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The Peabody Hotel: Absolutely all it’s quacked up to be
By Tom Adkinson

peabody hotel memphis
The regally costumed Peabody Hotel duckmaster commands attention every day at 11 a.m. for the ducks’ arrival; image by Tom Adkinson.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Just how special is the Peabody Hotel in Memphis? It invented a word – duckmaster.

There never was a duckmaster before it became someone’s privileged and visible Peabody Hotel job to escort a quintet of mallard ducks from their rooftop “duck palace” to a Italian marble fountain in the lobby every morning and back home every evening.

The predecessors of today’s ducks started swimming in the fountain in 1933, but the hotel traces its own story to 1869. That means the 464-room property that some would say is the heartbeat of Memphis is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

peabody hotel ducks
The Peabody Hotel rolls out the red carpet for the quintet of mallards for their march to the fountain; image by Memphis Travel.
peabody hotel ducks
This Impressionist-style depiction of mallards on a pond perfectly suits a Peabody Hotel guestroom;
image by Tom Adkinson.

For a century and a half, the Peabody Hotel has been a Memphis mainstay. It has had its ups and downs, including some crashes that almost spelled its demise, but a whiskey-inspired practical joke helped it establish an identity known around the world.

General Manager Frank Schutt and his friend Chip Barwick had had an unsuccessful duck hunt in Arkansas, but they compensated for their lack of success by imbibing a bit too much Jack Daniel’s Tennessee sippin’ whiskey. The silliness started when they returned to the hotel and put their live English decoy ducks, which were legal then, in the lobby fountain.

No one got in trouble since it was the hotel manager’s own doing, and the hotel’s guests took a shine to the waterfowl. A joke became a tradition, and there now is a daily ritual that fills the lobby with crowds of onlookers. Order a morning cocktail to watch the spectacle in what has been called “the living room of the South,” or stake out a good view from the mezzanine.

At 11 a.m. every day, the duckmaster escorts the ducks down from the roof on a non-stop elevator. John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March” resonates through the lobby as the ducks emerge from the elevator and waddle along a red carpet to the fountain where they splash around for the rest of the day. They get lunch served on a silver platter.

A lucky few get to be honorary duckmasters. Among them: Queen Noor of Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Bacon, Patrick Swayze and Molly Ringwald.

The official duckmaster, who wears a bright red coat with gold braid and carries a gold-handled cane, has an additional responsibility. He leads a one-hour hotel history tour that is offered daily at 11:30 a.m. (reservations recommended).

He has quite a tale to tell. The first incarnation of the hotel was built it 1869, and version 2.0 was built in 1925. That’s the one you tour today. Like many hotels, it has had grand success, gradual declines, renovations, ownership changes, a near-death experience and a well-received rebirth.

peabody hotel ducks
The Peabody’s duck motif shows up in many places, even on pillowcases;
image by Tom Adkinson.
peabody hotel ducks
A duck soap adds a whimsical touch to a Peabody Hotel bathtub;
image by Tom Adkinson.

On a tour, you’ll learn some downtown Memphis history, hear about the fancy menu at Chez Phillipe, learn about a traditional English afternoon tea and be advised to check out the famous rooftop parties every Thursday from April through August. You’ll also learn that the Peabody has been the site of uncounted special events, including Elvis Presley’s high school prom.

Ducks, of course, are omnipresent, but don’t look for duck on a restaurant menu here. Ducks are on stationery, floor tiles, paintings and subtly present where you might not expect them. My room on a recent stay included a painting of two ducks on a rippling pond that would have pleased Monet. Even the spa carries the theme – its name is Feathers Spa – and there are duck-shaped soaps in guest bathrooms.

Today’s Peabody Hotel is just a few minutes’ walk from Beale Street, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, B.B. King’s Blues Club, the FedEx Forum (where the NBA Memphis Grizzlies play) and AutoZone Park (where the AAA Memphis Redbirds play). A few more minutes will get you to the Old Dominick Distillery and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.

Trip-planning resources:, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published May 24, 2019

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