In 1931, when Long Island was mired in the Depression, a Riverhead duck farmer named Martin Maurer had an idea he hoped would promote his business.
It was a big idea.
He decided to construct a 20-foot-tall concrete duck at the edge of his farm on West Main Street. It would be painted white, like the Peking ducks he raised, with a long orange beak. A door in its belly would open into a small shop, where Maurer would sell eggs and processed ducks.
Maurer's farm is long gone, but his Big Duck sits by the side of the road in Hampton Bays, at the edge of a Suffolk County park, an icon for a part of Long Island's history that has all but disappeared. It also is a symbol of the Island itself. Generations of people traveling to the East End for day trips or vacations passed the Big Duck on Route 24 and knew, as soon as they saw it, that their trip was almost over.
Children still scream "There it is!" as they pass it; many families have bets on who will see it first; people stop to have their pictures taken in front of it. It is a concrete duck, a unique piece of roadside folk art, but it also is a keeper of family memories.
"It reminds people of their past," said Barbara Bixby, who works in the tiny gift shop inside the duck. "People walk into the shop and they are all smiles, as if all these memories have come back for them. It affects people of all ages. People honk their horns as they pass it. The word pilgrimage' comes to mind - people come to the Big Duck."
Maurer's idea didn't come out of nowhere. He had traveled to California and had seen big hats over restaurants, diners that looked like railroad cars and a giant coffee pot. He hoped the idea would work in Riverhead. It did. Maurer's Big Duck not only transformed his business, but put Riverhead on the map of America.
Today, there is only one duck farm left in the five East End towns. But there is still Maurer's Big Duck - glass-eyed, noble, sitting tall for an industry that barely exists on Long Island.
"It has become a major part of our heritage on Long Island," said Lance Mallamo, director of Suffolk County's Division of Historic Services. "I was there recently and a woman got out of her car with some kids, and she said, very seriously, Children, this is the Big Duck.' It's special. In our family when our kids were young, the person who saw it first would get a prize."
Sixty-seven years after it was built, the Big Duck sits at the edge of Sears-Bellows County Park. The small shop - which sells "duckabilia" - is operated by a group called Friends for Long Island's Heritage.
When it was built, the Big Duck joined dozens of roadside wonders across the country, looking like giant hats, or hot dogs, or milk bottles. Today, the story of the Big Duck - how it was built, and became a tourist attraction - is taught in some architecture schools.
"The Big Duck was the forerunner of duck architecture,' " Mallamo said. "Any building shaped like its product is called a duck."
It all began with one man's simple idea.
Like dozens of other duck farms in Riverhead, Maurer's farm sat alongside water - in his case, Upper Mill Pond. More than 30,000 white ducks waddled around the farm on their short journey from birth to death to dinner plate. All around Maurer, from Calverton to Aquebogue, were hundreds of thousands of ducks on more than 70 other farms. Riverhead sat at the epicenter of Long Island's duck universe.
Maurer hired a local builder, George Reeve, to help him build a duck covered in concrete. According to the Long Island Forum, Reeve - who had built barracks at nearby Camp Upton during World War I - asked his wife, Ella, to roast a chicken so he could study its skeleton.
Reeve hired two local brothers, William and Samuel Collins, to help with the design and construction. For additional inspiration, the brothers procured a live duck, which they tied to their front porch so they could study it. History does not tell us if their model lived on in honor or wound up in orange sauce.
When the head was complete, someone had a brilliant idea for what to use for eyes - a pair of tail lights from a Model T Ford. When it was completed that June, the Big Duck was 20 feet tall, 18 feet wide and 30 feet long. It had a little tail, and from the way it was built, appeared to be sitting on a nest. The Riverhead News, in a story that month, said, "Motorists passing through Riverhead now have something to remember us by; it is a big duck . . . and naturally it is attracting much attention."
Indeed. In November, 1932, a national magazine, Popular Mechanics, published an article on the duck. Maurer, seeing interest building in his creation, took out a design patent from the federal Patent Office. The Big Duck remained on Maurer's farm for only five years. In 1936, it was moved to Flanders, where it continued to serve as a place to buy eggs and processed ducks. In 1988, the 30-ton bird - facing possible extinction by a wrecking ball - was moved again and bought by Suffolk County. Not only has the Big Duck become a Long Island fixture, it also is acknowledged roadside art. Call it art ducko.