2008-03-19 / Columnists
Pets, Pets, Pets . .
Updating the search for the Westminster Kennel Club clubhouse in Babylon: A street discrepancy, an 8-letter difference, in a 1923 Babylon Leader edition creates a burning question concerning the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) fire. Even primary sources tend to conflict or contain errors. It seems the more you find out historically, the less certain you are.
Upon discovering the date, I was ecstatic, and so sure an enormous brush fire April 22, 1923 destroyed the clubhouse (online "Pets" 1/31/08). At that time, I had three old newspaper accounts-NY Times, LI Sun, Amityville Record-with the first 2 mentioning "Ewell" and his burned out neighbors by name. (James L. Ewell bought the property from WKC in 1904.) The local account was missing because of a six-month gap in the 1923 Babylon Leader microfilm. Shortly after I stumbled on bound Leaders kept in the Village vault.
The April 27, 1923 Leader has such detail, much more than can fit here. I furiously copied it by hand since the fragile text was too close to the binding to photocopy....so vivid- four families became homeless but no people were hurt. The newly wed Browns, living in the Fox bungalow only six days, lost all their belongings and were not covered by insurance. In contrast, their landlady wrote a letter of thanks for her policy's prompt payment…Joe Conway sat outside the ruins of his abode with his gun across his lap and his faithful dog at his side … Babylon Fire Dept. Argyle Hose Company "had a misfortune when their motor apparatus turned into a ditch on Livingston Ave. [street closest to the clubhouse] as the driver tried to avoid a person approaching on a bicycle. [My old fire photos show bicycles]"… Chief Arink left his son in "his handsome sedan" only to see the roof of the car catch on fire… The Chief later thanked Bishop McDonnell Council K of C for coffee, cigarettes and sandwiches served to the fireman. [This K of C was razed last fall to make way for five new homes].
The brush fire sparked near Pine Lawn engulfed Babylon. I traced other familiar fire path names including Oertel, Fox, Isaac Sprague, also Isaac Smith to the west and David Smith to the east of the clubhouse on a 1915 map. Spellings varied from paper to paper. It wasn't until I started typing that I realized my notes said "Ewell cottage on Litchfield Avenue." I must have made a mis- take. It should be "Livingston". Went back to the Village copy- nope- Leader said "Litchfield". Did I have the wrong raging fire?
Now I also have the Brooklyn Eagle version with no victims cited. A kind Brooklyn librarian mailed every Babylon microfilm fire she could find between 1921-1925, even one at St. Joseph's rectory. I've poked around April 1923 again for other fires, and spoken to historians who agree old records often have mistakes.
A shadow of a doubt clouds my certainty, but there are many reasons why "Litchfield" instead of "Livingston" could be a typo: Both streets start with "Li", are two tenths of a mile apart, so locals still confuse them. Back then there were no parallel streets between the "Li" pair. The 1915 Hyde (shown) doesn't have Ewell land extending as far west as Litchfield. A 1909 Babylon phone directory lists Ewell's address as "Kennel Club Road", probably a made up name for the nearest trail.
Village tax ledgers, including 1925 and 1933, label both his east and west boundaries as "Livingston". Ledgers from 1921-25 show Ewell owned 45 acres, less than the 64-acre purchased from WKC. The property was shrinking, not expanding west. Gwynn Leitch, Ewell's great granddaughter, doesn't recall hearing of a family cottage on Litchfield. Perhaps little attention is given to the Ewell loss in the Leader because the clubhouse was not their primary residence; their farmhouse closer to Livingston was spared damage. The Ewells were not left homeless like other unfortunate folks. In fact, the clubhouse may have been uninhabited in 1923, after the failed lease as MacLevy's health resort.
The next owner of the other Ewell home- a 1700s farmhouse, the original WKC clubhouse- said that soon after a devastating fire when "all sparks flew around", this farmhouse was moved a second time (WKC moved it first in 1884 to make room for the now vanished clubhouse) just to the other side of Livingston onto an empty, slightly crooked foundation where it remains today. A small fire wouldn't justify flipping the farmhouse.
Last I finally found the source of the Althea Baldwin scrapbook photo showing the WKC clubhouse "consumed by flames some 14 years ago." It is part of a Babylon 25 years ago retrospective in the July 12, 1935 Leader written by James Cooper, former editor. That makes a April 22, 1923 fire 12 years and 3 months ago, close enough to "some 14 years". In addition, Carolyn James, Beacon editor, helped me reach 91-year-old James Cooper and his daughter, now living in Georgia.
Mr. Cooper, who would have been six or seven at the time of the fire, doesn't recall the clubhouse, yet remembers playing by Southards Pond and drinking from the clear stream. It was his late father, the previous Leader editor, who wrote the 1935 piece with the photo of Babylon Westminster. Ironically, a separate picture of a Cooper homestead adjoins the WKC clubhouse photo in this same article.
Despite doubt about the fire date, I still have high hopes that the strange Southards sandpit is the site of both the clubhouse and the grave of Sensation, WKC symbolic Pointer ("Pets" 3/6/08) and even higher hopes that recent contacts will bring technological experts to the area to hunt for a buried foundation.
For adoption: This week "Vincenza Van Gogh" the poster cat at Babylon Town Shelter (643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon demonstrates how forgiving an animal can be even after human cruelty. This sweet, lovable kitten in C-1, about 8 months old, was abandoned in the shelter parking lot after someone cut off both her ears. This was no accident. "Klondike" a Golden Retriever/ Shepherd mix in Cage 3 was surviving in a park. He's learning to trust again. At first he was a bit frightened, but soon adored a staff member who befriended him. Now he's approaching everyone, and would like to welcome spring and Easter in a loving home.
Males: a blind but friendly American Eskimo mix Cage 10; "Pharaoh" brindle Hound Cage 14; "Mountain" Shepherd/ Bernese Cage 24; a Jack Russell.
Females: "Lola"- smart Rottie/Shep Cage 30; "Lilly"- Dalmatian/Pit Cage 27.