Tennessee’s Daily Duck March

Peabody Memphis
Peabody Memphis / Peabody Memphis

If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week we head to Tennessee, the home of the Blues, Elvis Presley, and both President Andrew and Samuel L. Jackson. 

Tennessee's Daily Duck March

Most cities have parades to mark holidays or special occasions, and Memphis, Tenn., is no different.  However, Memphis also has the honor of being one of the only cities in America that has a parade every single day—two of them, actually! Granted, there are no floats or Shriners in those little cars, but there are esteemed guests of honor. To attend, you’ll need to get there early to get a good seat, because the route fills up fast.  So what is the special occasion that Memphis must mark every day, twice a day? Ducks.

In the 1930s, Frank Schutt, General Manager of the Peabody Hotel, thought it would be funny to have ducks in the hotel’s gigantic Italian marble fountain. So he brought in three small ducks from his personal flock to see how people reacted. The ducks were a hit, so they were soon replaced with five stately Mallards from a nearby farm.  

The ducks lived on the roof in a modest roost, but getting the ducks to and from the fountain was not an easy process. That is until 1940, when a bellman, Edward Pembroke, a former circus trainer, offered to teach the ducks to walk to the fountain, thus becoming the first Peabody Duckmaster, a post he held until his retirement in 1991. Even after all these years, Pembroke’s routine has remained unchanged to this day.

Shortly before 11 a.m., the Duckmaster lets the birds out of their rooftop roost, where they walk to a nearby elevator. When the elevator doors open in the lobby, marching band music plays, and flashbulbs and cheers from the crowd welcome the worshipped waterfowl as they waddle down a red carpet, up some small steps, and right into the fountain. At 5 p.m., the process is reversed, and often draws even more of a crowd.

Every once in a while, the primary Duckmaster will have an honorary assistant, usually a celebrity that’s staying at the hotel. Over the years, famous names like Michael Jordan, Nicolas Cage, Justin Timberlake, Jeff Bridges, Molly Ringwald, President Jimmy Carter, Patrick Swayze, Oprah, Peter Frampton, Gene Simmons, Larry King, Ethan Hawke, and Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley have all added “Duckmaster” to their resumes.

Today, the ducks still live on the roof, but their roost is anything but modest. Their $200,000 home features marble floors, a bronze duck fountain, and a replica of the hotel for them to snuggle up in at night.

Unfortunately, the ducks don’t get to live in this lap of luxury for very long. It’s not what you think, though—duck hasn’t been on the hotel’s menu for decades. Instead, the ducks are allowed a three-month stint as Peabody celebs before being set free at the same farm where they were raised. But at least they go back with a story that none of their fellow fowl will ever believe.

Peruse all the entries in our Strange States series here.