2010-04-28 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Step back and view the “big picture” of Babylon history. During the late 19th century, Babylon was a recreational paradise, a playground for the wealthy referred to as the “Newport of Long Island.” Purebred dogs and baseball played integral roles in this local snapshot of Americana.

On the west side of adjoining Babylon lakes, two majestic buildings straddled the railroad tracks. The Argyle Hotel, home to the Cuban Giants, the first black professional baseball team, stood less than a mile south of the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) clubhouse, host of what is still the most prestigious dog show in America. Both spots spawned sporting sensations, linking our tiny village to the world. Many historical parallels exist between the Argyle and WKC, starting with this list below:

Same years: The Argyle Hotel, too big to appear so late into the resort boom, was often only half full. It opened in 1882 to huge fanfare, closed its doors in 1897 and was razed in 1904; while Westminster Kennel Club occupied a clubhouse alongside Southards Pond in 1880 but left in 1904 after NYS banned pigeon shoots. Their Victorian clubhouse/shooting house stood until 1918 when it burned to the ground during the time the new owner rented it out as a health farm.

1888 Wendelken map showing Argyle Hotel, Westminster Kennel Club and Belmont’s Nursery Farm. 1888 Wendelken map showing Argyle Hotel, Westminster Kennel Club and Belmont’s Nursery Farm. The LIRR Common Denominator: Both places are listed in 1890s LIRR guide books. Financier Austin Corbin owned the LI Railroad before coming up with a plan to build his palatial Argyle Hotel, casino, and cottage combo, trying to attract rich guests who would ride his trains here. Corbin scheduled a Sunday morning newspaper run for invited gentlemen. At the same time, C. DuBois Wagstaff, of Tahlulah Kennel in West Islip, also a charter member of the WKC, chose 64 pristine acres by Southards as their sportsmen’s retreat, purchasing land to the north for himself (which I feel buffered WKC’s kennels that housed up to 200 dogs). Proximity to the station was essential because WKC members would be commuting to the pigeon shoots/luncheons. A special train left Long Island City by 10 am and assured guests they would be back in NYC by 5:30 pm. The Brooklyn Eagle mentions that in 1895 two WKC Pointers triumphantly traveled by LIRR home to Babylon after the dog show at the Garden.

Adding the Aura of Aristocracy: Our young nation may have won independence from the British King, but Anglophile Americans still emulated royalty. When Corbin bought the Litchfield estate, the lake was called “Blythebourne”. After he convinced the son of the Duke of Argyle to invest in his project, Corbin christened the hotel, and thus, the lake, after Duke Jr. to give it more status. Meanwhile, the name “Westminster” has two origins. In the 1870s sporting men who eventually formed the club regularly met at their favorite hotel- the Westminster in Manhattan. WKC owned a Pointer named “Whisky” imported from the Duke of Westminster’s kennels. Whisky had a litter by “Sensation” (the famous WKC logo Pointer). These parents and pups were on exhibit at the first WKC dog show at Madison Square Garden in 1877. Both Sensation and Whisky are buried in Babylon- Sensation under the flagpole; Whisky beneath the rock to the right. (WKC historian Mr. Stifel gave me copies of the only existing photo with an inscription identifying this important Pointer grave when we were trying to determine orientation of the clubhouse.)

Moneyed Class Overlaps: WKC visitors didn’t need to book rooms at the Argyle because their clubhouse had a dozen bedrooms and a dining room that could seat 50, but obviously, prominent locals traveled in the same social circles. TheBelmont family factors into both arenas. Their North Babylon estate once touched the WKC boundary. Besides raising race horses at his Nursery Farm, August Jr. entered his Setters (including “Robin” with a tombstone at Belmont Lake) and Fox Terriers in WKC shows. In 1888 he became president of the American Kennel Club which had been formed by WKC. His brother Perry, a WKC member, was a Congressman. In 1883 the NY Times reported a controversy over a cancelled dinner in Perry Belmont’s honor at the Argyle Hotel. Political infighting meant to embarrass the congressman made others complain that the $12 dinner price was too high.

Simultaneous Spectators: In 1884 the Argyle headwaiter organized some of his workers into the first black baseball team. Whether they were recruited because of talent or merely meant to entertain guests, through 1885 the Cuban Giants played on the Argyle grounds. During the recent marker ceremony, we looked at a 1902 map to try to determine where the field was- possibly by the casino or to the side of the circular driveway. Passersby must have seen the games, but I have yet to find scores recorded in newspapers. In contrast, townsfolk stood on Southards Lane to watch the WKC pigeon shoots and to take pot shots at stray birds. Though it seems ludicrous and inhumane now, LI papers, the NY Times and Brooklyn Eagle are filled with exact Babylon bird kill tallies.

Score Three for History: More important, Babylon Town is the “triple play” birthplace of sporting milestones known around the globe. Decades before Jackie Robinson, the Cuban Giants forged ahead despite major obstacles to break the baseball color barrier. (Let’s not forget Belmont gave us the Belmont Stakes and such legendary horses as Man O’War.)

Westminster Kennel Club is America’s dog show and symbolic of all man’s best friends. Begun in 1877, Westminster is the second oldest continuous sporting event in the U.S., just one year behind the Kentucky Derby. Westminster’s roots plus Sensation’s grave are right in our backyard.

Sensational Site: It is time we urge local officials to plant a proper marker at Southards Pond. With 77.5 million owned dogs in the US [2009-10 National Pet Owners Survey], Long Island must be overflowing with dog lovers, yet I seem to be the only one barking about our canine heritage. Once the Southards site is marked, I have ideas about how to utilize our wonderful “Westminster Woods” to aid Babylon Shelter dogs. If you’d like to help to get a Westminster marker project rolling, please contact me at “Pets” via acjnews@rcn.com. Put “Yes, Westminster” in the subject line.

Paw Note: Documentation exists stating that packs of Westminster dogs tagged along when James Mortimer, their kennel superintendent shopped in the Village. Chances are, the human, canine and equine entourage stopped to take a drink at the Village Fountain, soon to be replicated. With such a pedigree, the provenance of the original fountain just increased many fold.

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter 631-643-9270 Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Jinni” in Cage 48 may not have a fancy pedigree but she is a sweetie through and through. This mature mix always carries her bowl around in the cage. She ignores it outside so the bowl must be her security blanket. “Tiny” the tuxedo and “Mushy” the semilonghair tabby are affectionate cats in the lobby.

Male: “Marconi” Hound mix Cage 18; “Teddy” the Terrific Cage 6; “Stoli” declawed jumbo cat; “Wesley”- Cocker/ Cavalier; “Montana” Golden mix Cage 4.

Female: Min Pin; “Patrice” Bull Terrier mix Cage 36; “Star & Heather” patient Pits Cage 29 & 33.

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