December 2, 2021

Corn Ducky Derby looking at 25th year

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Doug Gilbert, left, chairman of the Corn Duck Derby, sorts ducks with Don Reed in Cortlandville on Jan. 15, 2021.

The guys who organize the Corn Ducky Derby at Suggett Park every year are having a ball, getting together, dealing with the elements, and getting those little plastic ducks into Dry Creek — all to benefit greater Cortland area youth.

“This is our 25th annual,” said Doug Gilbert, chairman of the event that has distributed $356,000 to the Cortland area since 2004, the year they started keeping records.

“Last May we postponed it from May 2 to Sept. 26,” Gilbert said because of the pandemic and the need for social distancing.

The Corn Ducky Derby is a fundraiser where people buy a ticket that matches a little plastic duck. More than 6,000 ducks are corralled at Dry Creek and let loose. The first duck to the finish line wins a cash prize.

In 2020, the club didn’t encourage a crowd. Instead, a Boy Scout got into a pool with the ducks and randomly picked ducks to determine winners.

This year, they’ll assess the COVID-19 situation in Cortland in April and decide when to have it — and how, Gilbert said.

“We give our money to youth-based events in the Greater Cortland community,” said Dean Smith, president of the service club.

It’s funded Toys for Tots Christmas presents, a scoreboard for the McGraw Recreation Department, a water slide for Cortland’s National Autism Association, and a host of other projects through the years.

Youth groups that sell Corn Ducky Derby tickets get half of every ticket sold. The club has returned $106,000 to them since 2005.

“We get together to hold programs,” Smith said of the 35-person club.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they met for dinner Monday nights at a restaurant, listened to a speaker, and organized. Now they meet by Zoom.

Gilbert said the group will celebrate the 25th anniversary with a special “duckerating contest.” Cortland, Homer, Marathon and McGraw school art students will design a special plastic duck to commemorate the occasion.

Don Reed, in the group more than 50 years, stores the ducks at his milk house at his barn on Route 215.

The group used to be a Y’s Men service club for the YMCA, raising money for painting the pool and selling Christmas trees and the like, before separating into its own organization.

Reed said every year, the group gathers at his barn to sort the ducks, making sure each has a number and that there are no duplicates.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Mr. Corn Duck makes an appearance at Reed Seed’s milk house, where Dean Smith, president of the Cortland Community Service Club, helped sort ducks on Jan. 15.

 

Members of the club, and Mr. Corn Duck himself, met Jan. 15 at the former milk house and recounted their adventures. One year, the men faced high waters in Suggett Park after four days of rain and the ducks broke through a holding gate on Dry Creek.

They blew down to the Chesapeake Bay, and landed a little bit too close to Washington D.C., the men said, with a shudder.

Some members said this happened in 2017. Others: 2018.

Dennis Stratton was a new member that year and he was told, before the duck eruption: ‘Get down in the water’ with a couple of other new members.

“I’m down in the water and 6,400 ducks come down,” Stratton said. “Dennis, go get those ducks!” he was told.

They lost more than 1,000 that year. Kids would say, “Mister, I saw a duck here. I saw a duck there.”

The first year of the event, the ducks were dumped at into the Tioughnioga River at Lorings Crossing, Smith said. He wore waders up to his chest and the water was so high, another few inches, he’d have flooded.

“That was 25 years ago. I was 47. I was cold,” Smith said. “That was the last year of the East Branch. Then we switched to the West Branch. Ducks were getting caught in all the branches.”

Eventually, they went to the tamer Dry Creek.

“That’s why we run the derby,” Smith said. “So we can be little boys and play in the creek again.”

Tom Dumas of Virgil, on the allocations committee, joined the club in 1980, and the corn duck derby is his favorite event.

The late Bob Swartwout had the idea to create it — a play off the Kentucky Derby. “He was an energetic character,” Dumas said. “No one wanted to do that.”

Dumas’ son-in-law, Chris Ryan, joined the club. “They are going to let me be in charge of the Corn Duck Derby,” he told Dumas. “He took it on. He changed the whole thing.”

Volunteers do not like to sell tickets, he said. But Ryan had the idea to have youth groups sell tickets and get half the proceeds back, Dumas said.

Over the years, they acquired a duck costume and at one point, Dumas’ wife, Marti, would dress in it. “We would go to bars and sell tickets,” he said.

Now Ryan helps Gilbert, who’s chaired the event the past five years, Dumas said. “Nobody realizes how much work those two men do.”

Smith said he’s been in the club for 35 years. “The name says it all,” he said of the Cortland Community Service Club. “I feel all should have a community service obligation,” Smith said. “This fits the bill.”

“Even though I’m the president, the most important person in the club is Doug Gilbert, who runs the derby,” he said. “Every meeting, we’re talking about the derby. If not the logistics, how to distribute the money.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor