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2007-11-14 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

by Joanne Anderson

Pets, Pets, Pets 

Mystery fire, the Westminster kennels in Babylon, circa 1915-1920 Mystery fire, the Westminster kennels in Babylon, circa 1915-1920 The Westminster Kennel Club clubhouse in Babylon burned down less than 100 years ago. Election Day marked one year (and now 8 pet columns) in my ongoing pursuit of precisely when and where. How could something so prestigious, so huge, so magnificent vanish without a trace or shred of memory to the old time Babylonians?

From 1880 to 1904 the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) owned 64 acres in Babylon west of Southards Pond. They built an elaborate clubhouse with 12 bedrooms, plus a dining room that could seat 50. They had kennels behind the clubhouse that could shelter over 100 dogs. Pigeon shoots, publicized in the NY Times, were held on the grounds for two dozen years. This was the home (and burial site) of the English Pointer - Sensation- WKC's symbol.

Last week at my museum talk I borrowed amazing photos of the WKC clubhouse and farmhouse from Gwen Leitch, the great granddaughter of James L. Ewell, who purchased the property from the WKC in 1904. Three pictures without dates or captions, including the one shown here with a Pointer, depict a mysterious fire. The buildings and fence look so similar to 19th C. photos and drawings we have of the WKC kennels in Babylon. A Pointer as a fire eye witness? Ironic. Puzzling.

Most of the WKC dogs, except the stud dogs, left in 1892- years before the club members. Is just a coincidence that a Pointer is watching the flames? Barbara Kolk the AKC archivist cautions me not to jump to conclusions but to be cognizant of the popular breeds of the era. Various map clues place the fire after 1915 and before 1938. 'Tis time to step back and examine the fire evidence with the eyes of an old elementary school marm. Here's what I would do with students:

What We Want To Know: 1.) When was the clubhouse fire? 2.) Do these Ewell pictures show the Babylon kennels ablaze? 3.) Most importantwhere was the fire?

What We Know Now: 1.) Bill Stifel, WKC's historian and author of The Dog Show 125 Years of Westminster, has 1998 memo notes from Elvira Smit, the lady who owned the farmhouse (now 358 Livingston ) from 1946 to 1963. Referring to the clubhouse, she said: "There was a big fire there in the early 1900's... sparks blew over, and it burned to the ground." About her home, known as the farmhouse or caretaker's house: "a house across the street had burned down, and they put the caretaker's house on the old foundation. Things didn't quite match up." This confirms the hunch that her 1700's farmhouse had been moved twice- first in 1884 when the WKC built the clubhouse, and then after the fire to the west side of Livingston.

2.) Babylon Village Museum owns a scrapbook from the late Althea Baldwin who died at 97. An undated newspaper clipping (Babylon Leader?) has a photo of the WKC clubhouse with a caption that says "the late James L. Ewell leased to the late Max MacLevy who conducted it as health resort and farm. It was consumed by flames some 14 years ago." No year. This is driving me insane. So far I haven't located this picture on Leader microfilm, or any reference to the fire in the earlier South Side Signal. Found a similar shot of the Argyle Hotel in a 1939 Leader. I've ruled out a 1924-25 fire.

What New Strategies?: 1.) "The late Ewell" died in 1926 so I should begin the Leader microfilm there. Since it's in negative form and tends to go out of focus, I should stock up on Dramamine too. 2.) Bug the Babylon Fire Dept. again to go through old log books. I offered to do it for them. Hard to believe a fire of this size was not documented. 3.) Reach out to neighboring fire departments and historical societies. References to the clubhouse call it the WKC in "North Babylon" even though all land was within the Village. The arrival of WKC predates the incorporation of the Village. 4.) Seek out elder Babylon residents to recount the past. The late Dave Southard would have known. He passed away right after I started hunting. His family owned the pond, ice house, mill and land surrounding the WKC. 5.) Show the Ewell family photos to experts on vintage clothing and antique autos. 6.) Ask for leads in the Newsday "It Happened on Long Island" feature. 7.) Readers- any other ideas? We need closure to the 3 burning, yet "Sensational" questions.

Babylon Town Shelter (643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon has a large selection of deserving dogs and cats, just yearning for a home of their own. "Coco" is the last of 4 stray Cocker Spaniels that recently wound up here. The others have been placed or fostered. This sweet 5 yr. gal has been groomed and vet-checked by the shelter. Meanwhile "Sweet Pea" is a darling spayed tabby in C-6 who lost her home when a new landlady reneged on her promise. See more photos on the shelter's Petfinder site.

  • Males: purebred Golden Retriever dragging a leash Cage 63; Scotty mix Cage 59; 1-eyed, shaved Peke in Puppy Room; 2 Jack Russells; a red Chow Cage 67; my best pal "Santana" Lab/ Shep Cage 43; "Niko"- a well-mannered German Shepherd.
  • Females: a skinny Shepherd Cage 57; the lovable feline sisters- "Faith & Jewel" C-9.
  • Reminder: Speaking of dog shows- Watch the "National Dog Show" with announcers John O'Hurley (Seinfeld's Mr. Peterman) and David Frei (the voice of Westminster too) on NBC right after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Four newly recognized breeds are going to make their debut in the ring.
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