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Vital Signs: Professor writes little book about Long Island's Big Duck

Susan Van Scoy's book about Long Island's Big

Susan Van Scoy's book about Long Island's Big Duck was published in March. The college professor recalls that waiting to spot the duck during monotonous childhood drives out east was "better than any license plate game you could play." Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

For Susan Van Scoy, it was a welcome sight during long, monotonous childhood trips to the East End.

The Kings Park native remembers being young and bored in the backseat of the family car, gazing out the window at the passing road signs. As they veered off the highway onto a more scenic route, Van Scoy would search for anything to hold her attention in those days before cellphones and tablets.

Then, suddenly, in the distance it would appear — 20-feet-high, 30-feet long, placid and white as snow.

“It was better than any license plate game you could play,” recalled Van Scoy, 38, a Huntington resident and assistant professor of art history at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue.

The Big Duck, a waterfowl-shaped building in Flanders, has been a roadside “a-quack-tion” for generations. Since 1931, the concrete Pekin duck has presided over a busy stretch of road and welcomed flocks of visitors. First stationed in Riverhead, it waddled to Flanders, then near Hampton Bays, and back to Flanders in 2007. It has adorned the cover of The New Yorker and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Conceived by duck farmer Martin Maurer during the Great Depression as part storefront-part advertisement, the architectural wonder and cultural oddity remains a Long Island destination for locals and visitors. Since 1993, the Big Duck has functioned as a gift shop and mini-museum.

These days, said Van Scoy, the Big Duck is more than a signal that long journeys out east are almost over.

With a new book, “The Big Duck and Eastern Long Island’s Duck Farming Industry,” Van Scoy has taken a deep dive into the history of the landmark and the thriving duck farming culture that defined Long Island for decades. The book, released in March as part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, traces history through nearly 200 photographs and detailed captions. Its publication is the culmination of 18 months of research and interviews with past and present East End duck farmers and their families, as well as previous owners of the Big Duck.

The book project began in 2017 when Van Scoy got wind of an art history conference calling for research papers about people who memorialize animals through art. She immediately thought of Maurer and his famous waterfowl. With her background in studying the history of photography and site-specific art, Van Scoy said she was naturally fascinated and began digging.

“Why did this man build a building in the shape of a duck?” she asked herself. After presenting her paper that year, Van Scoy knew her work wasn’t done.

“When I started researching for it, I found that there was no source on the Big Duck, and the last book written on the history of duck farming came out in 1949,” Van Scoy said, admitting she knew next to nothing going into the topic. “I didn’t connect the Big Duck to a duck farm, but there were almost 90 farms out east at the high point of the industry.

“Younger generations don’t realize it’s not just a duck-shaped building; it has a history,” she explained. “Nobody’s done this before and I wanted to preserve it — put it all in writing so it doesn’t get lost.”

Many of the book’s featured pictures came from such institutions as the National Archives, the Museum of the City of New York, the Long Island Collection at East Hampton Library and Brookhaven’s Post Marrow Foundation. But, Van Scoy said, some of the best photos were found stashed in Long Islanders’ drawers and shoe boxes.

“I started to come across these really great old historical photographs from farmers that the public has never seen — private collections and family pictures,” she said. “The families were all very happy I was doing this because they wanted to have a historical record.”

Others lamented losing photos over the years, Van Scoy said, increasing her determination to publish the book.

Talking to the farmers, she said, made it clear that, for them, the Big Duck symbolizes a time when the Long Island duck was an oft-produced delicacy in restaurants across the country. Over time, she explained, environmental regulations and waste treatment requirements effectively shuttered all but one duck farm — Crescent.

“When I got out of Cornell University, there were 30 duck farms — now I’m it,” said Doug Corwin of Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, a major duck producer in North America marketing to restaurants in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and beyond. “I’ve been doing this all my life, since my great-grandfather started. It’s now hard to imagine what it was like back then.”

About Van Scoy’s book, he added, “I’m gratified that somebody’s taken the time to do this.”

Janice Jay Young, a docent at the Big Duck, remarked that the publication was “long overdue.”

“It’s amazing that nobody else wrote this by now,” said Young, who lives in Flanders. “The Big Duck is nostalgic, it’s artistic, and it brings people together. It makes them smile. The Big Duck is a symbol for a lot of people.”

For lifelong Flanders resident Mary Cunningham, it boils down to the Big Duck being a Long Island institution.

“Nobody else has one,” Cunningham beamed. “She’s unique, she’s ours.”

Meet the author

WHAT Talk and book signing

WHEN I WHERE 7 p.m. May 8; Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington

INFO Free, but book for signing must be purchased there; RSVP on Facebook or 631-271-1442; bookrevue.com

WHAT Book & Bottle Event, with book sale and signing; wine and cheese

WHEN I WHERE 6 p.m. June 6; Suffolk County Historical Society, 300 W. Main St., Riverhead

INFO Members free; nonmembers $5; RSVP required, 631-727-2881, ext. 100; suffolkcountyhistoricalsociety.org/

WHAT Talk and book signing

WHEN I WHERE 6:30 p.m. July 22, Mattituck-Laurel Library, 13900 Main Rd., Mattituck

INFO Free; book may be purchased at event; 631-298-4134

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