The annual Duck Drop in Havre de Grace, MD turned out
to be harmless enough. But the idea of dropping a duck...
Well, this author simply had to investigate. [January 2006]
By Jane Meneely
It was New Year's Eve and I'd heard they'd be dropping a duck in Havre de Grace that night.Dropping a duck, they said. Can you imagine? They were going to take some innocent little duck to the top of some tall tower and drop it at the stroke of midnight. Unconscionable! Paul and I were outraged. Well, I was outraged, anyway. Paul was more nonchalant. "I thought ducks could fly," he said. Men can be such dolts! I'm hardly what one would call an animal rights activist. Aside from a "Save the Whales" bumper sticker and an "I brake for moose" souvenir poster from the Yukon, I'm animal neutral. Still, the thought of some poor duck plummeting through the frigid midnight air just to satisfy the bloodlust of a bunch of insensitive and no doubt inebriated revelers was enough for me to want to gird my loins and head to the rescue. There was no time to lose!
I had already called to make dinner reservations in town-at the Crazy Swede, in fact, a white-linen-tablecloth establishment on Union Avenue. Very fancy. This would be a dressy sort of place where we would mingle with the Havre de Grace cognoscenti and perhaps glean some important information about the cruelty to come. Like where the duck was held prisoner, for example, and how many guards were on duty.
"And eat?" Paul asked. "We get to eat, too, right?" You'd think he didn't care about that poor little duck. "We're going to have to blend in with the crowd," I said, and handed Paul a nifty little duck hat I'd found on sale. It looked like a mallard with outstretched wings that flapped when you pulled on the chin string. If you tugged on the bill it quacked. Paul balked at first. "You expect me towearthat?" he said. "No way."
"Way," I said, as I donned my own stealth helmet-a ball cap studded with light-up duck pins. "We're doing this for the duck," I reminded him. Paul muttered something about the duck on the menu, but I wasn't really paying attention. I handed him a pair of camouflage hunting pants I'd found at the Goodwill (nice touch, I thought). And I wore my L.L. Bean duck boots with my Sunday-go-to-meeting gold lamé skirt and sequined top. Into my hand bag went binoculars, duck calls, a street map of Havre de Grace, a couple of Jack Daniels minis, and an assortment of lock-picking tools-bobby pins, paper clips and a small silver butter knife.
We made the drive to Havre de Grace in broad daylight, the better to case the town. I'd made reservations at the Currier House B&B, a lovely place, decorated with all sorts of family memorabilia-hand-carved decoys, among other mementos from Havre de Grace's past. I gave Paul a nudge. "I have a hunch," I whispered. Then I smiled sweetly at our hostess, Jane Currier. "Havre de Grace sure is Duck City," I said. "Where do you keep them all?"
"Folks that want to see the ducks generally take a stroll down our boardwalk," she said. "It's been rebuilt since Isabel. You can see all sorts of bird life from there." The boardwalk was barely two blocks from the Currier House, and Paul and I were on our way faster than a duck can wag its tail. But it was a dead end. That Currier woman was one smart dame. She'd sent us on a wild-goose chase. Or whatever. I mean, the boardwalk was lovely. We could see clear across the Susquehanna Flats, and true enough, the place was quacking with ducks. But these were wild ducks, free as . . . birds.
"Where else would a person go to find ducks in Havre de Grace?" we asked a lady strolling by with a baby carriage. (My experience has led me to believe that ladies with baby carriages are inherently trustworthy.) "You want to go up the street to the Decoy Museum," she said. "They've got all kinds of ducks up there."
We followed her directions and soon found ourselves outside the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. Rats! It had just closed, but there didn't seem to be any signs ofliveducks around, so we decided to wander "aimlessly" down Havre de Grace's streets to see what we could see. The map made it all easy enough, and plenty of shops were open. We almost got sidetracked by the lure of antiques, books and art on display. But a flock of geese winging overhead soon got us back on track.
"We'vegotto find that duck." I said to Paul. "We're running out of time."
"I'm running out of energy," Paul said. "Food. Give me food."
I checked the time-we'd be a tad early for our dinner reservations, but perhaps Paul was right. A bit of nosh would do us both good, so we headed for the restaurant. Which was packed. A great spot for New Year's Eve dining, we'd been told. A congenial lad named Dave led us to our table. "The duck," he whispered to us. "Get the duck."
How did he know?
"We most surely will," I said to him, in equally low tones, "but . . ." He was gone before I could ask him where to find it. Still, I was dumbfounded. This was asecretmission-or so I'd thought.
"Maybe that Currier dame put two-and-two together," Paul suggested. "Maybe she's on your side."
"Ourside," I said.
"Yeah, whatever," Paul said, eyeing the menu.
A waitress appeared within minutes. "May I recommend the duck?" she said, pointing out several duck entrees on the menu.
The nerve! "No thank you," I muttered tersely.
"The veal looks good," Paul said.
I kicked him under the table. He ended up with the grouper topped with a wonderful crab imperial. I had lobster-real lobster, done beautifully. Aside from the waitress's questionable culinary tastes, the service was excellent.
