Shacks on the Hollis Warner Duck Farm in Riverhead, called 'one of the worst rural slums in the country' by a federal antipoverty official in 1964. Image: Video screenshot from 'Got to Move' a 1964 documentary short by David Hoffman

Soon the happy sounds of children scampering on the playgrounds at Indian Island County Park will fill the air as spring arrives in Riverhead. 

Sixty years ago, there were no playgrounds, picnic benches, hiking trails or campsites. And the sounds that filled the air in 1964 were those of bulldozers leveling the tin-roofed sheds that dotted the landscape of what was once, by some accounts, one of the largest and worst rural slums in the state. 

Known as “Tin City” among locals, some 900 people lived there in converted duck sheds and other uninsulated shacks, some less than 100 square feet, and in cramped apartments within large duck-brooder buildings that had been divided into makeshift multiple dwellings. 

Most of the residents were Black. Many were migrants, having come up from the south looking for the opportunity to make a living for their families. What they found were low wages and poor living conditions. They were, as journalists put it at the time, “the forgotten people” — “slaves for rent.”

The park was once the Hollis V. Warner Duck Ranch — in its heyday reportedly the largest duck farm in the world — tucked away in the woodlands abutting the Peconic River and Saw Mill Creek. By the early 1960s, the duck farm had ceased operations and its owner began making his living as a landlord.

‘It was home to us’

The sheds and apartments, many of which were inhabited by families with infants and young children, had no heating systems, running water or toilets. 

“We had outside bathrooms,” Carol Williams of Richmond, Virginia recalls of her childhood home. “And of course we had the little pots for inside,” she adds. The outhouses, toilet seats on holes cut through plywood benches, were shared by several homes.

Williams, one of seven children of Russell and Annie Smith, lived with her family in a five-room house off one of the dirt roads on the Hollis V. Warner Duck Ranch until she finished the sixth grade at Aquebogue Elementary School. She graduated from Riverhead High School in 1970. The family had to move when the farm was condemned, Williams, now 72, recalled.

“We had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and a little room that had a mop and a big old galvanized tub,” which the family used for bathing and doing laundry, Williams said in a Feb. 23 phone interview. 

The family would draw well water for drinking, cooking and bathing using an outdoor hand-pump they shared with neighbors. “We had to pump the water and heat the water in a pot on the kitchen stove, then pour the water into the galvanized tub,” she said.

Living conditions on the Warner property drew scrutiny and outrage after a spate of deadly fires in Riverhead slums over a five-year period killed 11 people, including five residents on the Warner property.  

WATCH: David Hoffman’s 15-minute film about conditions at the duck farm. (Below.)

In winter, the only source of heat in many of the “shanties” was an unvented portable kerosene heater of a type later banned by the state as unsafe due to risk of fires and explosions. Other houses, like the one the Smith family lived in, relied on a single coal stove for heat. 

A Newsday series in September 1957 drew attention to conditions in suburban and rural slums on Long Island. The first in the series by Jack Ehrlich and Francis Wood, titled “Long Island’s Ugly Ducklings” described conditions on the Warner duck farm in detail.

The reporters wrote about the development by Warner of the “new colony” of small rental houses built on the north side of Saw Mill Creek, where the county campground, picnic areas and hiking trails are today — and where Carol Williams’ family lived in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Back then, Riverside Drive became a dirt road that cut through the duck farm and crossed a rickety wooden bridge that spanned Saw Mill Creek and led past an open garbage dump to a densely wooded area. Tucked away in the woods was “Main Street” lined by the new houses, just a few feet apart, that Warner built to rent. 

The largest was 24- by 24-feet, and had five rooms, like the one her parents and their seven children lived in.

“It was the nicer area of the ranch,” Williams recalled. It was upland, a distance away from the smell of the creek polluted with duck wastes and the garbage dump just north of the creek.

Beyond the “Main Street,” on the north end of the farm — where a gate opened onto the railroad track and beyond it, Hubbard Avenue — was a large corn field, Williams recalled.  “It was the sweetest, most delicious corn you could ever pick,” she remembered.

Despite the cramped living quarters and lack of indoor plumbing, she remembers her childhood as a mostly happy one.

“It was home to us,” she said.

‘You had no idea what they were actually living in’

Robert “Bubbie” Brown, 83, of Riverside, grew up on Edgar Avenue in Aquebogue, where three large duck farms then operated: Crescent duck farm — today the last remaining duck farm on Long Island— the Hubbard duck farm and the Hollis Warner duck farm. One of his uncles lived on the Warner duck farm, as well as friends he knew from school and church. 

Brown remembers the Warner farm as a scary place.

His friends’ father “made the kids sleep on the floor under the bed on weekends,” he said, because there “were bullets going through the little corrugated metal shacks.”

Brown remembers having a Newsday paper route as a kid in the early to mid-1950s, at a time when Newsday was an afternoon paper. He delivered papers on his bicycle. He had two customers on the duck ranch, new customers he’d signed up himself in order to qualify for a “master carrier sweatshirt and a baseball glove,” he said. 

