Coming from the Eastern Shore, it was pretty much a given that our family would have Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. Family lore links Harpers to Chessies back at least four generations, but who knows? It could run much deeper. All I knew was when I grew up was that we had Chesapeakes, my uncle’s family had Chesapeakes, my grandparents had Chesapeakes….and the old family stories we heard around the Thanksgiving table always had a Chesapeake or two in them. Additionally, an awful lot of these dogs were named “Bob”, after “Gypsy Bob”, the great dog of my grandfather’s youth.
The family lore behind Gypsy Bob was rich. As an AKC breeder who has witnessed simple stories become definitive breed history, I was mighty skeptical about some of the claims. The three biggest assertions I scoffed were that Gypsy Bob was undefeated in his lifetime and had won at Westminster, that he was the first field champion in the breed, and that he was the foundation dog for all Chesapeakes. Lofty yarns, but were there any kernels truths in them?
A few years ago, my folks lost their much beloved and last Chesapeake “Buzz” (short for Buzzard’s Bay, not Buzz Lightyear) to liver cancer. Generally, when a diagnosis of liver cancer comes down, a dog has only a couple of weeks to live. Dad kept that dog alive for months, hand feeding him anything he would take. Lorna Doone shortbreads made up the entirety of his diet at some points. Dad figured, as long as Buzz continued to enjoy his walks through the woods, he would fight for him. But Buzz finally passed away, and for the first time, my folks were dog-less.
A little thought entered my head. I wondered if any lines still existed that came down from the original Gypsy Bob? If so, perhaps I could surprise my folks with a pup. But where to start?
The internet is such a great resource. I found a couple of Chesapeake Bay Retriever sites and started digging. For as great as the family lore said he was to the breed, you would have thought he’d’ve had a mention. I wrote to the contacts on the websites, but I can’t blame them for being skeptical: looking for information on a family pet from the 20’s. No one was able to turn anything up. Finally, I took a chance and wrote to the Westminster Kennel Club, and lo! David Frei wrote back. There had indeed been a Gypsy Bob shown at Westminster and won his class, and I had an AKC registration number: 370471. This was the key to a very long journey.
My father suggested I write to his cousin Tom Harper in Ohio to see if he had any information on Gypsy Bob. The dog was given by my great-grandfather George Washington Harper to Tom’s father (Gale) and my father’s father (Jack) when they were boys. Tom was amazed at how little I knew about my own family and the famous dog his father Gale showed at Westminster as a teenager.
My great-grandfather, a renowned lawyer and antiques connoisseur, went to Westminster and helped exercise dogs whose owners were not at the show. There, he fell in love with Gypsy Bob and purchased him for his sons Gale and Jack. The boys raised enough money to buy a female Chesapeake and begin a breeding program. Evidently, Gale was bitten by the show and breeding bug; he was the one actively showing at Westminster.
Of course, Westminster, while prestigious, was a much smaller show back then. The AKC itself was only 50 years old. Retrievers were divided into two classes: Labradors and Other Retrievers. The Group system did not come into being until the mid-20’s. Still, at that time there were a lot of big names in Chesapeakes: the Hursts and Belmonts both had large breeding kennels and professional staff to train and show the dogs. Those names are well-remembered by the Chesapeake history books. No one remembers Gale Harper, teenage boy, whose dog beat them all.
Armed with a registration number and the knowledge that Bob had been at Westminster, my efforts redoubled. I was able to track down a couple of archived NY Times articles reporting the results of shows in 1921 and 1924. The microfiche type was so tiny, I had to use a magnifying glass to read it, but both articles listed Gypsy Bob, owned by G. Harper, as having exhibited. In 1924, he also won his class. And in show speak, that does indeed make him a “Westminster winner”. Tick that bit of family lore off as “true”!
About this time, I learned that the AKC had a library in New York City. I understand they have, due to budget cuts, since had to let the librarians go, but at this time there was staff to help poor idiots like me. I wrote, asking if they had any information on Chesapeake Bay dog 370471 “Gypsy Bob”–his pedigree, his progeny, his win record–anything?
Lo and behold! an answer came forth from Assistant Librarian Jessica Letizia. Bob’s sire was Trusty Boy. Bob was registered with the AKC in June 30, 1923 stud book as “Gip Bob”. This told me three things:
1) Bob was on the show and trial circuit long before he received his AKC registration papers. This means he was trialed in another venue and I would have to track down that organization to find out his championship and title records. The AKC was not going to be my final stop.
2) Bob was one of the founding AKC dogs of his breed. In the world of pure-bred dogs, the foundation stock (dogs registered before the stud book is closed to new registrants) does indeed make up the back-bone of the breed. So it was true: our Gypsy Bob was a founder of the Chesapeake breed. The question was, did he produce strongly enough that his line still existed?
3) His name might have a variety of spellings. Reading up on breed history, it seems nautical themes from the Chesapeake Bay run rampant in registration names. Gypsy, Gipsy, Gyp, and Gip are all common names for boats. It was time to widen the search.
As it turns out, my early family was an interesting lot. Interesting enough that at least one of James Michener’s “Chesapeake” main characters (not a particularly nice one) is said to be based on one of my ancestors, a man named Hardcastle. The Hardcastles were large landowners (read: slave owners) and had several plantations in Maryland. Some of the houses from the plantations still exist: the Wheel of Fortune, for example.
The Harpers were a successful family in farming and trade, settling in Little Creek Hundred around 1700. Later, the family kept a successful general store. Some were fine businessmen, others were on the dandy side.
Although he worked and raised his family in New York, my great-grandfather had a summer farm in Kennedyville, MD. It is quite clear from photos that they enjoyed the farm and their neighbors. The adults (women and men alike) hunted waterfowl with the dogs; the boys helped out on the farm, including scything and stacking hay. Even in those photos of hard-working, dusty boys, the smiles are abundant.
Both my grandfather Jack and his older brother Gale inherited the family trait for entrepreneurship and invention. Jack invented a method of polishing object surfaces (everything from bowling balls to jet engines) and grew a successful company. Gale studied engineering and worked for neighbor who owned the Tabulating Machine Company. Gale, in fact, held a patent for one of the very first puch-card machines. Family lore (there it is again), tells a tantalizing story: that Gale convinced his father to purchase shares in that growing company. The shares were the type where, if the company falls short of funds, the stockholders must ante up. When the Depression hit, the Harpers sold their stock to protect their assets. The Tabulating Machine Company never did call on its stockholders for further funds, and years later it successfully evolved into International Business Machine (IBM).
Learning about Gale whetted my interest in genealogy. Armed with an old genealogical chart that had been hanging in the “ancestors hall” (our bedroom hallway filled with photos of ancestors I could not identify), I joined Ancestry.com. Now there’s an addiction waiting to happen–Ancestry. It’s so easy, anyone can do it. And within a year, I had 3300 relatives, and even some long-lost cousins to correspond with! I managed to trace some lines back to the 1100’s, but other lines bring nothing but conflict: are we descended from this wealthy Revolutionary congressman or that illiterate Quaker? My friend Cindy, a serious genealogist, was instrumental in getting me hooked. I blame her completely.
But the truth is, had I never started looking into Gypsy Bob, I never would have learned about my own family.
…More at Gypsy Bob, part II