"Maybe Dave knows where they keep the duck," I whispered to Paul as we were leaving. "Ask him."
"Youask him," he said. "I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face."
I wasn't sure what Paul meant by that, but I sidled up to Dave near the bar, where he was busily conversing with the bartender. He paused for a moment.
"How can I help you?" he said.
"I wondered about the duck," I whispered. "Where would we find it? The duck for the . . .gulp. . . duck drop."
Dave waved toward the door. "You'll have to hurry. They'll have taken the duck to the tower. It's all set to drop in . . . " he checked his watch, "twenty minutes."
Good heavens! We'd more than dawdled over dinner-delicious as it was. Not much time to spare! That poor duck. We hustled out the door, and following Dave's directions, headed for the Havre de Grace Middle School. It wasn't hard to figure out where the action was. Everyone and his duck call were wending through the streets of Havre de Grace and descending on the school parking lot. Paul was right in style. "Thanks for the hat," he said, pulling on the string and making it quack. The noise only added to the general cacophony of quacks and honks andphwwttsand boingsemanating from the multitude of noisemaking devices. Paul got in a quacking duel with a nearby fellow-to distract him, I'm sure.
"So, where do they keep the duck?" I casually asked a matronly lady supervising a half-dozen rowdy teenaged kids. "It's right up there," she said pointing to the top of an extended fire engine ladder from a fire truck parked down behind the school. I craned my neck for a look, shuddering to think I was too late. But no. . . .
"That'sthe duck?" I asked.
"None other," she said.
"But it's made of . . . lights!"
Lights and Styrofoam? Well . . . silly me. And in a last final blast of noisemakers mixed with a touch of cannon fire-or maybe it was the first of the fireworks-the emblazoned duck did indeed drop to the ground. As the numerals of the old year, shining brightly and benevolently from the top of the ladder blinked out, the numerals of the new year flashed on to take their place. It was all very cute and perky. And so very appropriate for a place like Havre de Grace.
The fireworks were lovely. The cool night air was soft on my cheeks, like a feather. Paul quacked his duck hat a few more times. And finally, we turned to go, along with a wave of Havre de Grace humanity, blessed and fortified for the year to come.
"Hey," Paul said. "How's about a kiss for good luck?"
Sounded like a good idea to me.
The Duck Details
Perched at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, Havre de Grace has a sweeping view of the Susquehanna Flats, historically one of the Chesapeake Bay's most productive and popular "duck stops" on the Atlantic flyway. Migratory waterfowl descended by the thousands into the marshy shoals of the northern Bay, where they feasted on wild rice and submerged grasses before heading south to winter in warmer climes. Market gunners and sportsmen ultimately took their toll, of course, nearly decimating the flocks. Sedimentation and shoreline development lopped away at the once expansive natural habitat. Now the stories of ducks on the wing darkening the October sky are just that-stories. But the stories of the hunters' heyday now fuels Havre de Grace's graceful comeback from a declining blue-collar metropolis to a charming waterfront town with elegant food, eclectic shops and modern marinas.
The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum serves as "Duck Central" for visitors keen on learning how waterfowl kept the town afloat as other industries fell to the wayside. Earlier still, Havre de Grace had been the booming terminus of goods moving down the Susquehanna from the farms and forests of Pennsylvania. It netted and shipped tons of fresh shad to marketplaces around the world. Canneries and factories studded its shoreline. Then came the railroads and, more significantly, the Conowingo Dam. The economy collapsed. For the men who knew the marshes and the vast shallows at the mouth of the river, known as the Flats, duck hunting became a way to pay the rent. They used decoys carved and painted by the likes of R. Madison Mitchell-decoys that now fetch thousands of dollars from collectors all around the world.
No wonder then that Richard Tome came up with the idea of fashioning a huge lighted duck, hoisting it high above the Havre de Grace rooftops and, at exactly the right moment, letting it fall to the cheers and applause of eager spectators. "I went to New York City for New Year's Eve in 1985," Tome says. "And I thought, if they can drop an apple in Times Square, I can drop a duck in Legion Square." Legion Square is in the heart of Havre de Grace, where Tomes's Country Flower Shop is located. The idea percolated for 15 years before Tomes enlisted a band of volunteers, and, for the town's millennium celebration, a brightly lit duck took its first dive from the skies above Havre de Grace. "I wanted to do it every year," Tomes says, but it took two years for the town to really get behind it. It has been an annual occurrence since.
The 2005 duck was a mallard designed by local carver Bobby Jobes. He cut it from an 8-by-6-foot slab of Styrofoam. Then Tomes installed colored lights to mimic a mallard's plumage. This year it will be a wood duck, designed by 83-year-old carver Jeanne Hiss, this year's honorary chairman of Havre de Grace's annual Duck Fair. It will be set atop the ladder from the Susquehanna Hose Company Truck No. 551 on New Year's Eve, parked behind the Havre de Grace Middle School (401 Lewis Lane) and at precisely midnight . . . well, you know the rest.