By Dawn Watson
Rose Nigro believes that things of value should be kept and respected, not forgotten or destroyed.
Especially when the thing in question is a part of our collective history, such as The Big Duck in Flanders. That’s why she wrote “A Duck’s Tail: The Story of a Big Duck and the Small Town that loves her.”
Told from the perspective of the Big Duck, the children’s book—with words by Ms. Nigro and illustrations by Emmy- and Peabody Award-winner Tom H. John—tells the tales of the highs and lows in the life of the cherished 20-foot-tall character. From its novelty architecture inspiration to its many travels before being returned to its former glory, the Flanders-based author entertainingly gives readers a make-believe glimpse into the Big Duck’s thoughts of these milestone moments.
Teaching the next generation lessons from the past will hopefully ensure that the Big Duck, and other important historical places like it, are preserved, says Ms. Nigro. And now that the duck is safe and sound, its sprit needs to be kept alive, adds the author, who lives in an historic farmhouse just around the corner from the famous landmark.
“The Big Duck is an icon. It’s a part of our history and it deserves the recognition,” she says.
As told in the book, duck farmer Martin Maurer built the 10-ton duck-shaped concrete structure—whose eyes are salvaged Model T Ford taillights—as a novelty attraction in 1931 for his Riverhead farm. When business became brisker, he relocated the building to a more prominent parcel in Flanders in 1937.
But time marched on and Long Island’s duck-farming community, once 90-plus farms strong, died out. Nearly five decades after the Big Duck had found its home in Flanders, a new owner bought the land, intent on using the property for residential development. The Big Duck had to go.
In 1988, the oversized American Pekin waterfowl was removed from its nest by Suffolk County and transplanted to Sears-Bellows Pond County Park in the Pine Barrens between Flanders and Hampton Bays. The ferrocement structure languished in the remote spot for close to 20 years.
Meanwhile, the planned real estate deal never came to fruition. Ms. Nigro and like-minded community members waged battle to return the Big Duck to its home.
In 2007, the preservationists won and it landed back on what is now a Suffolk County-owned site at the former 27-acre duck farm that had once belonged to Mr. Maurer. Hailed by the community and designated on the National Register of Historic Places, the structure now serves as a gift shop and tourist attraction at the Big Duck Ranch.
Ms. Nigro published her book (now being sold at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, BookHampton locations on both the North and South Forks, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, and at the Big Duck in Flanders) earlier this year. And even though “A Duck’s Tail” was written for children, the message behind the 37-page illustrated story is deeper than most kids’ reading, she says. The call for preservation can be read loud and clear for those, young and old, who pick it up.
The founding member of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association (FRNCA) and Flanders Village Historical Society, says that just because the Big Duck was saved, it doesn’t mean that we should become complacent when it comes to protecting the past.
“Here in America, we tend to just tear things down and then build new things on top,” she says. “I don’t want to see us tearing down and neglecting our history.”
The smallest acts do matter when it comes to maintaining and preserving our way of life here on the East End, adds the dedicated community volunteer. That’s why she is donating a percentage of the proceeds earned from the $26.95 book to FRNCA’s Beautification Committee. And why she urges everyone who lives here to do his or her part, too.
“Anyone who lives in a community should be bound to help on whatever level that they can,” says Ms. Nigro. “That’s called being a part of a community.”
Rose Nigro will read from “A Ducks Tail: The Story of a Big Duck and the Small Town that loves her” on Thursday, September 10, at 4 p.m. at the Big Duck in Flanders and again at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge on October 3, at 2 p.m. Learn more at www.reevesbayartworks.com.