With a nod to Dog Days of Summer, an event this coming Saturday at the Adirondack Museum (Blue Mountain Lake), here’s a look at a few North Country pooches that made headlines in the 1930s. Many true dog “tales” (technically, “tales” aren’t true, and these stories are, but I couldn’t resist) involve the saving of lives by barking during the early stages of house fires.
A dog’s swimming ability is rarely the key element to any story. But by some odd coincidence, these next two stories involve just that―man’s best friend, swimming. In further defiance of the odds, they both occurred at the same time (the weekend of July 4, 1936). Of no surprise to confirmed dog-people: both stories address perhaps the most celebrated of all canine qualities: loyalty.
In late June, William Barkley, an aluminum worker at Massena near the St. Lawrence River, visited his brother Abraham in Williamsburg (in southern Quebec), about six miles beyond the opposite shore. Abe had recently moved to town after giving up his farm, eliminating the need for his working dog.
William assumed ownership of the black-and-white collie (no name given), taking him to Massena via the ferry. The dog reportedly disappeared from his new digs during the first few days, but once he returned, it was assumed he would settle into a new routine.
Not so. Just twelve hours after the dog was last seen, he somehow showed up in Williamsburg. There were no bridges in the vicinity, and no one at the ferry, including customs officials, saw the dog. It was deduced that the dog swam across the river, perhaps landing on one or more islands on the way.
Disbelievers had to rethink their position when a report came in a few days later from Rouses Point, at the northern end of Lake Champlain, which separates New York State from Vermont. Local resident Richard Bond had gone four miles east to the village of Champlain for a Saturday night holiday celebration, taking with him Chief, a large Belgian Shepherd. Amid the noisy chaos of exploding fireworks, Chief ran off. Bond returned home worried that night, unable to find his companion.
On Sunday morning, the occupants of a rowboat in the middle of Lake Champlain were startled at the site of a large dog swimming towards the New York shore. Several times the dog tried to climb aboard, but it was feared he would capsize the boat. Rouses Point church-goers soon noticed what appeared to be a person swimming across the lake. Finally, seemingly exhausted, Chief came ashore, much to the astonishment of onlookers.
Among those participating in the Saturday night celebration was a baseball team from Vermont. It was assumed that one of them found Chief that night and took him across the lake to the neighboring state. There was, in fact, no other possible explanation.
Sunday morning, Chief’s urge to return home drove him to swim several miles across the lake. Bond, concerned about his friend’s condition, took Chief to a Plattsburgh veterinarian, where he was found to be in fine condition, if a bit tired.
Here’s one more story of loyalty, and a fine example of the strong, protective nature of canine family members. In August 1937, nineteen-year-old Sam McElwain of Fort Covington (about 20 miles east of Massena) was walking on the family farm with his dog, “Boy,” and Sam’s cousin, Walter McElwain. A young bull went after Walter, knocking him to the ground and beginning to gore him. Boy came to the rescue, attacking the bull and driving it off before much damage was done.
In February 1938, Boy’s brave deed was publicly recognized. For his life-saving effort, the weekly National Dog Hero Medal was bestowed upon him during a coast-to-coast radio broadcast.
And make no mistake about it: Boy’s actions clearly defined the qualities of a hero. Despite being badly outsized by a dangerous bull, he had selflessly stepped in to save someone. Those expecting anything else were barking up the wrong tree.