Friday, March 7, 2008
When sled dogs ruled the town
The Iditarod is underway, as all second graders at the Carlisle Public School know, because they study Alaska in March. The 1,150-mile sled-dog race from Anchorage to Nome is the ultimate endurance test for human and canine athletes, an extraordinary sport in which mushers and their dogs become superheroes.
This year a dog with ties to Carlisle is competing in the Iditarod for the second time – Marlytuk’s Zamboni, owned by former Carlislean Carol Nash, now living in Alaska, is a Siberian Husky on musher Wayne Curtis’s team. Marlytuk was the name of the legendary kennel owned by Lyle and Marguerite (Peggy) Grant of Carlisle, who were at the hub of racing and breeding Siberian Huskies in New England from the 1950s through the 1980s.
The remarkable history of Carlisle sled dogs centers on five families, who for several decades influenced the development of racing in New England, built excitement and interest in the sport, and helped establish the Siberian Husky as an AKC breed.
On weekend mornings this snowy winter, the excited yelps of sled dogs running at Foss Farm echo their ancestors who also trained here. The dogs are doing what they love and their owners have a passion for this arduous sport. Bob Dennison of Stearns Street, whose dogs trained at Foss Farm for more than 40 years, calls himself “the last musher in Carlisle.” Soon to be 80 years old, Dennison stopped racing in 2000. On an appropriately snowy Friday, he and his shared their memories of a time in Carlisle when sled dogs ruled.
The 1925 serum run
In 1925 Leonhard Seppala, an Alaskan trainer of Siberian Huskies, hastily assembled a relay dog team to deliver life-saving serum to Nome, then in the grip of a diphtheria epidemic. His spectacular 600-mile feat drew world-wide attention. (In 1959, when Seppala was about 85 years old, he visited the Grants in Carlisle.)
Around the same time Arthur Walden of Tamworth, N.H. was raising outstanding sled dogs at his Wonalancet Farm. One of his Huskies, Chinook, accompanied Admiral Byrd to the South Pole in 1927, and produced many exceptional offspring.
Among them was Jules, who belonged to Caryl Peabody Lovejoy, the mother of Janet Lovejoy of West Street. “My mother lived in Chocorua, New Hampshire, in the mid-1920s and she had two or three sled dogs from Wonalancet,” Lovejoy recalls. Her mother married Frederick Lovejoy and the young family moved to River Road in Carlisle from Cambridge in 1932 with two-year-old Janet and their dogs. “They knew they would be noisy, so they moved way out here in the country,” Lovejoy explains with a smile. Her parents raised a team of six sled dogs, including Jules, the lead dog. Caryl Lovejoy died a year later, and Jules, who became a “house dog,” was young Janet’s steady companion.
Frederick Lovejoy hired his neighbor, Joseph Booth, who ran a boarding kennel on River Road with his wife, to train his dogs. “Joe Booth and my dad did a good bit of sled-dog racing in New England,” Lovejoy reports. In the early days of World War II, the Lovejoys moved to Concord and her father gave the dogs to the U.S. Army, which requested dogs for its Arctic search and rescue teams. Frederick Lovejoy kept one dog, Checko, at the Booths’ kennel, hoping that he could resurrect the dog team after the war, but his hope was unfulfilled.
The Booths and the Grants
Dana Booth of River Road and his sister, Diane Booth Graham, of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, pick up the story: “After my father died in 1946, the Grants moved in with us to help my mother run the kennel,” says Graham. Lyle Grant and Joe Booth had both worked at Lincoln Laboratory in the 1940s, and the couples became good friends. The Grants were both from sled-dog country in New Hampshire, and brought a passion for Siberians with them to Carlisle. Peggy Grant became a teacher in the Carlisle Public School in 1946, was later named its principal and then superintendent, retiring in 1975.
Boarding at the Booths’ Huskyland Kennel when the Grants came to town were Siberian Huskies belonging to “Duchess” Frothingham, whose real name was Marie Lee Frothingham, of Cold River Kennels in Beverly Farms, Mass. She co-owned the kennel with her daughter, Millie Turner, a legendary driver. The Grants trained and drove her teams, and when Frothingham retired from racing in 1956, she sold some of her dogs to the Grants.
