Paging 'Ma Dodge'
Morris & Essex is synonymous with Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge. For those who have never heard of her …
Mrs. Dodge was the youngest of William Rockefeller Jr.’s children, and she had a beautiful estate in Madison, New Jersey. She was an avid dog fancier, and bred Cocker Spaniels – in fact, she was instrumental in separating the American Cocker Spaniel from the English Cocker Spaniel in the 1940s – as well as lots of Bloodhounds and German Shepherd Dogs.
In 1927, she decided to have a grand show on her polo fields, and grand it was: It was recognized by the international dog world, and became one of the largest and most prestigious shows in the world. It was the largest tented event in the world – Mrs. Dodge had tents transported from all over the country – and the judging panel was second to none.
In 2000, we revived the show, and it has been held every five years since – with the exception of the 2020 show, which was delayed until this year because of the pandemic. So we’ll be seeing everyone this Wednesday, October 6.
The original Morris & Essex in an undated photo.
How did the club come back into being?
In 1997, I was on the board of directors of St. Hubert’s Giralda, an animal shelter founded by Mrs. Dodge. One of the employees said, “Mr. Ferguson, you should go up into the attic – there are a lot of dog-show things up there.” I did, and I almost passed out: There were ribbons, trophies, photos, marked catalogs from all those years, even mementoes like the hand-painted signs for the show veterinarian and superintendent.
At that point, it had been 40 years since the last Morris & Essex show in 1957. We all sort of knew about Morris & Essex, but it was a bit of a mystery to people our age who had missed it.
That weekend, I was at a party at George and Kate Seeman’s house after the Ox Ridge show in Connecticut, and I started telling people what I had seen in the attic. Before knew it, there were 15 or 20 people gathered around, and I had to raise my voice for everyone to hear.
At that point, we knew we had the tiger by tail. We had to revive the show – the interest was overwhelming.
How true is your “revival” to the original?
We try to keep it just the way Mrs. Dodge had it, and I’m proud to say not much has changed. As you drive in off the main road, there is a half-mile-long drive on a beautiful scenic parkway, and we have banners that replicate the original ones of Mrs. Dodge in her show’s signature colors, blue and orange.
We give a boxed lunch to every person who has an entry, just as she did. We will have over a third of a mile of tenting. And we don’t allow any private generators. They are the brainchild of the late 1960s and early ’70s, and they make a lot of noise. Instead, we run three miles of electric cable so people can just plug in their clippers and hairdryers as if they are at home. People don’t have to yell over generators, and instead there’s this gentle murmur from the crowd.
The group ring at Morris & Essex 2010.
It’s sort of amazing to think that a show run by the richest woman in the world was famous for catering to its exhibitors.
Yes – so much so that Morris & Essex was called the exhibitor’s show. Mrs. Dodge married Hartley Dodge, who was not from the car family – his family owned Remington Arms, which supplied so much of the ammunition for the first and second world wars. When they married, they became the wealthiest couple in the world. But Mrs. Dodge didn’t put on airs – she was very down to earth. She knew people were traveling and staying in hotels and camps along way. To keep their costs down, her entry fees were very low, and because she knew meals were yet another expense, that’s where the boxed lunches came in. She cared very much about her exhibitors.
What made Mrs. Dodge so popular among the fancy in her day?
Mrs. Dodge was a very colorful, very cheerful person with great sense of humor from what I’ve read. She considered a wink of the eye so important – they say she could tame a lion with a wink. She knew she could capture people and make them smile. I’ve tried it once in a while, and it works.
Mrs. Dodge communes with Rin Tin Tin.
You talk about Mrs. Dodge as if you know her, but she’s been dead since 1973.
We talk quite a bit, I must say. Mrs. Dodge and I have had several conservations this past week alone. She has been sending us down fairly good weather for five shows in a row. We did have a little rain during the groups in 2015, but that lifted.
At our first show in 2000, the day started with an unbelievable downpour. I got up at 3:30 in the morning to be at the show grounds at 4:30, and when I looked out the hotel window, I couldn’t see my car. But by the time I got to the show grounds an hour later, the rain had stopped, and the sun began shining soon after.
Mrs. Dodge with a German Shepherd at Morris & Essex, date unknown.
Are there any people who actually remember the “original” shows?
We have a number of members who attended the last show in 1957, including George and Mary Ann Alston, Jane Fowler, Bill Gorodner, Lydia Hutchinson, Kate Romanski, Wendell Sammett, Terry Stacy and Lena Tamboer.
This year’s Best in Show Judge, Desi Murphy, who judged the Terrier Group at our 2015 show, was at the 1956 Morris & Essex show with his uncle, who showed Chows. Desi was just a little boy. There’s a picture in our archives of little Desi sitting up on an Anheuser-Busch beer truck.