“So I go back down where these shacks are and I sign up these two families. I get my glove. I get my master carrier sweatshirt. And for about over a year,  these people got a paper every day and they never ever paid me,” Brown recalled. 

“I was afraid not to deliver the paper,” he said, because they relied on it to get the numbers they bet on. “And I was afraid to ask for the money,” he said. “That’s how bad it was. I just delivered my papers and got the hell out of there as fast as I could.”

He also remembers the dirt road that crossed a single-lane wooden bridge where a sign was posted that read “WARNING: BRIDGES UNSAFE.” His family would cross that bridge in his father’s 1937 DeSoto to visit the uncle who lived on the duck ranch.

Brown’s sister, Linda Bullock, is 10 years his junior. She knew children in school who lived on the Warner duck ranch. They rode the same school bus to junior high and high school. But unlike her older brother, she’d never ventured onto the property until one day her mother drove her and her sister onto the Warner duck farm to pick up a friend.

“I had no idea where we were or what we were getting into,” Bullock recalled in a phone interview last week. They entered from Riverside Drive. “And we drove down into this area and it was horrible. That’s when I realized that the houses weren’t really houses. They were like tin shelters,” she said. The shock of what she saw for the first time that day remains with her.

“And that was the only time that I had gone down into that area,” Bullock said. “But I just knew a lot of the people who came out of there, who lived there.” 

Bullock pauses, then adds, “Seeing them on the outside, you had no idea what they were actually living in. That area was horrible.”

‘You could smell the kids. They smelled like kerosene.’

The current Riverhead Town supervisor, Tim Hubbard, also grew up nearby, on Hubbard Avenue. His uncle also owned a duck farm on Saw Mill Creek. Hubbard was born in 1960 and has only vague memories of the place he knew as “Tin City.” 

“They called it Tin City because all of the little shanties, or little buildings, if you will, had that corrugated metal roof on it,” Hubbard said in an interview Tuesday.

He said he had no idea about the farm being labeled “one of the worst rural slums in the country” in 1964 by a federal official who led President Lyndon Johnson’s antipoverty program, following a tour of the former duck farm.

“Wow. I didn’t know that was the reputation, but I remember it vividly as a kid riding on the school bus past it every day,” Hubbard said. 

“It was very primitive. Even for 1950, it was very primitive. I mean, if you were talking 1890 or something, that might be a different story. But by 1950 everybody had electricity and running water and indoor toilets,” he said.

The shanties were “the size of a shed you would have on your property,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard said when the kids who lived there got on the school bus, “you could smell the kerosene” from the heaters in their houses. “They would just breathe in fumes of kerosene all the time, and when they’d come to school, you could smell the kids. They smelled like kerosene.”

Those kerosene heaters caused many fires in Riverhead’s slums, and many fatalities. Among the dead in the fires that tore through Riverhead slum homes from 1959 to 1963 were two infants, 15 months and 3 months. The 20- by 20-foot shack they lived in on the Warner property caught fire on the afternoon of April 25, 1963. An 8-year-old sibling escaped the flames. 

Their mother had gone to a neighbor’s house a few steps away to borrow some milk, Newsday reported, when the fire erupted. The distraught mother, Elizabeth Jones, said the family, which paid $65 a month in rent, didn’t like living there, but had no other option.

Even when families could afford monthly rent for better houses, choices for Black families were very limited in a racially segregated town on racially segregated Long Island. 

Riverhead Town did not adopt a housing code until 1968. This lack of local regulation — and a lack of appetite among town officials to do anything about it — allowed slum conditions to persist even after the deadly fires. And they persisted even after coverage by Newsday, the New York Times, and the New York World Telegram. 

That’s how Riverhead, at the time best known for its potatoes and ducks, became notorious for its slums. Besides news reports, the slums in Riverhead were also the subject of documentary films and were spoken of on the floor of the House of Representatives, where they were memorialized in the Congressional Record on more than one occasion—by members of Congress other than the two men who represented eastern Suffolk’s congressional district.

‘It must rest on the conscience of every citizen’

Yet, the Riverhead Town Board had been well aware of the slum conditions at the Warner farm and in two other major slum areas in town — both known as “The Bottom.” One was an area of about six acres off Roanoke Avenue, near Cranberry Street, where a “colony” of some 60 “shanties” provided shelter for poor Black residents — without heat, running water or indoor plumbing. A smaller “settlement,” also known as The Bottom, existed in the area of Middle Road and Horton and Osborn Avenues, where poor Black residents were housed in about 30 shacks also lacking basic services such as heating and indoor plumbing. 

The Suffolk County health commissioner in 1954 had toured the area and reported on “extreme slum conditions” and recommended that the town run water and sewer lines to the “colony” near Cranberry Street, according to Newsday.  

But the health commissioner’s recommendations went unheeded. 

On Jan. 29, 1959 three young children — a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old and a 2-week-old infant — perished in a blaze in their 12- by 12-foot shack on Horton Avenue, touched off by a kerosene heater. Their 22-year-old mother, who was severely burned as she tried in vain to put out the flames and even picked up the flaming heater in an attempt to throw it outside, died Feb. 7 at Central Suffolk Hospital. 

Riverhead Town Supervisor William Leonard  in comments reported by Newsday, said it was not the town’s responsibility to take care of people who were “too lazy” or “too ignorant” to help themselves. 

Reaction from the town’s clergy council and the Eastern Long Island Branch of the NAACP was swift. 

“It must rest on the conscience of every citizen to prevent a recurrence of this tragic incident through effective and enforced legislation,” the clergymen said in a resolution read to the Town Board at its meeting on the morning of Feb. 3, 1959, according to the meeting minutes.

The Eastern Long Island Branch of the NAACP said the town had aided and abetted housing and heating conditions that led to the horrible fire that destroyed three innocent lives” a week earlier.  The NAACP called on the Town Board to disavow  the supervisor’s statements, but board members stayed silent. “I’m no bigot,” Leonard said to allegations of racism. “I’ve grown up, lived with and studied with colored people.” 

The Town Board also ignored the NAACP’s calls to outlaw unsafe kerosene heaters. 

Earlier that very morning, another resident died: A 33-year-old unemployed veteran who lived alone in a 9- by 10-foot shack on the Warner duck farm was killed when his dwelling was destroyed by a pre-dawn fire. No one at the Town Board meeting, which was convened just a few hours after the fire, indicated they had any knowledge of the latest tragedy.

The year 1963 was when everything came to a head. 

By then, Suffolk County had already begun the process of acquiring the 426-acre Warner property as part of its wetlands acquisition program. That in itself was a controversy in Riverhead, where a majority of the Town Board opposed it. Warner was in contract to sell his land to a developer. Warner’s attorney, Leo Saxtein, was the Riverhead town attorney at the time and, during a Town Board meeting, advocated against the town supporting the acquisition that his private client opposed. His dual role drew sharp criticism from some town residents. 

Once the property was purchased, the county began to relocate residents on the former duck farm property, in advance of the land-clearing that would take place the following year. Residents were being relocated to “suitable housing” in other parts of Suffolk — mostly Bellport and Huntington — often against their will. Many residents did not want to move such a great distance away from Riverhead. Representatives from the Congress of Racial Equality stepped in to advocate for the residents.

‘I’d never seen anything like it. I mean, this was Long Island.’

In 1964, CORE’s Long Island director Lincoln Lynch arranged to produce a documentary about the Warner duck farm with a young filmmaker named David Hoffman. Hoffman, who would go on to win eight Emmy Awards for his films over the course of a long career, was just 20 years old.

“It was my first film,” Hoffman said in an interview last week. He’d been approached by a guy he knew, a young civil rights activist, to shoot it. Hoffman’s mother had just bought him a wind-up 16mm movie camera, he said.

The Levittown resident drove out to Riverhead and when they arrived at the Warner property, he said he could hardly believe his eyes. 

“I’d never seen anything like it in my life,” he recalled. “I mean, this was Long Island.”

Hoffman’s 15-minute documentary, “Got to Move,” aired on PBS and was viewed by members of Congress and by staff in the White House. 

“But the people of Riverhead paid very little attention to it,” he said.

Looking across Saw Mill Creek, from a trail off the campsites along Indian Point Road inside the county parkland. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Today, very few people are even aware the slums existed, fewer still know that the beautiful county park situated on the Peconic River was once the site of almost unimaginable squalor, despair and tragedy.

Today, when local residents — long-timers and newcomers alike — speak of preserving our rural character and agricultural heritage, they are not talking about the migrant labor camps that populated the rural landscape of the East End with ramshackle shanty towns or the laborers who stooped in the fields to pick the crops, or those who cleaned out the duck brooder buildings or processed ducks for packing and shipping. 

The conversation rarely even turns to the substandard housing that farmworkers in the current day call home, or the backbreaking labor they perform to plant, raise and harvest crops today— though this, too, is part of our agricultural heritage.

The conversation focuses instead on scenic vistas and a vague, idealized version of “farming” that bears little resemblance to the lived reality of those who plow and plant and pick.

A story that’s ‘imperative for our time’

“I think that the story is imperative for our time,” said Tijuana Fulford, founder and executive director of The Butterfly Effect Project. “Because we are a generation of people who are trying so hard to be better than the last generation and to open doors for the new generation. And we can’t do that because we don’t know what we’re coming from,” she said.

It’s important to have a historical record, Fulford said. 

“We’re asking a generation of youth to be better. How can we be better if we don’t even know what we’re trying to overcome?” she asked. 

Housing issues are still vital, Fulford said. 

Whether it’s living in a remote apartment complex on Doctors Path — where residents of The Bottom were relocated in the latter part of the 1960s, or living in apartments across the street from the police station, “where a murder took place in broad daylight and still remains unsolved,” she said. “These are things that are happening.”

“So that’s our duck pen. So yes, we need the story told, and we can’t do it alone. We need every voice at the table, engaged, ready to listen and learn.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor and attorney. Her work has been recognized with numerous journalism awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She was also honored in 2020 with a NY State Senate Woman of Distinction Award for her trailblazing work in local online news. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.