2007-02-07 / Columnists
Pets, Pets, Pets...
The 131st Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) Dog Show is only days away. Ironically, I've spent the last year searching for 2 former show champions-first "Vivi", the Whippet, whom we hope against hope is still alive and well in Queens, and later "Sensation," the Westminster logo Pointer, who was buried somewhere, right here in Babylon 120 years ago. Westminster is symbolic of the purebred dog, and "Sensation" is symbolic of Westminster. Yes, our Village contains hallowed canine grounds.
Babylon history regales in tales of August Belmont's horse stables. However, it's a little known fact to residents that close by; at around the same time (1882- 1904), Westminster owned a sportsman's clubhouse on 64+ acres near Southard's Pond. "Sensation" enjoyed his retirement in Babylon and romped along with many other well-bred hunting dogs. When he died in June 1887, the famous Pointer was buried in front of that clubhouse under a flagpole with a Pointer-shaped weather vane on top- pointing always into the wind.
Where? The precise spot remains a mystery, even to Westminster authorities who have kindly provided clues. With the help of Village, Town, County historians and archivists plus the Babylon librarians who thread my microfilm, we have made considerable progress toward pinpointing the location, especially since the discovery of a "gift" map at Town Hall 3 weeks ago. Hopefully, this column will flush out more information from Beacon readers.
I'm embarrassed. I knew nothing about WKC's presence in Babylon until last fall. While judging for DWAA (Dog Writers), I was flabbergasted to read in the 2/06 Dogs in Canada that "Sensation" was interred here. To a dog fancier, it was the equivalent of learning King Tut's pyramid was in your backyard. I emailed WKC spokesman David Frei for verification who in turn contacted William Stifel, WKC historian and author of the comprehensive book- The Dog Show- 125 Years of Westminster. Mr. Stifel offered additional facts, explained why the search was so difficult, and later gave WKC's permission for these 2 reprinted photos. (All historical references are from Mr. Stifel's extensive research unless noted.)
Who was Sensation? In 1876 a member of the newly formed WKC sporting club went abroad to look for the perfect Pointer as a stud dog. He found "Don", a 70 pound lemon and white dog with an impressive show record and said to have "the best head of any Pointer in America, and probably in England". Once stateside, "Don" was re-christened "Sensation." He did well in the ring and the field, but the handsome
Pointer's real dual role was to breed more champions and to represent WKC.
"Sensation" sat for many portrait painters. In 1878 his head appeared on the catalog cover of the 2nd WKC show and on most others through 1936. The J. Wellstood engraving of a full body "Sensation' on point (shown) has been the official emblem since then, except for several intervals when the Pointer's head was again the WKC logo. The dog was officially retired in 1886 and given to Robert C. Cornell, a NYC lawyer and WKC charter member. "Sensation" ("old Don" to Cornell) died and was buried at the Babylon clubhouse a year and a half later.
The Babylon clubhouse? WKC wanted permanent shooting grounds. In 1880 WKC leased over 60 acres in Babylon for 2 years at $300 a year with an
option to buy at the end of the lease for $5,500. There
were already buildings including an old farmhouse on the property. The barns were turned into kennels and the farmhouse fixed up as temporary quarters. A Sammis map shows Southard's Pond included in the survey.
In 1882 WKC did purchase the property, but 2 years later moved the farmhouse to another part of the grounds for the caretaker and superintendent, and built a fancy clubhouse on the former site overlooking the pond. C.DuBois Wagstaff, owner of Tallulah Kennels (and of W.Islip fame), drew up the plans for the $8,000 two story 40 x 60 foot structure that boasted a covered porch, huge dining room, billiard parlor, stocked wine cellar, and veranda with a view of the shooting contests. Weekend visitors could catch a special train out of Long Island City and be back to NYC by 5:30. The old farmhouse still stands on Livingston Ave. near the cemeteries, but the switcheroo makes the exact site of the new clubhouse hard to determine.
In 1885 James Mortimer became the Babylon resident superintendent until 1892, and superintendent of the Madison Square Garden WKC Show until 1915, the year of his death. I've been scanning the microfilm of our oldest local paper- the South Side Signalto try to find a map or landmarks. This paper predated the Babylon Leader and the Beacon. The Signal's editors were the Livingstons (the street is named for them.) The Signal's "Local News" has many references to the demise of Village animals, to James Mortimer and the WKC of "North Babylon", rather than Babylon, but all before the Village was incorporated.
