To meet Herb Culver; President of Culver Duck Farms, you would never guess he has such a celebrated Long Island Heritage. But, the Culver's Long Island stock is as pure as the Long Island (AKA, Pekin) duck the family is famous for. Now, the 5th Generation says "Meat the Future" for the 21st Century.
But, what about the 19th Century? We're a little ahead of ourselves. Great, Great Grandpa, Warren W. Hallock, started raising ducks around 1858 on Atlantic Farm in Speonk, Long Island. Many families at that time, in that place, raised ducks in their backyards; but, it was not long before area farmers realized, along with Warren Hallock, that Long Island's south shore was perfect for raising Pekin ducks. And, Pekin duck could mean a very good living.
FoodReference.com conjectures that all of the Pekin ducks in the United States are descended from the nine ducks imported to Long Island in 1873. In actuality there were 25 duck eggs purchased by a New York merchant named Ed McGrath on a visit to Peking, China. He had them hatched and asked James Palmer, to bring them back to America for him in return for half of the ducks as payment.
It was four months later that the nine surviving Pekin ducks arrived in New York. Five went as promised to the Palmer family as payment. Fat and succulent, these were eaten. McGrath took the other four ducks to Connecticut for breeding. They thrived in the humid climate. It is uncertain how they found their way to Long Island; but, it is probable that at some point, Warren and/or son, A.J. was involved.
Warren and Louisa Tuthill Hallock's farm was on the border of Speonk and Westhampton in the Brushy Neck Road area, including the land between the two creeks off of South Country Road. The current exclusive waterfront community of Atlantic Farms was named in honor of its heritage.
While he farmed and fished, Warren also focused on producing a better duck. The Pekin duck is a good breeder, laying 150 eggs each year. It is so large, in fact, that McGrath had mistaken them initially for geese. That probably explains Warren Hallock's interest in them. The fervent desire to produce a better duck has become the Culver legacy. Every generation has tried and succeeded in improving the maturation process; the breed's ability to transform feed to meat; and, the overall meatiness of the Pekin (AKA Long Island) duckling.
In the 1870's the Long Island railroad built a new branch out to Sag Harbor making the trip from New York City now only a four-hour jaunt. The area began to receive an influx of summer visitors. The wealthy built summer homes on Westhampton Beach. Warren began to take in boarders to capitalize on the tourism opportunities. Not limited to the benefits of making Long Island more accessible to the rich, the Railroad also expedited the movement of processed duckling off Long Island and into New York City. The winds of change had begun to blow.
The inhabitants of Eastport began to recognize the enormous potential in duck farming; and at one time, the unlikely 1 and 1/2 sq. mile hamlet was dubbed the Duck Capital of the World. At least thirty duck farms lay spread across the sandy soil of Speonk, Remsenburg, Eastport and Westhampton. But, again, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Not content to remain status quo, Warren believed there was a natural way to genetically engineer a better duck; and, so he began a process of un-natural selection—watching for the biggest, brightest and best ducklings. He separated them out into pens, and, bred them. Before long, he was selling his chicks to other farmers to raise; becoming the largest producer of ducklings in the United States. By 1885, he was marketing annually between 4,000 and 5,000 ducks.
Son, Arthur Jonah, was born in 1868 and as soon as he was old enough worked as a feeder. Stephen B. Wilcox married daughter Mary Jane, and was taken into partnership. But, in 1891, Stephen decided to start his own farm in near-by Center Moriches. Warren then changed the Atlantic name to W.W. Hallock & son and brought Arthur into the business as partner. When Warren died the following year (1892), Arthur, better known as A.J. (he was responsible for the Farmers Commission House FCH label on processed ducks) assumed responsibility for the business. A.J. (as his father before him) continued to place great importance upon the breeding of the Pekin Duck. He renamed the farm Atlantic Duck Farm and prepared to expand the business.
