that include news clippings about the Big Duck with playful headlines like “A Duck That’s Not for Roasting” and “Duck to Pack Overnight Bag.”
Visitors have a few seconds to take it all in before being greeted by Young. “Welcome to the Big Duck,” she’ll say. She’s usually sitting behind the counter, in front of a round, dark blue and orange metal sign that hangs almost from the ceiling to the floor. It reads, “Enjoy Long Island Duckling, Famous for its Succulent Flavor.”
Young likes to make sure visitors leave with a little bit of history about the Big Duck. She will ask, “Want to hear the Big Duck story?” and without skipping a beat, will jump right into how this duck-shaped building came to be.
“The Big Duck was built in 1931. It was built by Martin Maurer, and his picture is right over there [hanging on the wall]. He was a duck farmer, and he had gone on a road trip to California, and saw a giant coffee pot there. He was inspired. That gave him the idea, ‘if people could have coffee out of a coffee pot, then maybe they would buy duck out of a duck.’
“When he got back here, he hired the best masons and carpenters around to build this concept, this idea he had in his head.” Duck meat and eggs were sold from the Big Duck into the 1980s.
This is only the introduction. If visitors don’t stop her with questions, Young will gladly share everything from the trip the Pekin ducks took to get here from China, to what the previous owners have been up to since giving the rights to the Big Duck to Suffolk County Parks in 1987.
Pulled back to LI
Before working at the Big Duck, Young lived a completely different life. She has worked as a graphic designer, a publisher, an editor, a writer and a magazine designer. She said she became the first female magazine art director at McGraw Hill Publishing in 1977, working at the company’s Rockefeller Center location from 1975 to 1980. Her work included everything from gluing together magazine layouts to flying in small planes to assist photographers. Although she lived a fast-paced life, full of deadlines and responsibilities, Young loved the work that she was doing.
When her father got sick with emphysema, Young began traveling home on weekends to visit him in Flanders, where he moved when he retired. By then, she was living in Washington, D.C., doing magazine work, but she felt she was too far from her family. So, in 1986, she moved back home to Flanders.
She has been living full time in Flanders since she was 39 years old. Although Young grew up in West Hempstead, she and her family visited Flanders so often that she’s always considered it a second home.
“They built a little summer house,” Young said of her parents. “We used to come on weekends and go fishing and clam. It was great. It was a wonderful life as a kid.”
Young’s outlook on life changed in 2009, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and then had a mastectomy. She was in remission for 10 years, until she discovered the cancer had returned, spreading to her lymph nodes and bones.
“All of a sudden you have to start examining your life and what you want to do with it,” Young said.
According to cancer.net, the five-year survival rate for women with metastatic breast cancer is 29%. Young says she feels lucky that her tumors are inactive. “I’m a miracle, really,” she said. “I just keep pinching myself.”
These days, Young is on the board of the North Fork Breast Health Coalition, where she raises funds for those with breast cancer. But that isn’t her only volunteer work. She also works on the board of the Flanders Village Historical Society and the Friends of the Big Duck. Young worked with the latter two organizations to erect a plaque on Riverhead’s West Main Street that marks the original site of the Big Duck.
Her husband, Neil Young, volunteers as the president of the Friends of the Big Duck. In his free time, he uses a technique called lampworking to make glass ducks that are occasionally sold by the Friends. Neil admires everything Janice has accomplished.
“Janice is very active in the community, and is very giving of herself,” he said.
There is no denying that Janice Young loves her job at the Big Duck. And, after 13 years, she still finds herself learning about the Big Duck.
Including: “Martin Maurer was the original duck farmer, but he was not actually the owner of the property on West Main Street in Riverhead,” Young said of the location where the Duck sat before moving to Flanders (after a side trip to Hampton Bays). “We believe he may have managed, or even comanaged the farm, but he was not the owner.”
Young also enjoys getting to know the visitors — from near and far.
“They come in and say, ‘Oh, I’ve lived here for 20 years, and I’ve never been inside,’ ” said Young. “Or a little old lady comes in the door, she starts crying, and says, ‘Oh my God, I remember the duck from when I was a kid.’ It’s unbelievable.”
“It’s special,” said Young. “The duck is special. I mean, now it’s so interwoven into my life, you know? I think about moving because Long Island is so expensive, but it’s a big sacrifice to give this all up. I think I’m stuck here.”
Visit The Big Duck
The Big Duck, at 1012 Rte. 24 in Flanders, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday to Friday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday; for details, visit bigduck.org or call 631-852-3377.