Friday, November 17, 2006
Rachel "Pagey" Elliott: Master of many trades
Near the entrance to Rachel "Pagey" Elliott's home on River Road stands a tall pole crowded with narrow, wooden signs shaped like arrows, pointing in all directions. Painted brown with white lettering, the arrows are reminiscent of the type of signs found along hiking trails, showing the name of and distance to various destinations. The arrows point to locations at the Elliott farm and beyond, including:
In a place of honor at the very top of the pole, an arrow points straight up to the sky, painted simply with the word, "Grampa," referring to Dr. Mark Elliott, Pagey's late husband and partner in several of her life-long endeavors. Other family members are also noted, along with the number of miles they will travel to return home to Carlisle.
Dubbed a "wheresit" by its creator, the Elliott's granddaughter, Sarah Holmes Tucker, this structure seems to stand as a three-dimensional reflection of Pagey's rich and varied life. The many-faceted sign provides images of the important places and passions of a woman who, at 93 years old, has barely begun to slow down.
What amazes some people about Pagey is that she does so many things so very well. Her interests and talents have taken her around the globe. In the world of dogs alone she has been a breeder, trainer, researcher, author, illustrator, lecturer, video producer and photographer. She is not "jack" but, in fact, master of many trades, including several outside of the animal world such as jigsaw puzzle making, handwriting analysis and drawing.
Animals have been a tremendous part of Pagey Elliott's life. She grew up with dogs and horses in Lexington, where she was born, in 1913. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1935 and later bred Golden Retrievers and Connemara ponies, in Carlisle. In 1946, she and Dr. Elliott bought what they called the River Road Farm, a farmhouse and 64-acre parcel purchased from the estate of Mason Garfield, the grandson of President James A. Garfield. The house, dating back to 1701, was originally part of the Blood Farms, established by the Blood family who were Carlisle's original settlers. The property borders River and Skelton Roads, and extends to the Concord River in the back.
The world of Golden Retrievers
In 1940, Dr. Elliott, an avid duck hunter, gave Pagey a Golden Retriever puppy they named Toby. "Goldens were a new breed to the country," she pointed out, "although dog owners in the mid-west had begun to use them in duck hunting and the conservation of wounded game." Toby astounded his owners as well as Dr. Elliott's hunting friends with an uncanny ability to track and retrieve just about every bird that was shot, whether killed or crippled, in the water or in the brush.
The Elliotts soon began breeding Golden Retrievers, first while they were living in Minnesota and later at the farm on River Road. They registered their Featherquest Kennel with the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1945, having come up with the name because duck hunters are "in quest of feathered game." They raised about 50 litters of Goldens over the years, and they became known as a knowledgeable, experienced breeders of sound dogs, both physically and mentally.
Pagey praises the breed's many qualities. "Goldens are wonderful obedience dogs, very easy to train, mannerly in the house, a good all-around dog that fits well into families," she said. "These dogs become such companions. And, of course, they are so useful," she adds, referring to the breed's ability to be trained in obedience, agility, tracking, retrieving and serving the blind and disabled. Goldens are also used in police and rescue work, drug detection and as therapy dogs.
Pagey's love of Goldens developed into an interest in dog structure and movement, which eventually led to a career as a lecturer, video producer and book author. She served on the board and held almost every office in Golden Retriever Club of America (GRCA), where she promoted the awareness of hip displasia and other genetic problems. She also served on the board of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals for 17 years. However, it was undoubtedly her puppy customers who finally propelled Pagey into a 29-year international lecture career.
Lecturing around the world
"When I bred dogs, people would ask 'how do I know I'm getting a good puppy?' she said. "So I started filming dogs to try to show the rights and wrongs of gait and structure."
Interest in her work grew and before long she was in great demand as an expert lecturer on canine movement and structure. She spoke and showed her films to audiences throughout the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii) and in countries on three continents, including England, Sweden, Holland, Amsterdam, Scotland, Norway, Australia and Canada.
