Duck Factory keeps going through three generations
Over the last 45 years, the 38-foot Duck Factory has sailed into local legend.
She’s a trap net fishing boat built in 1953 in Cleveland, Ohio. Trap net boats, used for commercial fishing, have low sides and wide, flat decks.
When Grosse Ile resident and Wyandotte business owner Bruce Milkins and his buddies John Perry and Wally Merritt first laid eyes on the boat in 1976, they thought its “low profile,” as Milkins put it, would make it perfect for duck hunting.
“We could get in and out of the boat real easy,” he said.
Since then, the Duck Factory’s reputation has been anything but “low profile.’’ But back to 1976.
“I found it at Bolles Harbor,” Milkins said. “It had been laid up for years. We talked about it, and decided if it would still run, we’d buy it.”
Luckily, Perry — whom Milkins dubs “a mechanical genius” — after a couple of hours of work, was able to get the boat’s engine to turn over.
The boat’s original name was the Harvey K, and when the three young men found it languishing in 1976, the boat was called Zigeuner. That’s Greek for wandering gypsy, Milkins said. She cost the three men about $7,500.
“Then we said we’ve got to come up with a new name,” he said, “and I suggested the Duck Factory. We had just gotten back from a goose-hunting trip in James Bay in Canada, and I remembered that we’d stayed in a little town up there called Moose Factory. I said, ‘If they can have a Moose Factory, we can have a Duck Factory.’”
On the Duck Factory’s maiden voyage — the trip to bring the boat home from Bolles Harbor to Grosse Ile — a valve broke.
“But we made it, and we had more fun that day!” Milkins said.
Since then, the Duck Factory crew has spent countless hours and dollars fixing her up — and enjoyed countless hours of fun.
The first improvements took place right away.
“She looked like she had a Winnebago trailer on the back of her, so we tore it all apart and rebuilt it,” Milkins said. “Now there’s a galley, bar, dinette — that’s all open — and inside are bunks, a workroom and a head.”
Over the years, the men, their friends and their families have made many trips, long and short, aboard the Duck Factory, including many summer jaunts to Duffy’s Tavern (leveled in 2017) in Amherstburg, Ontario, a mecca for Michigan boaters for decades.
And then there were those storied stag events.
“We’d always have a summer prom with the boys,” Milkins said. “We’d flip a coin. Heads we go north and tails we go south. We’ve been as far as Port Huron and Goderich (Ontario) and as far south as Cleveland and Erie.”
His wife, Diane, and her friends decorated the Duck Factory for some of its voyages.
“She’s been a great assist to all the things we’ve done on the boat,” Milkins said. “One year we had a cruise to Put-In-Bay (an Ohio resort town on South Bass Island) and we called it Martha Stewart’s Amazing Sea Adventure. We decorated the boat real nice — linens and all — and we dressed up in white shirts. We’d paint the tie on the white shirt with Magic Markers.”
Some of the trips to Put-In-Bay during the early years perhaps went a little overboard, he admitted.
“Many times at Put-In-Bay we’d have typical problems like everybody has problems down there — boaters acting a little crazy and having too much fun,” Milkins said. “One year, they permanently banned us. It was 1988. But after four or five years, they welcomed us back with open arms.
“There are some things we can’t print, of course,” he added with a laugh.
But the Duck Factory has meant a lot more to the men and to the region than just fall duck hunting and crazy summer fun over the years.
“We’ve done a lot of charitable things with Ducks Unlimited,” Milkins said. “We’re life members with the Monroe DU. And with the Rotary Club, we’d have some of our festivities aboard the Factory.”
And once a year, with the addition of a tugboat and barge provided by Grosse Ile residents Warren and Bridget Hurst of Hurst Marine, the Duck Factory takes handicapped children for a boat ride and then to lunch at the Grosse Ile Yacht Club, where Milkins is a past commodore.
“The boat has never been for hire, but we do a lot of charity work for the churches and the various fundraisers,” Milkins said. “We’ve had three weddings on the boat and a number of funerals. We’ve taken high school kids out for prom trips and had class reunion parties. One of the times I remember was when the Trenton Rotary Club was doing an exchange with the Rotary Club in Trenton, Canada, and they brought their high school band kids. They all played bagpipes, so I asked them to do ‘Amazing Grace’ on the bagpipes.”
As the Duck Factory cruised through Crystal Bay in the Detroit River’s Canadian waters, the plaintive pipes wailed the time-honored hymn. The sound seemed amplified and somehow magical as it traveled over the cool, calm water.
“There was a wedding going on there, and all the boats were honking,” Milkins said. “It was amazing.”
He still remembers getting goosebumps that day from the sound of the pipes on the water.
Repairs have been ongoing, as with any boat. The Duck Factory has sunk three times over the last 45 years and each time has been floated anew.
“Only at the dock,” Milkins said. “It was probably because of a lack of maintenance on the bottom. Sometimes the water will go real low and it would lean over on its side and water would splash in. Nobody was ever aboard.”
Over the years, the Duck Factory has continued to serve its prime objective as a duck hunting boat.
“We call it the mother ship,” Milkins said. “We anchor the boat and then put the sneak boats out in the water. Then we could come back and fish, play cards, watch football games, and cook up the fish and ducks we caught right there. We spend the whole day out there.”
Each fall, a group of youngsters climb aboard the Duck Factory to go duck hunting.
One of those kids was Ryan Rozycki of Newport, who, at one of the annual so-called Duck Factory Poachers Delight Dinners, was awarded as Rookie of the Year. He was 14 then. Now he’s 28 and the Duck Factory’s newest partner.
A few years ago, Merritt and Perry decided to end their partnership in the boat’s ownership.
“They didn’t have time for it and weren’t able to get out,” Milkins said. “They had other things in their lives they were doing. So I bought them out, but I told them, ‘You can check out but you can never leave.’”
Then he pulled the boat out of the water — one of the first times he’s ever done that — to rebuild its bottom and the back deck to make sure the Duck Factory was in good condition for its new partner.
“Bruce has been a long-standing family friend,” he said. “Over the years, I started hunting with Bruce a little bit here and there. One morning, Bruce said, ‘I want to make you a partner.’ That was September 2014.”
Rozycki was all for it.
“I’ve had so many good times on that boat,” he said. “The boat was where my brother’s wedding was held. It’s been a big part of my life, my brother’s life and my girlfriend’s life. So many walks of life have come onto that boat — second and third generations of families. It’s been through a lot, but it’s never stopped. It keeps going and we never give up.”
For him as well as for Milkins, the Duck Factory is more than a place to have fun. Rozycki talked about some of the fundraisers — and also about “duck tipping.”
That’s when swings are attached to the tall outriggers aboard the boat, which are then swung over sideways. Then the engines rev up and she goes full tilt so riders on the swings get a splashing, crashing ride through the water.
“My girlfriend (Colleen Abair of Woodhaven) brings her friends and we go duck tipping,” Rozycki said. “She hates the boat during duck season because we’re never there, but she loves it in the summer.”
Rozycki considers himself part of the Duck Factory’s ongoing legacy.
“I own the boat, but I don’t have as many rights as the guys who’ve been doing this with Bruce for more than 40 years,” he said. “A big thing about the boat has always been the people.
“The boat has always been about the friendships.”