The June 18, 1887, Signal states that Mortimer sailed for Liverpool for a 2 month stay which means he was most likely gone when "Sensation" passed away. I did find an ad with a $10 reward to be paid by Mortimer for a curly-coated retriever lost from WKC in 12/1886, but no mention is made of the celebrated Pointer's death.
Later the club held pigeon shoots with contest results often recorded in the Signal. This sport thrived at the WKC but, considered inhumane by many, was outlawed in NYS in 1904. Hence, the WKC moved to NJ after selling the property to James L. Ewell in April 1904. The 4/23/1904 Signal says that Ewell planned to use the grounds to raise Shetland ponies but also includes an editorial comment about the "hayseed" legislation that brought on the passing of the WKC- "one of best known clubs on the South Shore." The clubhouse burned down sometime later, the year not known, so far. I also spoke to Mr. Ewell's great granddaughter who recalls a family photo of the clubhouse.
The Discovery Pointing toward the Pointer? My mentor and fellow dog lover, Jackie Marsden of the Babylon Village Historical Society, calls our quest a wonderful jigsaw puzzle. She's enlisted the help of Sharon Pullen, County archivist and more recently the Town historians. Immediately Mary Cascone, our new Town archivist, told me she remembered seeing a map somewhere with "Westminster Kennel Club" property. The next morning she asked me to meet her at Town Hall.
Bingo! A large original map painted on fabric adorned the Town Council wall. Undated because it is a framed page from an atlas, the map shows all the parcels of the WKC property, the elusive CLUBHOUSE, stables, an ice house, and another 2 story building- probably the Livingston Ave. farmhouse. Based on the position of buildings, including the old Southard mill, and some boundary lines, it seems post 1884 when the new clubhouse went up, and post 1893 when the Village was incorporated. Southard's Pond seemed to be missing, but on closer examination, it appears that the cartographer outlined the pond but forgot to paint and label it. A business man had given the map to BACCA who gave the map to Town Hall. It's only been hanging up since November, the same time we began our quest.
A week later we had another meeting with all 3 historians and several Town officials to approximate where the WKC clubhouse and Sensation's grave flagstaff once stood. Later Tom B. Smith, Town historian and I visited the site and estimated the position of the clubhouse based on the old map's scale to Southard's Pond and the Village line. For now, we've narrowed the spot down to between 2 street entrances (Pilcher and Gwynn) to the wooded trail that leads to Belmont Lake. We think the clubhouse was on a rise in that still wooded area overlooking the center of the pond. The trail is NYS land maintained by the Village- part of a 100 year lease granted by Robert Moses.
Our "Sensational" search is not over. This map has been carefully copied for archives and Westminster. There's more microfilm, perhaps Village fire department records, newly restored NYS photos and maps enroute to Planting Fields still to peruse….Maybe with permission- a dig for an old foundation or cornerstone, then placement of an historical marker. I'd love it outlined in Westminster purple.
In the meantime, it gives me chills to think, we, like so many locals, have unknowingly walked our dogs through these Westminster woods for years. Now as my pups sniff, I conjure up images and howls of the magnificent hunting dogs that prowled before us. While Mr. Smith and I stood at the possible "Sensation" burial spot, an off leash Dalmatian ran up to greet us. I pet his head and told him precisely where he stood wagging his tail.
Looking to adopt? Back at Babylon Town Shelter (643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon (several miles away from the old WKC property) all of my planned poster pets - a deaf Boston Terrier , a Mini Poodle, a declawed tuxedo cat- will be going to private rescue groups tomorrow. You have to move fast if you see any others on this list that interest you:
+Dogs: "Panda"- the huggable Retriever mix in Cage 47; "Rex"- a 5 year old buff Cocker Spaniel in Cage 13; a female Peke in Cage 7; "Ice"- a petite yellow Lab mix in Cage 49.
+Cats: "Jan & Dean"- the 6 month neut. duo in C- 5; "Gepetto"- a black semi-longhair kitten in the cat colony.