by Jimmy Ogle, Duckmaster | photos courtesy of Trey Clark
Shortly after the Civil War ended, the story of The Peabody Hotel begins. Opening in 1869, the original name given was to be Brinkley House in honor of the founder, Col. Robert Brinkley. However, Col. Brinkley changed the name to The Peabody Hotel in honor of his good friend, “the father of American philanthropy”, George Peabody. The original Peabody Hotel closed in 1923 and after two years of grand construction, today’s Peabody Hotel of Italian Renaissance Revival design, opened in 1925.
In 1935, newspaper man David Cohn wrote a quote in his book Where I Was Born And Raised, that “the Mississippi Delta begins in the Lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends at Catfish Row in Vicksburg”. He added “. . . if you stand near the fountain in the middle of the lobby . . . you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta . . .”
Over 80 years later, that quote stands true today. The restoration and re-opening of The Peabody Hotel in 1981 was the catalyst project for the rebirth of Downtown Memphis which began in the early 1980s. The Peabody Hotel,
the only hotel in Memphis listed on the National Register of Historic Places, again has been the heart and soul of modern Downtown Memphis ever since. The Lobby, with its beautifully sculpted fountain of happy cherubs and a wall
of Italian travertine marble, continues to be the iconic Memphis destination for people from all over the world to find and enjoy.
And, of course, the “residents” of the fountain continue a tradition like none other, which was begun in 1933 – as a practical joke! That year, the hotel’s general manager and a friend went on a duck hunting excursion into neighboring Arkansas. The hotel’s chef packed them a sumptuous lunch, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee sippin’ whiskey. On the way, the driver stopped off at a duck farm to pick up some live decoy ducks, a practice that was within the law in those days.
Apparently, no duck hunting was done that day and the two men returned to the hotel. Back at the hotel as they were unloading the car, they noticed the basket containing the live decoy ducks – they had forgotten to return them to the duck farm. They decided to place the ducks in the lobby fountain, just for the night.
Next morning, when the general manager came through the lobby, he saw to his horror, crowds of people around the fountain, gawking at the ducks. He approached, apologized profusely and told his guests he would have the ducks removed immediately. Much to his surprise, the guests loved the idea of having live ducks in the lobby fountain, and the ducks became permanent residents thereafter.
By management decree, duck is not on any menu at the Peabody.
In 1940, Edward Pembroke (a former animal trainer with the circus) and the Peabody Ducks met for the first time, thus beginning a 50-year daily stage show known as the World Famous March of The Peabody Ducks – all to the tune of John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March. Mr. Pembroke became the world’s first Duckmaster, a title that he held for 50 years!
The Peabody Ducks and Pembroke quickly became legendary celebrities, and famous the world over, appearing in many magazines such as People and Sports Illustrated, and on many national TV shows, including The Tonight With Johnny Carson, Oprah Winfrey and even made a special guest appearance on Sesame Street for National Rubber Ducky Day! By management decree, no duck is served on any menu at The Peabody Hotel.
Over half a century, several Peabody Duckmasters have come and gone, but the name of Edward Pembroke will be remembered and revered forever. Today, a large picture of Duckmaster Pembroke has pride of place in the lobby of The Peabody, the South’s Grand Hotel. Some think that The Peabody Hotel has 13 stories. Actually, it has thousands.
Witnessed by hundreds of guests and visitors on a daily basis, the World Famous March of The Peabody Ducks occurs at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. year round.
Now, that’s an American hotel industry original!
During their stay at the Peabody, the ducks have their own rooftop quarters, attended to by Duckmaster Ogle.
The World Famous March of The Peabody Ducks occurs at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. year round.
Hotel History Tours with the Peabody Duckmaster
Take a trip back in time with this 1-hour tour of the “South’s Grand Hotel” with the Peabody Duckmaster. Daily, 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
$5 for hotel guests, $10 for other guests. Reservations required: 901-529-4108