A.J.'s mother, Louisa, had also taken a role as many of the duck farmers wives did. She noted that ducks were not nurturing like chickens; so, she began to place duck eggs under chickens and found they would indeed hatch them. Soon, she was hiring local women to take her eggs to hatch; although the 1893 issue of Farm Poultry reads: "Hens were employed to do the hatching and brooding." In reality, Louisa Hallock employed the local women at five cents an egg. Broody hens were also purchased at a dollar a head to hatch out ducklings at the hatcheries.
Incubators eventually replaced the hens, but the first ones were fire hazards. Kerosene heaters provided the warmth. The eggs were turned by hand. Today, huge incubators control temperature to a constant 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit and maintain humidity at a careful 50%. The eggs are turned automatically throughout the four week incubation period. Pekin Ducks are especially good eaters; and, will consume up to five times their weight before they are processed. Developing the breed to give the maximum weight to feed ratio was a challenge Warren and each successive generation of Culver Duck Farmers has met head-on.
By 1908, the main roads were oiled down to prevent dust. Progress was evident. Farm Poultry reported that the Capacity of Atlantic/Hallock Farm was now 40-50,000 ducks a year. Arthur was also operating the Stephen Wilcox farm for his sister after her husband was tragically killed when a well caved in. The Wilcox farm produced 20-25,000 ducks each year.
The talent for breeding passed down through the generations. Burt's, Dad, Herbert Reeve Culver II, is the geneticist today; always watching to make certain the best ducklings are chosen to become breeders. Today's Pekin duck reaches maturity more quickly and bears more meat on the breast than those early generations; and, Herb is still looking for ways to improve the line. And, all this without growth hormones, anti-biotics or anything unnatural being added to the feed. But, again we digress. Back to 1909.
In 1909, about 49,000 ducks were hatched; by 1916, 125,000 made it to market, totaling over $225,000 that year. Wealthy families from New York were not building estates in Eastport after 1910, because it was lined with duck farms. Speonk and Remsenburg were phasing the farms out; but, Eastport fought commercialization and the farmers of Eastport were encouraged to locate their duck farms on practically every square inch of every river, creek or bay front.
By the 1920's Atlantic Duck Farm had worked into the "largest and most profitable poultry farm in the world." Soon to retire, A.J. and wife Julia, went to Florida on vacation in 1931. There, A.J. became ill and died of appendicitis in a Palm Beach hospital.
Feathers have always been an important by-product of the industry; sometimes, being "gravy" and sometimes meaning the difference between success and failure. Early on, experts at picking duck feathers by hand earned up to $5.00/day (which far surpassed carpenters who earned only $2.50/day) plucking approximately six ducks per pound of feathers. In 1929, Feather Sales built a Feather Factory on North Phillips Avenue in Speonk, peaking by 1960 with almost two million pounds of feathers processed annually. With modernization, the skill of hand-plucking went the way of the horse and buggy; and, at the end, the job became one of the lowest paid occupations.
Upon A.J.'s death, son, Lewis Hallock took over Atlantic Farm. Lewis had an affinity for trotting horses. When the east coast 1938 hurricane dealt the farm an incredible blow, destroying everything including the ducks, Lewis left duck farming. That year, the farm's duck production was at its peak with an annual production of 260,000 ducks. When the hurricane hit, at least half the Atlantic Duck Farm was under water. The loss was enormous. Not one duck survived; leaving Lewis permanently out of the duck business.
Around 1854, the Raynor family had built a duck farm around Tanners Neck. It prospered for years; but, was struggling in the mid '30's under Archie Raynor's management. In 1936, it faced bankruptcy. Bank officer, Herbert Reese Culver stepped in and took over operation of the farm in partnership with his brother-in-law, Everett Raynor, who owned an incubator and had been a manager at A.J.'s farm. They renamed it the Culver-Raynor Duck Farm, or C & R Duck Farm as it came to be known. Archie Raynor went on to start raising vegetables to the south and east of the duck farm; selling them at Archie Raynor's Farm stand, locally known as "The Stand" on Tanners Neck Lane.