In response to requests from audience members for take-home materials, Pagey wrote and illustrated Dogsteps, a book on "how dogs move and how their conformation affects movement." While the book is written in layperson's terms, it is chock-full of technical information for dog breeders and owners alike. First published in 1973, Dogsteps was hailed as the "Best Dog Book of the Year" by the Dog Writers Association of America and is still known today as the definitive book on dog structure and gait.
The third edition of her book, Dogsteps, A New Look, was published in 2001, with the benefit of new research in cineradiography (moving X-rays) that Pagey conducted with Dr. Farish Jenkins at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. "This was a tremendous opportunity," Pagey said. "It really was a breakthrough in understanding dog structure." Using the museum's specialized equipment to X-ray dogs walking on treadmills, she was able to further her research in canine locomotion by studying bone and joint motion in these moving X-rays.
"That's when my lecture career really took off," she said. Soon she was filming again, this time as producer and editor of videos for several breed clubs (Cairn Terrier, Collie and Golden Retriever) and co-producer of the AKC film, Observing Dogs in Motion. She made a Dogsteps video, which featured over 70 different breeds, and a DVD called Canine Cineradiography. No wonder she was referred to as "Mother of Movement" in an article in the January 2006 issue of DogWorld.
The puzzle-making world
Pagey says that eventually her husband grew tired of picking her up at the airport from her travels around the world, and she agreed to stop lecturing so she could spend more time with him at home. Not one to remain idle, however, she soon began her career in cutting jigsaw puzzles. She still produces under the name, Pagemark, with a Golden Retriever as her trademark.
A visit to her puzzle room makes it easy to imagine that Pagey has made about 1,500 wooden puzzles over the years — intricate, colorful, precisely-cut puzzles that she still makes on order. She keeps her materials in numerous sets of drawers, some overflowing, which line the walls of the room. Large sheets of plywood are ready to be cut into various sized rectangles. Pagey will choose a piece of artwork from the drawers full of organized sheets and attach it to a piece of wood with spray adhesive (yes, she uses a mask). Then she places the intact plywood picture in front of the vibrating blade on her puzzle-cutting machine (the blade is like a jigsaw, and can be as narrow as a piece of thread). She moves the wood slowly, making wiggles, curves and notches, looking somewhat like a seamstress guiding fabric through a sewing machine. She carves wonderful, even whimsical, little shapes within the rectangle. Her hands are constantly moving the puzzle, although she is calm and purposeful in her work.
Not surprisingly, her puzzles have also brought her fame. Last year, Pagey established a new Guinness World Record for the world's most expensive jigsaw puzzle. The $27,000 puzzle sold at a charitable art auction to benefit the Golden Retriever Foundation.
Late every Wednesday afternoon, from April to November, you can see dogs of all sizes and colors running with their owners through what looks like a kind of obstacle course set up in a large field at the side of Pagey's house. The dogs run as fast as they can through tunnels and over jumps while the handlers run as fast as they can alongside their dogs, shouting commands, giving hand signals and trying to hold their dogs' attention as they guide them through the course.
This is the sport of agility training, which took the dog world by storm in the mid- '90s and only grows in popularity with each successive year. The fact that a local agility club trains in one of Pagey's fields is a testament to her continued commitment to remain on the cutting edge of canine trends and developments.
"Pagey is a wonderful person — so generous, so curious, so interested in everything," says ARFF member Carolyn Ing of Carlisle. Ing notes that she and other club members appreciate her knowledge of dog structure, gait and physiology and her willingness to evaluate their dogs' fitness for agility. Hearing Pagey speak at a seminar early in Ing's career "was the best possible introduction I could get in showing dogs."
"I always recommend her Dogsteps book and video to anyone just beginning to show their dog," Ing continued. "Since she did her revolutionary work in cineradiography, no one has done anything that matches her research and insights."
Pagey is so beloved by people in the dog world, Ing adds, that at least six people have named their dogs after her. There have been "Pageys" in the form of two Golden Retrievers, a black Labrador Retriever, a Bassett Hound, a Corgi and a Portuguese Water Spaniel — a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito