Unbelievable as it seems, there are still some dog people who are not aware of the upcoming Morris & Essex Kennel Club show. This is probably the most eagerly awaited event in any dog show connoisseur’s calendar, and it won’t be held again for another five years. So if you are at all interested in dog shows at their finest, make sure you won’t miss it.
Much has already been written about the club, the show and its history, but for those who tell me they have no idea what Morris & Essex is about, here’s some background. Morris & Essex Kennel Club hosted what was in its day America’s, even for some time the world’s, largest dog show. At its peak in the late 1930s, it attracted more entries than any of today’s AKC shows. Morris & Essex was also by general consensus one of the best dog shows anywhere, with a single-minded focus on providing the best experience possible for exhibitors — through the expertise of its judges, its hospitality (a complimentary box lunch for all exhibitors!) and trophies, and in the general ambience of the day. The show soon became known as “The Exhibitors’ Show” and a social event of unequaled elegance. This unusual convergence of qualities made Morris & Essex a show that visitors traveled far to visit, even in the days when long-distance journeys involved cross-continental trains and ocean liners from Europe.
Amazingly, Morris & Essex was the creation of one single, and very singular, person. It took a horde of helpers — at its peak as many as 800 workers — to make the show a reality, of course, but without the vision of its founder, Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, there would have been no show at all. Mrs. Dodge paid unyielding attention to detail, and as a member of America’s wealthiest family, she also had the means to make her wishes a reality in a manner that would not have been possible for anyone else.
Ethel Geraldine Rockefeller was the daughter of William Rockefeller and the niece of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., co-founder of Standard Oil and the world’s wealthiest man in the late 1800s. In 1907, when Geraldine married Marcellus Hartley Dodge, Chairman of the Board of Remington Arms, their combined fortune was estimated at more than $160 million, making them the wealthiest couple in America. (Today that would equal several billion dollars.)
Mrs. Dodge’s father had bred “English sheepdogs” and Beagles, was an executive member of the American Kennel Club and gave his daughter her first dog — a Fox Terrier — by the time she was 6 years old. She grew up loving dogs and horses, and as an adult she established her own kennel at her and her husband’s country estate in Madison, N.J. At its peak, the palatial Giralda kennels housed as many as 150 dogs of different breeds. Mrs. Dodge was most famous for her German Shepherd Dogs and imported many of the top winners of the day from Germany and Austria. Later she was seriously involved in English Cocker Spaniels. Indeed, Mrs. Dodge is given much of the credit for effectuating the separation that made English and American Cockers two different breeds.
Twice Best at Westminster
Mrs. Dodge won Best in Show twice at Westminster — the only other American show that could rival her own for prestige. In 1932 her Pointer Ch. Nancolleth Markable won; he was imported from England and had been Reserve BIS at Crufts. Seven years later Mrs. Dodge won again, now with the ill-fated Doberman Ch. Ferry von Rauhfelsen Of Giralda, who had been imported from Germany and soon became known for his intractable temperament. (‘Ferry’ was eventually sold to California and died in his kennel four years later during an attack on his handler.) Giralda dogs achieved approximately 200 Best in Show wins, a huge feat at a time when there were only about a hundred AKC all-breed shows per year. Most of these were with German Shepherds and Pointers, but other breeds were represented as well: Beagles, Bloodhounds, Foxhounds and Greyhounds.
Mrs. Dodge’s contributions as an exhibitor and judge are not what make her so well remembered today, however. (She judged Best in Show at Westminster in 1933, only the fifth judge — and the first woman — to do so single-handedly. Up to the end of the 1920s, the BIS decision was made jointly by a team of judges.) In the 1920s she started hosting invitational events at her estate. A newspaper report of a 1924 gathering of top German Shepherd Dogs indicates that this was more like a breed seminar than a dog show, with 400 prominent dog fanciers invited to lunch under a huge tent, then listening to renowned specialists address the finer points of the breed, illustrated in the flesh by 11 top dogs, all except one of them imported from Europe.
The success of the special events encouraged Mrs. Dodge to extend an open invitation to more breed fanciers and to organize regular judging as well. The first “real” M&E KC show, held in 1927, attracted “only” 595 entries, but that figure more than doubled in two years, and by 1933 the total exceeded 2,500 entries. Yet the early shows had classes only for those breeds that Mrs. Dodge felt would appreciate specialist judges and might provide good entries. One of Mrs. Dodge’s strongest beliefs was that a dog show stood or fell with the quality of its judges, and she spared no expense in hiring the best, regardless of where in the world they lived. That included almost all the great American all-rounders of the day, of course. Alva Rosenberg, still known as “the dean of American judges,” officiated regularly at Morris & Essex.
At its peak, Morris & Essex also invited more foreign judges than any other American show. They often attracted huge entries. The “father of the German Shepherd Dog,” Max von Stephanitz, came from Germany and needed two days to judge 271 entries in his breed. His countryman, Gustav Alisch, had more than 300 Dachshunds to go over. The Great British all-rounder and Terrier specialist Winnie Barber came, as well as Lady Kitty Ritson and H. S. Lloyd of the legendary “Ware” English Cockers. Mme. Jeanne Harper Trois-Fontaines also traveled from England (in spite of her name) to judge her beloved Great Pyrenees. Johnny Aarflot was invited from the breed’s native country to judge Norwegian Elkhounds at Morris & Essex years before he returned to judge the national specialty. One of the last M&E KC shows in the mid-1950s employed a young Australian judge, David Roche, who went on to great international fame over the next few decades. Many others helped to add interest to the judging and also spread the show’s reputation worldwide. The British dog press even advertised tour groups to Morris & Essex by ocean liner in those pre-airplane days!
A Peak With 4,456 Entries
In 1939 Morris & Essex reached a peak with 4,456 entries. That’s more than any AKC show reaches these days: Santa Barbara had about as many for a few years in the 1980s, and of course the AKC Centennial show in 1984 remains by far the biggest dog show ever held in the US, with 8,075 dogs entered.
Here’s what Harry G. Marxmiller wrote about the 1936 show in Kennel Review:
“The show this year was the largest dog show ever held in America and the second largest in the world. In one sense, however, the Morris & Essex entry is a world record because never has there been a one-day show nor one held in the open air which even closely approached the figure set by Morris & Essex. At the show there were 3,751 entries of 83 different varieties of breeds of dogs … all showing at the same time in 50 rings with 50 judges, etc. On the polo grounds where the show was held, more than 45,000 people gathered, and parked on the grounds were 16,000 automobiles. This gives one some idea of the magnitude of this show. The weather was ideal, almost a California atmosphere, and this being a social event as well, the colorful costumes of the ladies lent a panoramic view almost kaleidoscopic; one was awed and thrilled at the same time.”
During the war years (1942-1945), the Morris & Essex show was not held. The first post-war show in 1946 attracted just over 2,000 entries, which was actually even more impressive than the huge pre-war totals: In those days Morris & Essex offered classes for as many as 90 breeds. The 1946 show accepted breed entries from only 30 breeds, which means the average breed entry was more than 60 dogs! As it was stated that year, “The show is never an all-breed show.”
Morris & Essex remained a popular fixture for another decade with more than 2,500 entries for its last show in 1957. According to some, the reason that the show was discontinued was that Mrs. Dodge did not get the show date she wanted from AKC; according to others she was simply tired after 30 years of working ceaselessly to put on the best show possible. Whatever the reason, she focused her energies for the remaining years of her life — she died in 1973 — on animal welfare.
The era of the “old” Morris & Essex Kennel Club was over by 1958, but the show was not forgotten. Some who had been in attendance treasured the memories, and some who had only heard of the show were hoping for a renaissance.
That Morris & Essex Kennel Club was reborn in the 1990s is entirely thanks to Wayne Ferguson, businessman and philanthropist, earlier known for his Cherrybrook Pet Supplies business. While serving as a Board member of St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center (started in 1939 by Mrs. Dodge), he discovered an attic full of boxes with materials from the old club. He decided to share his findings with others, enthusiasm grew, and a “new” Morris & Essex Kennel Club was founded. Since the first one in 2000, a revived M&E show has been held every fifth year. The inaugural event attracted 2,992 dogs and 3,218 entries of all breeds in spite of being held on a Thursday, but perhaps helped somewhat by the fact that this was also the first day of the great Montgomery County Terrier weekend. At least a third of the total entry at the “modern” Morris & Essex comes from the Terrier Group. The 2005 show had 3,194 dogs and 3,622 entries; in 2010 there were 3,090 dogs and 3,415 entries.
The Spirit of the “Old” Show
To say that the revived Morris & Essex shows have been a success is not putting it strongly enough. The spirit of the “old” show has been preserved to an amazing degree, including but not limited to the complimentary box lunch for all exhibitors. Today more than ever the American dog fancy is starving for all-breed dog shows that live up to the original idea behind the showing of dogs: to present the best you have for the scrutiny of your peers and a judge whose opinion you can respect, whether you win or lose. The fact that M&E KC was elected “Show of the Year” at the Dogs in Review Winkie awards in 2011 and that Wayne Ferguson was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the same awards ceremony a few years later speaks volumes about how greatly the dog fancy appreciates this unique event.
The 2015 show, to be held on Thursday, October 1 at Colonial Park in Somerset, N.J., will have 120 breed clubs hosting supported entries or specialties. An entry of more than 4,000 is confidently expected. As M&E KC president Wayne Ferguson has said, the weather had better be nice, because Mrs. Dodge will be watching from above…
Some of the above has been unearthed during my own research in old publications, but much comes from a stunning new book, published in time for this year’s show, titled The Golden Age of Dog Shows: Morris & Essex Kennel Club, 1927-1957 by Debra Lampert-Rudman, who is publicity chair and board member of the Morris & Essex Kennel Club.
Read more about shows, dogs and handlers from yesteryear
The History of Mrs. Dodge’s Morris & Essex Kennel Club Dog Show
Quotes from past Kennel Review and Dogs in Review magazines illuminate the rich history of the Morris & Essex Kennel Club dog show. Read More>>