You never know what’s waiting in the attic.
In 1996, Wayne Ferguson was visiting St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, New Jersey, a rescue group where he was a board member. An employee who knew of his involvement in purebred dogs gave him a tip in passing.
“Mr. Ferguson, you should go in the attic above the kennels,” the man said. “There’s an awful lot of dog show stuff up there.”
Intrigued, Ferguson went up the stairs, opened the door, and gasped. There, he saw boxes of trophies, marked catalogs, and judges’ badges. Finely etched names and gold-embossed graphics were still visible beneath decades of dust and neglect.
Ferguson knew precisely where this memorabilia came from. St. Hubert’s was founded by Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, the immensely wealthy Standard Oil heiress who was also one of the most influential breeders and exhibitors of purebred dogs in the 20th century. Her showpiece was the annual Morris & Essex Kennel Club Dog Show, held every year from 1927 to 1957, save for a break during World War II.
“Everybody goes to Morris & Essex,” wrote a New York Times reporter in 1936, and that wasn’t as much of an exaggeration as it sounds. Mrs. Dodge spared no expense in putting on her show. She did everything from hiring influential foreign judges who arrived via ocean liner, to setting up luxurious hospitality tents that overflowed with hot-house flowers. Exhibitors came from all over the country, bringing dogs whose quality invariably matched that of the venue. At Best in Show time, bystanders were often a dozen deep at ringside, standing on chairs to see which owners would earn the right to brag that their dog had bested the best at the incomparable Morris & Essex show.
“I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Ferguson says of the surprise cache of dog show history that lay forgotten in a New Jersey attic.
Bringing Morris & Essex Back
At a show the following weekend, Ferguson shared the story with fellow fanciers. Straightaway, they began imagining what it would be like to re-create the sumptuous show, which Mrs. Dodge held on the carpet-like polo fields of her Giralda Farms estate.
Soon after, Ferguson and dozens of determined dog people from around the country revived the Morris & Essex Kennel Club and began planning its first show in almost half a century.
In 2000, the Morris & Essex show came back to life, replicating many details of the original show, from the fine-china dining in the judges’ tent to the complimentary box lunch given to every exhibitor. As in Mrs. Dodge’s day, an entire tent with fabric-draped bleachers displayed the gleaming trophies. A “who’s who” of dog people turned out to stroll under the fluttering Morris & Essex pendants, re-created in the club’s original colors of orange and blue.
All this glamour comes at a cost, however. Ferguson soon realized that organizing – not to mention paying for – an annual event of this magnitude was an impossibility, even with the support of generous private donors. Therefore, it was decided that the show would occur every five years. The next “modern” Morris & Essex show is scheduled for Thursday, October 1, 2020, at Colonial Park in Somerset, New Jersey.
As always, there will be the magnificent trophy tent, the charmingly retro wooden platforms on which group winners and placers pose, the immaculately tended lawn, and stately oaks that the club pays the park to maintain. What’s more, it’s worth mentioning what there won’t be and that’s the persistent drone of generators. The club does not permit them, instead renting industrial-size units that are set far back from the show grounds, so that the only background noise for attendees will be the old-fashioned kind – birdsong.
Morris & Essex 2020
Morris & Essex has always been a magnet for breed clubs wanting a peerless backdrop for their special entries. As in previous years, dozens of specialties and supported entries are incorporated into the show. This year, more than 130 are anticipated. Always with an eye to tradition, the upcoming entry will be capped at 4,455 dogs. That number is exactly one dog less than the show’s biggest-ever entry, in 1939. After all, no one, least of all Ferguson, wants to upstage Mrs. Dodge.
And, of course, there will be the people. With four revivals already on the books, the dog show world has become increasingly aware of the show and its almost magical re-emergence just when it seems the last one has receded from memory. Many attendees, who come from across the world, celebrate the spirit of the original show by dressing in the styles of its tenure, from the 1920s to the 1950s. So popular is this time-tripping that judges and spectators are often as eye-catching as the dogs themselves. Attendees are carefully outfitted in everything from vintage blazers and antique fox stoles for the ladies to tweed suits and two-tone shoes for the gentlemen.
To top it all off, there’s the crowning touch — the hats. A veritable bobbing sea of them, from cloches and bowlers to fascinators and fedoras. Indeed, as soon as one Morris & Essex show draws to a close, its devotees begin shopping for their outfits for the next, keenly aware that making a splash amid the show’s sartorial splendor requires a sharp eye, and not a little bit of luck and effort.
On that much-anticipated day this fall, Ferguson – who started in Saint Bernards in the 1960s, just missing the original show’s final years – will be walking the show grounds as he always does, greeting friends old and new. But even when he’s not engrossed in conversation, he likely is wordlessly chatting with a woman he never met. One whose legacy has been tended as carefully as the oak trees and expanses of lawn around him.
“I have conversations very often with her,” he says of Mrs. Dodge. Their metaphysical discussions, though, are private, of course. Naturally, some go to Ferguson’s polite requests to forestall any inclement weather. The rest, however, may be devoted to how the current show measures up to her exacting standards.
“It was Mrs. Dodge’s annual event, and she was very proud of it,” Ferguson says. “And, we’re very proud to continue the tradition.”