2017-07-05 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Eleven years ago one paragraph on page 19 in William F. Stifel’s book- THE DOG SHOW, 125 Years of Westminster- set me on a thrilling quest, and enriched the heritage of Babylon Village. The pivotal paragraph reads as follows:

“Sensation was buried at the foot of the flagstaff in front of the Westminster clubhouse in Babylon, Long Island, along with (as someone wrote on the back of the photograph) “many other Pointers that cost a mint of money and were the greatest of their day.” On top of the flagstaff was a weather vane with the figure of a Pointer –pointing always into the wind.”

Mr. William F. Stifel, member and historian of Westminster Kennel Club, died on May 24th, 13 days shy of his 95th birthday. This remarkable man is the reason I’ve documented discoveries in this column about the Westminster Kennel Club clubhouse (1880-1904) and clues to the 1887 gravesite of Sensation, the Pointer that remains the symbol of Westminster’s famous dog show.


Posing with Mr. Bill Stifel at a Westminster Best in Show Brunch. Posing with Mr. Bill Stifel at a Westminster Best in Show Brunch. The exact whereabouts were unknown because the original clubhouse built in the 1700s still stands on Livingston Avenue but the second clubhouse with the important flagpole vanished. No one in Babylon seemed to know Westminster had been here. Mr. Stifel and I realized the original clubhouse had been moved twice, but it took years to find the fate of the new clubhouse. It burned down in 1918 while being leased as a controversial health club.

Mr. Stifel became my mentor. A resident of Irvington, NY, he encouraged my search for Sensation from afar. We corresponded by email until 2015. He was so well-organized, and must have had a photographic memory. He kept copious notes about his sources and conversations he had with significant people verifying and expanding details in his book. He’d share this background with me, and we’d piece the Babylon Westminster puzzle together by combining our information.


Mr. Stifel’s drawing of where artists and photographers stood in relation to Westminster Babylon clubhouse. Mr. Stifel’s drawing of where artists and photographers stood in relation to Westminster Babylon clubhouse. Since 2006, close to 60 “Pets” columns have recounted various aspects of Westminster’s presence in Babylon, including the role of the Long Island Railroad. A special, express LIRR train brought guests from NYC to Babylon for pigeon shoots and lunch (not pigeon potpie) at the clubhouse, and had them back in Manhattan by 5 pm. The Westminster superintendent would pick up guests by horse and wagon at the station and drive them to the clubhouse somewhere in the woods. Directions there are not as explicit as the pigeon shoot scores recorded in the NY Times. In 1895 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported King of Kent and Sir Walter, two champion Pointers, rode home to Babylon on the LIRR along with reporters invited here to celebrate another successful dog show. Only the dogs’ victory ride was “new “news to Mr. Stifel.

A Harvard graduate, Mr. Stifel was a brilliant thinker, yet so kind and humble. Friends who’d worked for Mr. Stifel would refer to him as “our Renaissance man”. He could analyze findings from every angle. He was an artist too which may be why he could visualize this place he never visited as if he had walked every inch of Westminster’s 64 acre property on the west side of Southards Pond now and a century ago. In fact, when we were trying to orient which way the clubhouse faced and how close it was to Southards Pond, Mr. Stifel sketched a diagram showing precisely where he believed every illustrator or photographer must have stood when they drew or took a photo of the clubhouse.

An important “twist” in our research occurred because Mr. Stifel delved into every lead. For years we thought the clubhouse faced east toward Southards Pond. In 2009 Mr. Stifel had a brainstorm about the Pointer weather vane in the photo of the flagpole with the inscription about Sensation’s grave marker on the back. He was 86 at the time. He took the train to the Westminster office on Madison Avenue to get the original photo, so he could take it home to the Color Lab that had printed the photos for Mrs. Stifel’s book about the stained glass windows in their church.

The Color Lab was able to enhance and blow up the photo so the direction of the weather vane became crystal clear. He sent me copies. Mr. Stifel realized that the N of the weather vane pointed to the (unseen) front door of the clubhouse which means that the clubhouse faced almost due south. We turned the clubhouse 90 degrees and now things fell into place. The gunners were aiming over the pond, and the shapes on artist and aerial maps matched the clubhouse.

Mr. Stifel’s obituary published in the NY Times on May 31st illustrates the range of his accomplishments. Here’s an excerpt:

“Bill began his career with the American Kennel Club in 1957, ultimately serving as the President from 1978 until his retirement in 1987. A member of the Westminster Kennel Club, he wrote THE DOG SHOW, 125 Years of Westminster, published in 2001. He was a moving force in founding the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog located in St. Louis, Missouri. A well respected leader in the dog world, Bill Stifel was a member of the Westchester Kennel Club and an Honorary Member of The Kennel Club in England. Born in Toledo, Ohio June 6, 1922 to Dr. John L. and Helen S. Stifel, he finished Western Reserve Academy in 1940 and was Harvard, Class of 1944. He served three and a half years in World War II in the U.S. Coast Guard on the Atlantic coast submarine patrol aboard the S.S. Pandora. After the war he studied and wrote in Paris and was an avid student of James Joyce and Ulysses. An accomplished artist, he drew his own Christmas card for more than 50 years and left a treasury of pen and ink drawings. He was a devotee of both the written and printed word and enjoyed listening to jazz and Bach.”

As a newly retired teacher and dog writer at the beginning of the search, I felt discovering Sensation was buried in Babylon was like finding out King Tut was in my back yard. The opportunity to uncover more became my responsibility. I will always treasure Mr. Bill Stifel ‘s encouragement, guidance and friendship throughout the process. His mentorship was a precious gift from the dog gods.

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