GROWING UP IN NASSAU COUNTY, a visit to the East End was a rare and special occasion — one that wouldn’t be complete without a freshly made farm pie, a quick stop at the beach and a visit to The Big Duck.
In Flanders, a small hamlet on the south side of the Peconic River, a building with the likeness of a giant Peking duck overlooks Route 24. Standing 20 feet tall with glowing red eyes made from Ford Model T tail lights, The Big Duck is a symbol of architectural ingenuity and Long Island’s duck farming past. Every year, history buffs, architects and duck lovers trek to the tiny hamlet to pay homage to this iconic roadside attraction.
The Big Duck was built in 1931 when the duck farming industry was booming on Long Island. According to a 2009 Suffolk County report, Long Island duck farms were producing about 7.5 million ducks per year by the early 1960s and provided about two-thirds of the ducks that were being consumed in the entire country.
The Big Duck was commissioned by a duck farmer named Martin Maurer, who was inspired by a coffee-pot-shaped building that he saw on a road trip to California. With so many competitor duck farms on Long Island, he decided to transform his farm stand into a giant duck to garner attention from passersby. He employed local carpenter George Reeves and Broadway set designers the Collin Brothers for the job; they constructed the large fowl by applying ferrocement over a timber frame and wire mesh. It was an impressive architectural feat, one that influenced architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to coin the term “duck architecture,” which is used to describe buildings that are designed to look like what they sell inside.
In the 1970s, duck farming on Long Island began to dwindle as environmental regulations put pressure on farms, which were polluting local streams and wetlands with duck waste. Today, Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue is the last remaining operation on Long Island. The Big Duck no longer sells ducks or duck eggs, but it continues the East End’s duck farming legacy as a mini museum and gift shop.
It only takes a few steps to walk through The Big Duck. Inside, it’s filled with duck-related souvenirs, artifacts and old news clippings. At the counter, its duck-loving docents are readily available to answer any questions and show off their knowledge of local duck history. There’s also a guestbook toward the duck’s rear with entries from visitors who have traveled from as far as Dubai to visit Flanders’ feathered claim to fame.
The Big Duck has been featured in several roadside books, an episode of a children’s TV show, was on the cover of a magazine and even has its own anthem. In the anthem, written and sung by Caroline Doctorow, she describes the Big Duck as the “People’s Duck.” Locally, The Big Duck is a source of pride. Every December, the Suffolk County Parks Department sponsors an annual holiday lighting of the Big Duck, where a wreath is hung around its neck and the community comes together to sing “duck carols” and get in the holiday spirit. Some dedicated fans have even gone as far as getting tattoos of their local feathered friend.
The Big Duck was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 and is kept alive by Friends of the Big Duck, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving its history. For more information, or to make a financial contribution, visit bigduck.org.