When author David Cohn described the Peabody Memphis in his 1935 book God Shakes Creation, he recognized it as a cultural landmark: “The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near the fountain in the middle of the lobby…you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.” This year, the hotel celebrates its 150th anniversary, and while it’s still known as a cultural and historic hub, perhaps the most alluring reason visitors have long lingered in the elegant lobby is to glimpse not the who’s who of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, but the famous ducks that make their home in the central fountain.
First opened on the corner of Main and Monroe in 1869, the Peabody hotel relocated to its present location on 2nd Street in 1925. Despite its prominence, the establishment fell into decline and nearly closed for good in the 1970s. But 1981 brought a grand reopening, and with it, a new organization to the duck tradition (before, the ducks were alleged “direct descendants” of the original ducks placed in the fountain by an over-served general manager in the 1930s). Today, five mallards move from a local family’s farm to downtown Memphis to stay as the hotel’s guests of honor for ninety days at a time. Each morning, they march from their rooftop penthouse to the elevator, then down to the lobby fountain where they spend the day splashing and swimming before marching back up the red carpet to the roof each evening. When the ninety days are up, the ducks return to the family’s farm to reacclimate to life in the wild—free to fly away whenever they so choose—and a new flock is immediately brought in.
In 2011, local historian and former hotel general manager Doug Weatherford joined the Peabody team as the assistant duckmaster, where he learned the ropes before taking over as the official duckmaster last year. Along with caring for the five birds, he leads history tours each morning after the daily march. In honor of the hotel’s 150th anniversary, Weatherford—as gifted in storytelling as he is mallard-management—walks us through what it takes to oversee the South’s most famous waterfowl.
How did this tradition start?
“Frank Schutt, the general manager in the 1930s, and his buddy Chip went hunting one day. They knew it was going to be cold, so they took along another companion, a certain Jack Daniels, for encouragement. But as the day went on, they became a little over-encouraged. They thought it would be funny to bring live duck decoys—which were legal in Arkansas in those days—and put them in the fountain. Then they went off to their rooms to sleep it off. The next morning, Mr. Schutt was concerned about the mayhem that might’ve been caused the night before from his misdeed, so he ran down to the lobby and found that the ducks were still there. They hadn’t flown off to see Beale Street. So, he let them stay for a couple days and it ended up becoming an eighty-five-year tradition.”
Where do they live now?
“They spend most of their time in the duck palace, which is an approximately $200,000 structure on the rooftop. It has its own artificially sodded lawn with a drainage system underneath, and they have their own Peabody Hotel inside there. There’s a marble fountain with a duck spraying water. And of course, they have their own valet service: me.”
What’s the average day like for a Peabody duck?
“I give them a shower every morning no matter what the temperature is. A few months ago, there was about a ten-degree wind chill factor up there. And I looked down and my black pants were turning white with ice, but the ducks were like: ‘Spray me again!’ It doesn’t get too cold or too wet for ducks.
I go up there first thing in the morning, and I’ll spray the area down. We clean it in the mornings and every other afternoon or so I’ll deep clean it to make sure they’re in a sanitary environment. We also pay careful attention to their diet. In the morning, I don’t give them very much because it tends to create issues in the elevator. I’ll give them a couple leaves of lettuce just to get them going. And then at 11 o’clock, I will march them across the rooftop down the elevator, into the lobby, and into the fountain there. In the fountain during the day, we will feed them once or twice with cracked corn. We march them back up at five o’clock and I’ll give them their biggest meal of the day: hearts of romaine lettuce, nutritional pellets, a laying mash or a powdered poultry supplement, and oyster shells, because they have a craw like a chicken so they need something crunchy to help them digest their food.”
How do you teach them to march?
“They pick it up very easily, actually. We get new [ducks] every ninety days, and it takes them one week to ten days to get accustomed to staying on that red carpet and marching down into the fountain. The first few days, I’ll ask the people who are present there in the lobby to form a human tunnel on each side of the red carpet down to the fountain, so the ducks don’t see a lot of options along the way. After a few days of that, they get it. Ducks are very habitual. They know when to fly north and south every year, so we play on that tendency. Once they see they have to do the same thing a couple times a day to get in and out of the fountain, they really can’t stand not to do it. They get all excited—not about being fed again but about their routine. They love routines because mother nature imprinted that into them so they can survive. Daylight savings time messes them up a little bit, though. You can tell they’re confused.”
They seem pretty smart. Do you get attached to them?
“Well I can’t afford to, but it’s hard. Some of them have individual personalities and want to bond with you. When you see that one of them fixates on you, and they want you to recognize and greet them, it’s hard not to do it. [With one batch of ducks] I would walk into the elevator in the evening, and one female duck—a wild animal—would always be in a crouched position. I’d literally tell her, ‘Okay, jump,’ and she would fly up about waist high, then settle back down. All I’d have to do was reach out and let her fly into my hands and I’d have a total pet, but I couldn’t. For her sake I won’t do that. She’s a wild animal.”
Have the ducks ever run (or flown!) away from the fountain into the lobby?
“They’re waterfowl, so [the fountain] is their habitat. That’s where they want to be for six hours a day. If that did happen, of course it’s duck alert on the old walkie-talkie. Duck rescue squad swings into action: me and the bartender.”