Zack Harold

freelance journalist

Dogs, by Design

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

To the Dogs

This story was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus.

When Sam Burdette first visited the Tri- State Greyhound Park in Cross Lanes in the mid-1980s, he didn’t even know how to read the program. The sheets of paper were filled with an overwhelming array of fractions and decimals, arranged in almost indecipherable rows and columns. A buddy had to help him navigate—the strange figures were statistics for each dog in a race, detailing the animal’s weight, past race times, total number of races, and odds of winning, along with the names of the dog’s owner, kennel, and trainer.

Burdette caught on quick. He won $600 on a $60 bet that first night and started mulling a strategy to make some real money. He would use the race standings to figure out which kennels had the most successful dogs, and then bet only on dogs from those kennels. Burdette was a civil engineer, comfortable with crunching numbers. He started keeping a notebook, making hypothetical bets on races based on the handicapping numbers in the program. “Each day I’d tally it up and see if I was ahead or behind. I was approaching it from an analytical standpoint.”

The experiment ran for three months. By the end Burdette realized if he had used real money, he would be $200 behind. “I said, well, you can’t buy groceries with that. My object was to take money away from the racetrack, not leave it there,” he says. “To this day, I don’t bet.”

Instead, Burdette made what he considered a safer wager. After years of hopping from state to state with his job, he moved back home to West Virginia in 1997 to take care of his ailing mother and father. He retired from engineering and decided to start raising greyhounds. He had learned a lot about the industry during his brief stint as a pretend professional gambler, and he fell in love with the dogs.

It was more than the dogs, however. In 1990 the state legislature took a portion of greyhound wagering money and created the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund. In addition to the purse money breeders received when their dogs placed in races, they would now get monthly checks from the state Racing Commission. The payout was determined by the amount of money in the fund and the number of points an owner’s dogs earned during races that month. The more dogs a breeder raised and raced, and the better those dogs performed, the larger the checks would be.

Successful breeders were soon receiving thousands of dollars each month from the fund. As a result, those breeders began doubling down on their investments. They started raising more dogs and taking out loans to expand their kennels. Out-of-state breeders began moving to West Virginia, even though they were required to live here for four years before receiving any money from the fund.

“That’s when I decided to start raising dogs,” says kennel operator Harvey Maupin. He grew up in Colorado, where his father raised and raced greyhounds. As he got older, Maupin began training dogs, and he came to West Virginia in 1988 to work as a dog trainer. He whelped his first few litters around 1995, raising the dogs in the backyard of his Cross Lanes home. He later purchased a farm in Red House in 2000. As his operation grew, he spent $140,000 to get a kennel at Tri-State, and about $100,000 for a partnership in a kennel at the Wheeling Island greyhound track. At one point, Maupin had 15 employees.

“Times were booming,” says Burdette, who is now president of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association. “The Legislature had done something that actually worked. We had created a greyhound breeding industry. Wheeling was the number-one track in the United States. People were making a living at greyhound racing.”

But then the industry’s luck began to change. Nationwide interest in greyhound racing started declining. In 2001 there were greyhound tracks in 15 states around the country. West Virginia is now one of only seven states that continue to race dogs, and the sport has grown increasingly unpopular in this state as well.

A few things are to blame for this downturn in interest. Greyhound racing has faced increased scrutiny by animal rights groups like Grey2K, a Massachusetts-based organization that tracks reports of racing-related injuries and abuse. The group’s findings often gain media attention, which has helped turn many animal lovers away from the sport. But animal welfare concerns are not the biggest threat to the greyhound industry. The major declines in attendance and revenues have come from an enemy familiar to most industries—competition.

In early 1994 the West Virginia Legislature legalized video lottery terminals—better known as slot machines—at state greyhound tracks. By September the machines were up and running at both greyhound tracks. It seemed like a mutually beneficial move for racetracks and the racing industry. Tracks gained an additional revenue stream and, because of the way legislators crafted the law, greyhound breeders and kennel operators would be allowed to continue racing while also taking a 15 percent cut of video lottery money, which was added to race purses and the breeding development fund.

But over time, the slot machines that were supposed to help the greyhound industry began to overtake it. “People switched over from racing to slot machines. They and sit there in a trance and push that button,” Burdette says. He likes to joke—not incorrectly— that it used to take all night to lose $50 at the dog track. With a slot machine, it can take just a few minutes.

Competition only increased after the legislature legalized table games like blackjack, roulette, and craps in 2007. The racetracks began rebranding themselves accordingly. In 2008 both Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center and Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center changed their names. They are now Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino and Resort. Live racing had gone from the main attraction to just one more way to gamble and was losing customers in droves to the one-armed bandits.