Herb and Everett had just gotten the old Raynor farm back on its feet when the hurricane of 1938 hit—destroying buildings, pens, and thousands of ducks. It left Long Island with 50 persons dead (29 at or near Westhampton Beach), four still missing a month later, at least 150 houses destroyed and property loss exceeding $2,000,000.
The Westhampton area was the worst hit. Water surged a mile inland rising to over six feet above Main Street. Two Long Island Railroad trains were derailed. Farms were devastated and debris and salty over wash polluted the land. Hundreds of millions of trees and miles of vegetation died, and land became barren from the damaging salt water. The C & R Duck Farm had water up to the farmhouse steps.
Twelve new inlets cut into the island. The United States Army Corps of Engineers and the WPA filled other inlets with wrecked automobiles, storm debris and tons of sand hauled into the area. Declared a disaster area, marital law was enacted to stop looting. Water and electricity were unavailable for over two weeks. While a horrific disaster the hurricane actually proved to have a positive outcome. The Great Depression was ending. People were glad to have work at $2.00/day; and so, thousands of people poured into Long Island searching for work doing clean-up and repair. Economic prosperity would return; but, it would take decades.
Using lumber from some of the homes that were destroyed by the storm, the C & R Duck Farm was rebuilt and even flourished by the mid 1940's. It served predominantly as a hatchery which bred and hatched ducklings for sale to duck farmers in the area. By 1944, business was good. When Everett died of lung cancer, Herbert had to pay off half the value of the farm to Everett's heirs putting him in a difficult financial position. Howard Phillips, married to Herb's sister Marian, stepped in to manage the farm.
In the 1940s,the Eastport Duck Packing Plant employed 85+ employees processing up to 3,000 ducks per day. More than 6.5 million ducks made it to market from Long Island in the late 40's.
Young Herb Jr. graduated from High School and started in the duck business full-time in 1944. He married Marilyn whose father sold poultry feed on long island. Herb Sr. died in 1951. By 1959, Herb Culver Jr. and Howard Phillips had built the largest duck hatchery in the world, turning out 3,000,000 ducklings a year.
From the genetics of breeding, to the production of eggs, to the hatcheries, the processing and marketing...The Culvers are intensely involved in every aspect of duck production. Herb Jr. was especially interested in the breeding, as his ancestors were.
In 1960, the feed mill was losing money. It was taking more to feed the ducks than they were drawing at market. Howard and Herb decided something had to be done. Herb had felt for some time that the Long Island development would eventually drive out the duck farmers; and, he wanted a more wholesome environment for raising his family. So, he packed up and moved them to Pierceton, Indiana.
He was right, although it took a bit longer than he had estimated. During the next 20 years, increasingly stringent sanitation regulations led to the closing of almost all of the small farms; while water pollution remediation systems, and increasing costs (including taxation) dealt the final blow to the Long Island duck farmers. The remaining duck farms were phased out leaving only the Crescent Duck Farm owned by the Corwin family in Aquebogue and the Jurgielewicz Duck Farm in Center Moriches.
C & R Duck Farm continued to operate until 1985, but, dropped in production by 1972 to 2,000,000 ducks a year. By 1985 it was out of business.
Today, although a few historic farmhouses remain in Westhampton, gone are the Atlantic Duck Farm, Oceanic Duck Farm, and Culver and Raynor Duck Farm. Instead, million dollar waterfront homes stand along Brushy Neck Road, South Road, Tanners Neck Lane, and Baycrest Avenue.
IN 1960, a fire destroyed the plant in Pierceton, so the Culver family moved to Middlebury, Indiana, and the rest is, well, history. By the mid 70's, they had transformed the Crystal Valley into a thriving business that processes 40,000+ ducks and chickens a week.