This story originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.
Look around Old Hemlock, the historic Preston County home of writer and illustrator George Bird Evans and his wife Kay, and it doesn’t take long to get a sense of the lives that once filled these walls. There’s a folksy quilt on the bed, cozy wooden furnishings, a grand piano of the rectangular variety rarely seen anymore, and a big black manual Remington typewriter on a desk. There’s a well-worn long gun above the mantle and a deer skull on another wall. The bookshelves are sotcked with nature guides and books on dog breeding, as well as a sandstone carving of a long-snouted, floppy eared dog’s head.
Now, look closer. Notice how the woodwork and some of the furniture has been gnawed on. See the grooves carved in the hardwood floors, dug by thousands of cuts from excited clawed feet, the same paws that left scratches on the backs of doors. “He called it the patina of time,” says LeJay Graffious, administrator of the Old Hemlock Foundation. Graffious is the caretaker of the house now, and has staged it like George or Kay—or one of their dogs—might walk in any second. “You can’t really separate Old Hemlock from the setters.”
Known for their intelligence, unique appearance, and innate skill in the field, Old Hemlock setters have become one of the most storied bird dog breeds in the country. And it all stems from Evans’ desire to design.
Evans was a designer, by trade and by nature. When he decided to be a magazine illustrator, he spent years crafting a portfolio that would appeal to Cosmopolitan magazine and landed a job the day he dropped it off. When he saw magazines transitioning from illustrations to photography, he designed a life for himself and Kay at Old Hemlock, where he drew on a lifetime of hunting experience and fashioned a new career as an outdoors writer.
When he couldn’t find a bird dog that suited his tastes, he decided to design one of those, too.
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There is a sepia-tone photo of George Bird Evans at 13 months old, seated on a small stool and dressed in a pale gown and severe black boots. Beside him lies Ted, his father’s black and white setter. Both boy and bird dog look off to the right of the camera’s lens, as if tracking the flight of a grouse just flushed from its nest.
As Evans writes in his 1971 book The Upland Hunting Life, some of his earliest memories are of his father and Ted leaving for a day of hunting. “It is things like this that mark us as shooting men years before we are men,” he wrote. Evans got his first shotgun just before his 13th birthday and learned to shoot quail with a setter named Nat. It was Nat’s son, Speck, that found the first grouse Evans shot, after hours of searching. “After he was gone, I carried his collar in my shooting coat until the scent of him had disappeared.”
Evans gave up dogs when he moved to New York City to work in magazines. But he wanted to get back to bird hunting when he and Kay moved to West Virginia in 1939 and began searching for a setter. He grew frustrated at his options, however. Breeders at the time seemed to care either about hunting or winning dog shows—so the good-looking dogs had lost their hunting abilities and the good hunters weren’t very pretty. Evans wanted both qualities in the same dog. “Form and function,” as Graffious puts it.
He purchased a stud dog from breeder George Ryman of Shohola, Pennsylvania, who had his own renowned line of setters. Evans named the dog “Blue” for his blue belton coloring. Several years later he brought Dawn, an orange belton, to Old Hemlock as Blue’s mate. The pair produced the first litter of Old Hemlock setters in 1947. When the dogs were just five weeks old, Evans selected an orange pup for his own and named him Ruff. This dog would become the template for the entire Old Hemlock line.
Ruff was a natural bird dog, helping Evans bag 547 grouse over his lifetime, and he never got sick. Evans also liked the shape of Ruff ’s head. He believed the formation of a dog’s skull affected its brain, and a long headbone meant a dog would be intelligent and sensitive with a good nose. This was certainly true of Ruff.
Ruff sired three litters of puppies, the third of which produced Dixie, “an exceptionally comfortable dog to shoot over, with intelligence to a degree that borders on neurotic,” Evans wrote. And Dixie later gave birth to Bliss. “I didn’t know it then, but it was Ruff coming back to me,” Evans wrote. “Although blue instead of orange, she had his type, his nose, his style on point and his magic way with grouse.” Bliss spent five hunting seasons with Evans, taking 250 birds. She likely would have had many more successful seasons but died during spay surgery the summer after she turned five years old.
Bliss’s abrupt death left Evans reeling, for more reasons than one. Not only did he lose a faithful companion and favorite dog, but his carefully curated Old Hemlock bloodline was about to come to an end. Luckily, a friend had bred one of Bliss’s siblings, Mark, to a Ryman setter. The friend gave Evans an orange puppy from that litter, which Evans named Briar. And, as fate and genetics would have it, Briar was as much a hunter as his great-grandfather, Ruff.
Evans made good use of this second chance. Briar sired a dozen litters during his lifetime, ensuring the Old Hemlock line would never again be in jeopardy.
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Today there are 82 Old Hemlock setters scattered across the United States, from Maine down to South Carolina and as far west as Wisconsin and Minnesota. The breed’s renown grew alongside Evans’ reputation as an outdoors writer. His finely crafted prose brought Blue, Dixie, Ruff, Briar, and the rest of the Old Hemlock brood to life on the page and left readers wanting some of that magic for themselves.
That’s how Ray Brown first learned about Old Hemlock setters. He read Evans’ debut book, 1971’s The Upland Shooting Life, shortly after it was released and wrote a letter to inquire about getting one of the dogs. Evans agreed to put Brown on the waiting list, but only after he thoroughly vetted him over several more letters and phone calls. Two years later, in 1973, Kay called Brown with the news: George had a puppy for him.
Brown and Evans kept up their correspondence and became friends. The men found they had similar philosophies about hunting dogs. They appreciated animals that constantly quest for game with fire and drive but also check back in with their masters. Both men also believed in treating dogs like members of the family. This might be taken for granted today, but it was a remarkable idea in Evans’ time. Other men of his generation might trade dogs like pocket knives, but when a dog entered Evans’ life, it was there for life. Kay joked Old Hemlock was “the most elegant kennel south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”
Evans’ philosophy of dog-as-companion extended to breeding, too. He didn’t want a kennel of brooding bitches just waiting for a sire—he wanted both father and mother to be someone’s proven hunting partner. This created some logistical challenges, since Evans had to rely on each dog’s owner to facilitate breeding matches. He also wanted owners to agree they would not breed their dogs without his permission. “At first it was a gentlemen’s agreement, and a lot of people broke the gentlemen’s agreement,” Graffious says.
So Evans made things official. When owners got one of his Old Hemlock setters, he made sure to have both the owner’s name and his name on the papers. That way, no one could breed an official Old Hemlock setter without his permission.
When Evans died in May 1998, Brown took over the Old Hemlock line. Now, each dog’s certificate bears both the owner’s name and Brown’s. It’s all about quality control. “Not all dogs should be bred. We’re trying to use the best of the best to produce the kind of dog we’re looking for,” Brown says.
It is also now Brown’s job to vet potential owners—to ensure they share his and Evans’ beliefs about dogs and how they should be treated. It’s important to match dogs with the right people, because owners are automatically entered into an exclusive club. “You get an Old Hemlock setter, it’s more like an adoption and you become more like a family member,” Graffious says.
Until the end of his life, Evans stayed in close contact with all the owners, who often sent him photos of the dogs in the field and at home. He kept these mementos in a big wooden bowl in his studio, like a proud grandfather.
The family bond did not break when Evans died. Owners keep in touch through a newsletter. Each issue includes information about breeding activities, allows owners to ask questions or offer advice, and shares stories about training and hunting with Old Hemlock setters. And, each March, the setters and their owners get together for a family reunion of sorts.
The tradition began the spring after Evans died and now draws anywhere from 30 to 50 people, plus dogs, each year. Each year’s gathering begins with a big dinner on Wednesday night at Old Hemlock, followed by three days of hunting at a preserve in Pennsylvania.
There’s no need to wonder how George Bird Evans might feel about all this. He told us. “Humans seek immortality in bloodlines, even bird dog bloodlines,” he wrote in Troubles With Bird Dogs. “It is pleasant to hope that when Kay and I are no longer gunning, Old Hemlock setters will keep our ideals alive.”