Speaking of judges, how many will you have?
Morris & Essex has the largest judging panel in the nation – always. We have 79 judges, plus 40 for sweepstakes. It’s the largest collection of judges ever, and some will only judge one or two breeds.
Morris & Essex judges pay their own travel expenses and do not charge a fee. Has anyone ever balked at that?
We’ve never been turned down. It’s really considered the appointment of a lifetime. No one has ever said no, unless it was because of a health problem, or a significant life event, like a daughter getting married on that day.
We do pay for hotel lodging, transportation to and from the showgrounds, and of course we have a lovely judges’ dinner and host a very upscale judges’ luncheon served on fine china and real silverware on the day of the show.
At her shows, Mrs. Dodge brought over many breed experts from England and Germany – including, for example, Max von Stephanitz, who basically developed the German Shepherd Dog. In keeping with that international flavor, over the years our judges have come from Europe, South America and Canada, as well as from all over the United States.
And I should mention our stewards: We have 50 of them, and it’s a Who’s Who of the dog world. The same applies to our 521 members. I get more compliments on our membership list: It’s overwhelming when you think about the talent. It’s no accident that this show is successful. Truly we have the crème de la crème.
Looking over the judging panel, Joe Gregory will judge Boxers ... that should be historic.
That’s going to be a crowded ring. I would get there early, or be prepared to look over someone’s shoulder. Joe is one of our biggest draws, but he doesn’t know he’s a celebrity in the dog world. He just celebrated his 93rd birthday, but he moves like a 35-year-old, very agile, and his mind is so quick. The Boxer people can’t wait.
The fact that he’s only doing one breed is not unusual. Typically with most clubs, a judge’s schedule is loaded: You’re on your feet all day doing 15 to 20 breeds, and the only time you sit down is during lunch and groups. I think our Morris & Essex judges like that we don’t overload them so they can move around during the day and watch other breeds.
Forgot your bowler? Some lenders at the 2005 Morris & Essex show.
How big will this year’s show be?
We have an amazing entry of 4,454 – and for the first time in the show’s history, every single breed is represented. Yes, even Lundehunds and Chinooks! There will be 26 breed rings, and of the 207 AKC-recognized breeds and varieties, 140 will have a specialty or a supported entry at Morris & Essex. That’s 39 specialties and 101 supporteds, or 71 percent of all the breeds.
Dogs aside, we can’t forget about one of the biggest features of the Morris & Essex show – the clothes and hats.
Morris & Essex is a step back in time, without question. People dress in wonderful outfits from the period of the original shows, the 1920s through the 1950s. It looks almost like a Broadway production – ladies in hats, gentlemen in spats and derbies.
One of my favorite outfits was worn by Joan Scott. She came as a 1943 Army WAC in full dress uniform. I think it was her mother’s, and she fit into it perfectly.
At the second show, Dottie Cherry came in a 1927 nightclub outfit. She really stunned everyone. We had a four-house team with a carriage at that show, and I invited Dottie to ride on top. She made a grand entrance, and went up and down the midway.
Under the big tent at Morris & Essex 2010. Vintage apparel and hats are de rigueur for the show, which takes its traditions seriously.
What’s the midway?
The midway was one of the important features of the show in Mrs. Dodge’s day. It’s a long center aisle, flanked by the many breed rings and concessions, that leads to the main tent. We will have antique cars scattered throughout, and an exhibit of a 1930s dog-show setup, complete with vintage crates and grooming tables.
Speaking of main tents, yours is pretty impressive.
The main tent is used for the judges’ and officials’ luncheon, and then converted to the group ring in mid-afternoon. It’s gigantic – 110 by 110 square feet. We also have the hornblower from the Kentucky Derby coming back to announce each group, red jacket and all. He’s a horse man, and every horse owner has a dog – and usually it’s a purebred. He had a ball.
The tents aren’t the only thing that’s impressive at Morris & Essex. Let’s talk about the show budget.
It’s about $270,000 for the whole show, and every bit of that is used. The electric alone, which requires three tractor trailers to be brought in from the Midwest, is $22,000. We spend a tremendous amount of money on flowers – we blanket the grounds with them. The bucolic setting, with its gorgeous oak trees, just lends itself to that.
Thankfully, we have a number of generous members; without their donations, the show simply could not take place. The group-ring hospitality was sponsored by Bill and Tina Truesdale. Nancy Shaw underwrote the box lunches and flowers, and Patricia Shaw donated the judges’ luncheon. Tori Steele, Ron Scott and Mercedes Villa sponsored the judges’ dinner the night before. Karen LeFrak, Ellen Charles and Glen Lajeski donated the judges’ gifts – which are Tiffany, by the way – and Dawne Deeley sponsored the lovely rosettes. And Linda Barrow, Gail Bontecou, Mary and Barry Curtis, Gene Durdin, Angel and Lisa Iscovich, Roy and Claudia Loomis, and Laura Taft made generous donations to our general operating fund.
The trophy tent at the 2015 Morris & Essex show. Many details of the early shows have been replicated in the modern iteration.
What presence will the American Kennel Club have at the show?
Dennis Sprung and Gina DiNardo have told me they are bringing the New York staff by bus. We’ll have representatives from the AKC Museum, the AKC archives, the AKC PAC and the regular AKC booth along with the Canine Health Foundation. They will be in a big tent with the Morris & Essex archives.
Do you have a favorite piece of club memorabilia?
There’s a trophy Mrs. Dodge received in 1928 for winning the Sporting Group at the Trenton Kennel Club. It’s made of three different metals – bronze, sterling silver and gold.
Is there anything you’d like for the archives?
From time to time, people mail us catalogs. The only two we don’t have are 1928 and 1930. They do exist, but St. Hubert’s is holding on to them. We hope when they get tired of them they’ll give them to the Morris & Essex Kennel Club.
A lighthearted moment inside the tent for judges and officials at the 2010 show.
Are spectators welcome at the show?
Yes, but we’re asking spectators to arrive after 9 a.m., to avoid the morning crush with 4,000 dogs arriving. And for those who want to watch at home, AKC.TV will be live-streaming the groups and Best in Show.
We do something very unique that I wish more clubs would try. Just as at Mrs. Dodge’s shows, at noon the lunch bell rings, and everything stops. People get their box lunches – we’ll also have food trucks for the general public – and spread a blanket on the lawn, and the judges have their own luncheon. At 1 p.m., the bell rings again, and the show resumes.
It’s all really quite civilized. Do you think that sense of propriety spills over to the exhibitors, too?
Over the years I have been show chairman and president for a few clubs, and we’ve had bench hearings at those shows. But at Morris & Essex I’m proud to say we have never had one.
We did have one instance in which a Cane Corso and a Borzoi scrapped, and one owner wanted that to be reported. As I was driving over in my golf cart, I thought, “I hope the Borzoi is OK.” Turns out it was the Borzoi that bit the Corso. But by time the discussion was over, both sides were shaking hands and smiling. Maybe the atmosphere lends itself to a more relaxed situation.
Wayne with the late Iris Love at the conclusion of the 2010 show. With a show of this size, Best in Show is held well after sunset.
Five years between shows is a long time. Have you ever thought of doing it yearly?
I would be in a straightjacket if we did. It’s so intense we can’t even do it every two or three years. As it is, we are a year short planning for the 2025 show.
How difficult a decision was it to postpone the 2020 show due to the pandemic?
By October of last year, things were starting to loosen up, but I couldn’t visualize Morris & Essex any way other than how we have always known it. With masks mandatory and hand-sanitizer stations every three and a half feet, I just couldn’t see people enjoying Morris & Essex the way it was envisioned. It’s more than just a dog show – it’s an experience. I didn’t want to do that to its history.
Superintendent's tent at one of the "original" Morris & Essex shows.
Morris & Essex was such a success from its outset: Why did Mrs. Dodge end her shows?
Mrs. Dodge wanted the show to continue the way she had started it, and she was successful in doing that because she was very hands on. But she was getting older, and some things were beginning to slip away. She was having trouble finding enough people to put it on in the style she wanted, and she didn’t want it to lose its luster by fading away. Eventually, even Mrs. Dodge had to accede to the world.
Surprisingly, the contemporary show is quite well known around the world, too.
I noticed that the foreign press is very interested in what we’re doing. We’re not the biggest show in the world, and we’re not on television, but people know who we are, and the show is photographed intensely. We’re just very lucky that we had the model presented to America before we revived it. We had roots, a prototype to follow. I think that’s what makes it special
I have friends who breed Pugs just outside of Brussels. One day we visited another kennel in Belgium, and the woman had a framed picture of Morris & Essex from one of the dog magazines hanging on the wall of her office. I walked over to look at it, and she said, “That’s a very important show in America.” I blushed, and my friend said, “Mr. Ferguson is the president and show chair of Morris & Essex.” You would have thought she was meeting the Dalai Llama.
You really are inextricably linked with the modern Morris & Essex show, much as Mrs. Dodge was with the original.
It does keep me sharp. At our next show, in 2025, I’ll be 84. I’m not going anywhere, but the truth is we have wonderful people who will keep this going. In the American fancy, Morris & Essex simply reflects the best of us. And as for this year’s show, I have my derby ready.