In 1952 the Grants moved to their own house at 1174 Bedford Road, and in 1961 established Marlytuk Kennels (combining their names with that of their champion Siberian, Ahketuk). They raised and trained Siberians, but the Grants stopped driving race teams after being injured, Lyle in 1956 and Peggy in 1960. Dennison took over as their driver in 1962. The Grants turned to showing Siberian Huskies and raised several champions, including Kiska, who was trained by Nancy Dennison, Bob’s wife. Kiska’s son, Red Sun of Kiska, “produced hundreds of Red Siberians,” according to Tucker. Peggy Grant became a respected show judge, was an officer in the Siberian Husky Club of America and held several posts in the New England Sled Dog Club (NESDC).
With Peggy Grant at the Carlisle School were two teachers who were ardent sled-dog enthusiasts – Nancy Dennison and Janet Peckham. All three were close friends and friendly competitors who owned kennels with their husbands. Bob Dennison remembers that, “on a cold night sometimes you could hear the dogs talking to one another.” Not surprisingly, the school’s directory is called “The Husky Handbook” and the sports teams are the Huskies.
Several young Carlisleans worked at the Grants’ kennel where they gained their first exposure to sled dogs. Nash, who lived in Carlisle from 1957 to 1962, recalls that “Peggy Grant was my eighth-grade teacher. I was 12 years old and six feet tall, and strong. Peggy asked me to help her in the kennels, and Ruth Elliott [daughter of Pagey Elliott] and I would ride our bikes to Bedford Road.” Nash moved around the country after college and when she landed back in Carlisle in 1975, she helped Grant show dogs for a few years. Nash herself had a small sprint team that she kept at the Grants’ kennel. In 1990, Peggy Grant died and left the Marlytuk name to Nash, who by that time had moved to Alaska. “This was a complete surprise,” said Nash b phone. Today she and her husband, John Linnehan, operate Marlytuk Kennels in Wasilla, Alaska, and she is the president of the Siberian Husky Club of America.
“Peggy affected the Siberian Husky breed,” says Nash, “by adapting standards for show dogs that were established for sled dogs.” She also credits Pagey Elliott of River Road, one of America’s most respected authorities on canine locomotion, for her innovative training techniques for working dogs.
The Dennisons and Peckhams
“We got involved [in sled dogs] in 1961,” recalls Dennison. “We lived in Reading, where we met the Grants, and bought two dogs from them, and got hooked into the sport. We moved to Carlisle in 1966, and Peggy helped my wife get a job as a schoolteacher.”
The Dennisons raised Huskies at their Koonah Kennel on Stearns Street, and at one time they had 36 dogs. Now he is “down to seven.” These days Meg Mizzoni of Littleton, who started training with Dennison in 1997, races some of the Koonah dogs, some from Tshabet Kennels in Concord (Tucker’s kennel) and dogs of her own. Tucker says, “She’s doing very well. She has acquired hand-me-downs and cast-offs that other people haven’t been able to do much with, and she’s a good enough animal person that she can get them enthusiastic.”
Dennison is proud that all three of his children – Scott, Rob and Debbie – were active in the sport, starting in the mid-1960s. “My daughter Debbie did very well – she won the Open Championship one year, and she stayed active for 20 years.” He remembers that “before television, this was a great way to get your kids involved. I was junior race manager and in one period we had more than 200 kids. Now maybe you get half a dozen.”
The Peckhams – Janet and Al – raced and showed Siberians under the name Huskywood Kennel on Prospect Street. Their champion dog, Ahkee of Huskywood, was a son of the Grants’ Red Sun of Kiska. The Peckhams came to Carlisle from Lexington in 1969; as with the Lovejoys, the dogs were a major factor in their move. Since neither of the Peckhams were drivers, a friend from Lynn drove their teams, and Debbie Dennison showed dogs for Janet Peckham in the 1980s. Al Peckham was a Carlisle Selectman from 1980 to 1983.