In addition to the troubles at the racetrack, the greyhound industry has also faced repeated challenges from the statehouse. Every few years, it seems lawmakers take a look at the millions of dollars in subsidies dedicated to greyhound racing and usually decide that money could be better spent elsewhere. In 2001 the legislature put a cap on video lottery subsidies to greyhound racing, with revenues over that cap flowing into the state’s general revenue fund. In 2005 state lawmakers took another chunk of greyhound purse supplements to create the Workers Compensation Debt Reduction Fund. Then, last year, lawmakers again cut greyhound subsidies with the passage of a so-called “haircut bill,” which reduced money for purses and the development fund by 10 percent.

The Spectrum Report

Although it was clear the greyhound racing was suffering, no one had collected the evidence to prove it. So in 2014 the legislature ordered a $68,000 comprehensive study of the industry. The West Virginia Department of Revenue hired the New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group to conduct the study, and the completed report was presented to lawmakers in January 2015. The findings were discouraging.

Although West Virginia does not track attendance figures at greyhound tracks, the Spectrum report found live wagering on races fell by 55 percent between 2004 and 2013, from $35 million to $15.8 million. Researchers also found the greyhound industry now largely relies on video lottery and table games revenues for its purse awards. When purse supplements were first put in place at Mardi Gras in 1995, subsidies from slot machine revenues made up 49 percent of total purse awards. Four years later, slot machine subsidies made up 75 percent of purses. Now more than 95 percent of total purses come from video lottery and table games like blackjack and roulette.

The additional revenue still wasn’t enough to stem the decline in purses, however. As greyhound wagering has declined, slot machine and table game revenues have also fallen as new out-of-state casinos steal gamblers away from West Virginia. As a result, greyhound purse awards declined from $30 million in 2004 to about $18 million in 2013. Without the subsidies, last year’s purses would have been only about $900,000. Most of that purse money also goes to out-of-state greyhound owners. Only $2.6 million of the $11.7 million in purse awards paid at Wheeling Island in 2013 went to West Virginia owners, according to the Spectrum report.

As surprising as some of the findings were, the report only confirmed what many people—lawmakers, greyhound breeders, and track officials—already knew. “It’s not only decreasing in popularity, it’s dead,” says Danny Adkins, vice president of Mardi Gras’ parent company, Hartman & Tyner, Inc. And so, for the first time since greyhound racing came to West Virginia in 1976, lawmakers have started looking in earnest for a way out of the dog racing business.

Decoupling

Shutting down greyhound racing is not as easy as it sounds. Back when West Virginia legalized slot machines and table games, legislators included language in the bills requiring greyhound racing to continue alongside those other activities. Casinos never loved that idea. Adkins compares it to the government telling Ford Motor Company, “you can continue to build all the F-150s you want to build, as long as you build the Model T.”

But that’s the law. If racing stopped tomorrow, so would all other forms of gambling at the casinos, unless the legislature passed another law to decouple the activities. If and when that occurs, it will be very important for lawmakers to get the legislation absolutely right. West Virginia uses gambling revenues to fund lots of programs, from the PROMISE scholarship to senior centers, and also uses the money to pay off bonds for projects like the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston and Pullman Square in Huntington. Credit rating agencies would get pretty anxious if the state compromised one of its major revenue streams.

About a month into this year’s legislative session, state Senator Ron Stollings of Boone County introduced a bill crafted by the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association to create a “greyhound racing cessation program.” The bill would have put an end to greyhound racing in West Virginia by July 1, 2015—while also taking $37.5 million from the breeder development fund to bankroll a three-year-long buyout of the industry.

The breeders association previously put forward a bill in the House of Delegates to create a $75 million buyout, but that number didn’t sit well with lawmakers. The state Senate version was more conservative and included $1 million to cover administrative costs and handle adoptions of the greyhounds. The remaining $36.5 million would be distributed among greyhound owners in the state. Payouts would be determined by how many years an individual participated in the breeding development fund, how much money the breeder received from the fund, and how many greyhounds the breeder raised. Breeders who also operated racetrack kennels would be eligible for additional compensation.

Stollings, a Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee, says he knows very little about greyhounds and did not expect the to bill pass, but he hoped it would spark conversations among his fellow lawmakers. “The writing’s on the wall. Obviously the profitability has gone south,” he says. “The idea was, let’s see if there is some way to have a graceful exit.” The bill was ultimately shoved to the side while lawmakers worked on more pressing issues, however.

For the first time in more than 80 years, Republicans were the majority party in the statehouse this session. To celebrate, the caucus took on an ambitious agenda. Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, a Republican from Putnam County, said his committee had more than 200 bills to consider over the 60-day session while also preparing the state’s 2016 budget.

Hall says his committee tried to look into the greyhound buyout but there was not enough time to adequately research the issue. “The lottery statute is very complicated and intertwined,” he says. “The unintended consequences of trying to unwind it in the last two weeks were massive.” As the clock struck midnight on March 14, bringing the 2015 regular legislative session to an end, the buyout bill was still stuck in committee.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee along with their counterparts in the House of Delegates will continue to examine the issue over the next year during legislative interim meetings. “I suspect by next legislative year, we’ll be somewhere with these decisions,” Hall says.

Burdette says members of his organization are well aware of the state of their industry. “As times change, as technology changes, they have to change their business model. If it’s no longer beneficial to have greyhound racing, fine.” But he is adamant a buyout should be included in the phase-out plan. The way Burdette and many members of his organization see it, all those purse subsidies and development fund money were a business agreement between breeders and the state. Breeders agreed to raise dogs and invest money in the industry while the state, through legislation, agreed it would make sure the dogs kept running. “We reinvested with the belief things were going to continue,” he says.

If the state should break its side of that perceived bargain, Burdette believes breeders deserve something in return. He says breeders need the cash to pay off loans and transition into other livelihoods. Maupin says the breeders association has discussed taking legal action against the state if racing ends without a buyout. “This is not a natural death. This is not just, ‘You’re a bad businessman,’” Maupin says. “They’re breaking their promise.”

But outside of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association, there does not seem to be much support for a buyout. Adkins at Mardi Gras Casino calls the idea “absurd.” Hall says while Stollings’ bill became a “vehicle” for discussing the issue, the bill would never have passed as written. He says there’s not much appetite among Republicans for a buyout. “People took on a business risk when they got into this,” he says. While state subsidies might have enticed breeders to get into the business, Hall does not believe the state has a responsibility to help them get out. “A legislature in the past cannot bind a future legislature,” he says.

There is even a group of greyhound owners who do not believe a buyout is the correct course of action. Despite what lawmakers, track officials, and the breeders association say, the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association insists greyhound racing is still a moneymaking business and should be allowed to continue. “There are plenty of breeders—a lot of big breeders in West Virginia—who are profitable,” says board member Steve Sarras.

Sarras admits the industry isn’t what it used to be. In addition to racing at West Virginia tracks, he stays afloat by sending dogs to Arkansas and Florida to race. He has also tightened his belt at his kennel in Wheeling, eliminating some bonuses and limiting his six employees’ overtime pay. But Sarras says greyhound racing remains a viable enterprise. “Have our profits gone down? Yes. Can we still sustain as a business?” Sarras thinks so.

He says breeders who are pushing for a buyout are just looking for an easy way out of the business—a government-funded retirement plan. “In my opinion, they were just trying to get a handout at the expense of state taxpayers,” he says.

Naturally, Burdette and Maupin disagree. They allege breeders like Sarras and other members of his organization are only able to make money because they are the biggest fish in an evershrinking pond. “They want to keep it going because they’re the ones making the last little bit,” Maupin says.

But Burdette admits some smaller breeders—members of his own organization—also do not want to give up on racing just yet. They hope things will eventually get better, that wagering trends will turn around and the legislature will restore cuts to subsidies. “They hope against hope,” he says.

Maupin doesn’t want to stop racing, but says a buyout is better than a “starve out.” Times have gotten tight for him. He no longer raises greyhounds—the kennel on his big farm is empty. He let the kennel in Wheeling go in November 2013 and now leases dogs from a breeder in Wheeling to fill his kennel at Mardi Gras. When he couldn’t afford his trainer anymore, Maupin went back to training the dogs himself. Instead of 15 employees, he’s down to two. His 27-year-old stepson keeps asking to join the family business, but he refuses. “He keeps wanting to be in it and I’m like, ‘No. This is not going to last.’ I keep pushing him away.”

Instead of raising dogs, Burdette now spends most days substitute teaching for Kanawha County Schools. “After I got up to my neck, I stopped wading out,” he says. He has seven greyhounds left but is working to find them homes. Except one, Hickory. Burdette plans to keep him. Hickory only ran about 30 races before being forced into retirement by an ankle injury, but during that time earned more than $50,000. “He was a good running dog—and I just like him.”