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2008-01-30 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets . . .

by Joanne Anderson

Progress in the Search for Sensation: Sunday April 22nd, 1923…Do you happen to recall what you were doing that day? Sure wish someone did. This date is precisely when the Babylon buildings that were once the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) clubhouse and kenn els burned to the ground, the result of huge brush fires that winds swept south from Pine Lawn nearly 85 years ago.

Quite probably the Babylon WKC kennels on fire in 1923.
With the 132nd Westminster Kennel Club Show less than 2 weeks away, the discovery couldn't come at a better time. The 1923 date is a revealing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of determining the location of WKC's sportsman club and the grave of Sensation, their Pointer symbol. I've been searching for when and where the clubhouse burned since before last Feb.'s dog show.

Missing microfilm turns out to be part of the problem. Although I spent many a day scanning local papers from 1918-1940 for the actual fire and/or a mysterious scrapbook photo that alludes to the blaze being "some 14 years ago"...Nothing, zilch. In the NY Times/Brooklyn Eagle archives I found a 1902 brush fire that skirted the Belmont and WKC grounds, but that was too early, too small. Finally after Googling odd word combos I hit the journalistic jackpot.

Shown upper right, behind this Vintage car is probably the WKC farmhouse, prefire.
NY Times 4/23/1923 "Brush Fires Destroy LI Homes" is an erratic piece that jumps from Staten Island to Babylon to NJ, meshing one fire with another, but it does list the West Babylon homeowners affected, including a "man named Ewell". Eureka- James L. Ewell purchased the 64 acres from WKC in 1904. I had already studied the 1923 microfilm without noticing a gap that now irks me more than Watergate. Unfortunately, Jan. to July 1923 is missing from the Babylon Leader tape at Babylon Library; so far it doesn't look like there is intact Leader film anywhere else, leaving no known record from the hometown paper.

Amityville's Lauder Historical Museum turns out to be a treasure trove- (As the Good Witch Glinda told Dorothy-"Sometimes you have to leave home to find home".) Two more papers there confirm the firethe LI Sun 4/27/1923 is vivid but misspells "Ewell"- and also that day the Amityville Record, yes, the same paper some of you are reading now, praises Amityville fire department's help with their chemical engine.

Post Pet of the Week Brussels Sprout
The Sun theorizes that a live coal thrown from a passing locomotive ignited the dry scrub oaks, while winds enraged the flames for 2 days, engulfing an area 8 miles to the south. "The Babylon firemen turned out in force to help the W. Babylon fire department. Word was sent to Amityville and Lindenhurst…and the departments of both villages hurried to the conflagration. By that time, however, the homes of George Oerdell, Mr. Elwell [sic], Mrs. Fox and J. Elmendinger with their out buildings [including the former WKC kennels, I presume] had been completely destroyed and the flames were sweeping on unchecked, jumping roads and even small streams."

The article goes on to say that the garages (and autos) of Isaac Sprague and Mr. Humminger were razed while the N. Babylon stock farm of David Smith was saved by the firemen and dying winds. The Times credits the Bay Shore firemen for responding too. The damage was estimated at $70,000. On a 1915 map the Sprague and Smith properties span the WKC clubhouse to the NW and NE, but I would love to see where the other burned homes were. I've yet to hear if there is any notation in Babylon fire department's log. I need to contact W. Babylon too.

Re-visiting the Ewell family photos, now I do believe that 3 unmarked fire photos are the old kennels ablaze, including the one in the 11/15/07 "Pets" (online archives) with ladies and, ironically, a Pointer as witnesses. Today's picture shows men trying desperately to extinguish the flames. The Record says that there was "no water to be had except for hand pumps at the houses and the supply served only to replenish the chemical tanks." Homes would have equipment priority over empty kennels. A few months ago, I took the photos to a vintage clothes store where the owner agreed that these could be from the '20s because country folks, unlike "city slickers", would have held onto old coats and hats longer. Consider this-do you grab your Sunday best to fight or watch a fire?

A 1923 major fire helps answer other Babylon WKC questions when and why the WKC superintendent's farmhouse was moved a second time to the other side of Livingston. In 1884 WKC moved this 1700s farmhouse first to the NE corner of Livingston to make room for the fancier clubhouse, so this undated picture of Ewell's son shows the farmhouse in the upper right-hand corner, likely before the fire. When I was trying to figure the year, Tom Smith, Babylon Town historian consulted an antique auto expert who says the vehicle is a 1914 Cole Roadster. Cars like fashion can hint at the earliest possible year, but not the latest. Therefore, the farmhouse was moved across the street shortly after 1923 to its present location, probably since the property damage was so massive. We know a slightly crooked foundation left over from another fire stood waiting.

But where, oh, where was the farmhouse originally? That's where the phantom clubhouse is supposed to be. Just uncovered an 1873 map, pre-WKC, which might point us to the famous Pointer. Perhaps a story for another day. Coming next week, a tangential discovery: Belmont's role in the dog fancy and a wonderful find on his N. Babylon estate.

Back at Babylon Town Shelter (643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon "The Brussels Sprout" an 8 mon. Belgian Malinois/Shep mix puppy waits for someone to take him home. This handsome fellow in Cage 9 is lovable but needs to learn the basics. There are also lots of deserving Pit mixes like patient "Bukus', a Pit with Shepherd coloring in Cage 11. See more on Babylon's Petfinder.

Cats: "Grey"- solid silver abandoned with her kitten, now in the lobby cage; a plump muted calico-C-9, declawed, spayed, FeLV/FIV tested, loving-need I say more?

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