Training at Foss Farm
This winter several mushers trained their teams at Foss Farm for races all over New England and New York State – Meg Mizzoni of Littleton, Rob and Susan Tucker of Concord, David and Gretchen Karlson of Concord, and Phil Day of Westford.
To keep the dogs fit in other seasons, the mushers train them on Foss Farm’s dirt trails, as long as the weather is cool enough. Tucker explains that “we used to have various cut-down lightweight rigs with the dogs hooked on the front. Now it’s done with ATVs (All-Terrain Vehicles), which are far safer for the dogs, the mushers and anyone who might be on the trails.”
Dennison remembers rig races in ’62 and ‘63 that were held in back of the Elliotts’ house on River Road, on a three-mile trail through the woods, and he recalls how training at Foss Farm began. “Mr. Foss thought this was the greatest sport in the world,” he says, “and he encouraged Peggy Grant to train her dogs here. He had a wooden leg, and he’d come out on his crutches; he loved to watch us train.” When the town bought Foss Farm as conservation land in 1971, sled-dog training was among the sanctioned activities on the land. The generosity of private landowners abutting Foss Farm has allowed teams to race through their woods, a courtesy much appreciated by mushers over the years.
Tucker’s introduction to mushing
When Tucker was at Concord-Carlisle High School, he worked at the Grants’ kennel. “When I got out of veterinary school in 1970, I purchased a Siberian from Peggy for my wife’s birthday in July. That was our first dog. I then bought another one, borrowed three, and ran in the five-dog sprint.”
Not all sled dogs are Siberian Huskies. Tucker remembers one unique dog – Vasha. She was a registered black Labrador, and “that dog alone won multiple races because she knew what was going on, she took control of the dog team, she set the pace.” He bought Vasha in December 1980 for a 50-cent cup of coffee from Dottie Barghoorn of Carlisle, who ran rig races with a team of three Labradors that was “tough to beat. I bred that dog once to a Labrador from Westwood, and she produced a registered Labrador called Toes. I was offered $10,000 for that dog,” Tucker says. He refused the offer.
Today Tucker and his wife have 27 dogs. He still drives in races – he won the Unlimited Class Championship three times in the 1990s – and he serves as veterinarian at NESDC events. Tucker has long served on the NESDC executive board, and Dennison has been president multiple times.The Carlisle mushing community was always influential in that organization and in the International Sled Dog Racing Association (ISDRA).
Now about the dogs
Mushers have a powerful attachment to their dogs. “You live their lives; they’re your surrogate children,” Tucker explains. “If I hear a noise at 3 o’clock in the morning from the kennel, I can tell you who it is, which dog, and I can tell you what he’s saying. And Bob could say the same thing.” Dennison agrees: “They get bored sometimes. Or something’s going through the yard, a possum or a skunk, and they want to tell you about it.” He marvels that Susan Butcher, four-time winner of the Iditarod, had about 200 dogs “and in the night she could tell which dog it was out of 200. You get so attached.”
But can you make a living racing and raising sled dogs? “No,” says Tucker flatly. “There are a few people in the world who can make a living, but not in Carlisle, not in New England either. It’s a major outflow of money and tremendous expenditure of time, and a dedication that’s there all year, all day, every day.” Local mushers help each other out whenever necessary. “I had back surgery in ’96 and my wife went to England for 2 ½ weeks,” says Tucker. “Bob came to my house twice a day and watered and fed the dogs and checked their chains.” He adds, “If Peggy [Grant] had a dog show in Chicago, either Lyle would take care of the dogs or the Booths or the Peckhams would do it, or Debbie or Robbie or Scott Dennison would come down. This is definitely a community and that’s its strength.” He remembers spending many nights in the Grants’ kitchen when certain of the females gave birth. “Many of Peggy’s dogs could not pop puppies out the way they should, so Nancy Dennison or Jan Peckham and I would be there, waiting four hours between puppies when it should be 20 minutes.”
Siberian Huskies and their dedicated owners occupy a unique place in Carlisle history. Today, thousands of miles from Carlisle, a Siberian bearing the Marlytuk name is racing in the Iditarod with the best dogs in the world. Second graders, take note! ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito