A Short Cruise Down NSSDC’s Memory Lane
compiled by Sally O. Bair
Reprinted from the Tugline, August, 2003
Charlie Gould reminded me recently that it is now ten years since John Cooper’s death. In view of the fact that “Coop” was a driving force in the early days of North Star and a charter member when it was established in 1962, it seemed appropriate that this Tugline issue have a tribute to the early days of the club. There is a rich history of the club that many of the newcomers to the sport are unaware of. I hope that this article will provide them with a sense of pride in NSSDC. The interview by Marti Mackey is taken from the October, 1975, Tugline. Mackey was an outstanding Tugline editor back in the 1970s.
Tugline readers may recall that Minnesotans were engaged in sled dog racing prior to the US entry into World War I. The 1917 St. Paul Winter Carnival featured the longest sled dog competition known in the United States at the time: five hundred miles from Winnipeg, Manitoba, through North Dakota and Minnesota to St. Paul. The longest previous sled dog race was the 412-mile Alaskan Sweepstakes from Nome to Candle in Alaska. [The details of the Winnipeg to St. Paul 1917 race were given in the article, “Hapless Hero: Frederick S. Hartman and the Winnipeg-to-St. Paul Dog Race” in the June, 1994 issue of the Tugline. The story was adapted for the screen in Disney’s Iron Will.
North Star is basically a dynamic and forward-looking Club. The vast majority of its interests and endeavors are in fostering the growth and development of sled dog racing within our region. Because of its concentration upon immediate and future tasks toward progress, it is seldom that the NSSDC membership pauses to reflect upon the significant accomplishments, humorous anecdotes, colorful personages, and tribulations that fill its relatively extensive history. And yet it seems that such reflection upon the past is sometimes necessary to give perspective to the Club’s present activities.
That is the purpose of this article — to illuminate some of the past highlights of North Star Sled Dog Club. I hope that it will enlighten, amuse and inspire you to become more interested in your Club.
Perhaps it is most appropriate to start at the beginning: the origin of North Star Sled Dog Club. Did you know that North Star is one of the oldest sled dog clubs in the lower forty-eight? It is! Persons in the Twin Cities area began running sled dog races and germinating the idea of a sled dog club in the late 1950s. North Star Sled Dog Club formed in 1962 and was formally incorporated by State statutes May 13, 1969.
Here’s how one of NSSDC’s charter members, John Cooper, remembers some of the highlights of North Star’s beginnings and early days (taped in 1975):
As near as my memory can recollect, we are in our eleventh year as a sled dog club. Mabell Hill (originally from Circle Pines, MN) got the idea about fifteen years ago to re-introduce sled dog racing to the St. Paul Winter Carnival. Several years before the North Star Club came into being, she approached John Gisler, who was managing director of the Winter Carnival Association, to rekindle the race, and they had a race from, I believe, around Cottage Grove, or some place to the south side of St. Paul, into the city of St. Paul, running along the highways and freeways with a number of small teams. Then, this race itself on the present chain of lakes at Phelan Lake was rekindled and Bill Tucker, who’s now up in New York, and Bob MacKenzie [Floyd’s bro], and several others got involved with putting that race on. And as that race developed, after a couple of years, they felt that a club should be formed to get more races going and more interest going, and, I believe, the first president of the Club was Stuart White,* a good friend of Mabell Hill’s. Mabell was kind of a prime mover behind the sport in getting it started. She had the greatest interest in it and she also had a large kennel of dogs that she used for racing (primarily registered Sibes).
And then we started to increase a little bit. We had our race at St. Paul every year, and we had a number of smaller races at different places around: over in Wisconsin, and at Don Gale’s place over in Wisconsin. We had some weekend outing type races over there. We went down to Denny Hitchcock’s, who was then living in Waseca. He lined up a race at Waseca, and we had a race at Waseca, I believe, for three years. We ran from snow conditions to running in six inches of water around the course one year (with everyone riding on their driving bow to keep from getting wet)! This was around 1965. We had the race in Waseca and a race at a country club out in Burnsville, where we were running around their golf course, which was quite thrilling because they had quite a hill.
Then, as the Club grew and progressed, we lined up different races around. We were approached by Brian Stout, of Ely, six years ago about in 1967 (it would be in the seventh year now) to help them line up a race up at Ely. Oz Bayers, Gary Lillie and myself were the original three from North Star that went up and contracted for the race. North Star helped manage that race for three years, and then the Ely Sled Dog Committee was formed and they have taken over managing of it the last few years. Our circuit has progressed and grown to include and incorporate many, many races. This year (1975) we have almost a dozen races with a total purse of close to $30,000.
My first years of driving go back fourteen years or so to the very early 1960s. Some of my own history: My father was killed in an accident and my mother decided my younger brother needed a dog for a pet or companion. We went to the pound to look for dogs and I ended up with a 90 pound Malamute, which I got started racing with. I happened to find a neighbor who had a female, so we joined forces and had two puppies. And we borrowed another dog that came running along behind our sled one evening. Interesting note, I think, (from all of the talk we hear now of light training and heavy training and weight training and speed training and everything) that when we first started training, nobody in the area, other than Mabell Hill — I didn’t know her at the time — and her group of fellows, knew anything about racing or training dogs, myself included. I went to the library and I couldn’t find anything on what a harness was or anything, so I made some harnesses up out of old 3⁄4 inch radiator hose for a neck yoke and 5⁄8 inch manila rope for the back of the harness.
We hooked up the dogs and we had quite a system. I rode on the sled, which we bought for $50.00. It was like a toboggan with a hand-rail on the back. My friend who had the female Malamute would sit up on the tailgate of my station wagon and his wife would drive the station wagon around. And that was what we played “lead dog” with! We had a 50-foot rope tied to my lead dog, my old Malamute. We got going in this area and got started, and the only limiting factor was that the only time you could train dogs was just before the snowplows went through. So we were quite limited in beginning training.
We went over to a race and met Bill Tucker and John Weber, who were over there training, and Denny Hitchcock was driving some dogs for Mabell Hill at the time. They invited us to come over to Hill’s and train with them. When we got there, we proceeded to unload our dogs from our cars and hooked them up and all these other guys all had a good laugh looking at our harnesses and thought, “My God, what a bunch of turkeys we have here!” We didn’t know anything about driving and our dogs wouldn’t lead out by themselves, so they said, “We’ll go and your dogs will follow us.” My Malamute, as I found out later on, happened to just love to eat dogs, so when they led out, he figured, “Oh boy, let’s go!” And off down the trail we went; we followed them for a couple of miles, and, uh, broke the sled, and my team got away from me and had to be picked up, and we finally straggled in behind them, following them home on the trail, which was the course we ran as the St. Paul Winter Carnival race. That’s what they were training on. That’s how we got to meet Bill and Denny and John and Dave Olson (who’s now up in Alaska) and Denis Christman (who’s now up in Alaska, too). [Denis Christman has since died from cancer. –Ed.]
John Weber was really a driving force. He was a young fellow who was very active in sports and really went out and worked his dogs and trained. At the time, Art Allen from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and his wife, Judy, pretty well commanded our race schedule. Any race they entered, they usually won because they had dogs of good calibre from Art’s championship days in the late fifties up in The Pas. I believe that to this day Art holds the best record for a season of wins of any driver going, as far as racing from December until April. He ran the Gaddis dogs then, the bloodlines of which can be traced back to many of the finest racing dogs.
The winners’ sequence at most of our races was: Art and Judy, first and second, with John Weber third.** John was running some dogs – two – that he’d borrowed from Priscilla Nelson. They were Kashe and Kona, which, I think, anybody who has registered Sibes in Minnesota can look back and find that Kashe and Kona, or their predecessors, their ancestors, are somewhere in their bloodlines and pedigrees.
John went over to Hill’s and ran and got very active training and racing the dogs, and he was very active and was involved in the sport for years. And then when he got to be eighteen, he either enlisted or was drafted into the Army. He went in and was sent to Vietnam, and he was killed in action leading a patrol just shortly after he’d had gotten out of the hospital from taking shrapnel wounds. He went right back and volunteered to lead a patrol. He was a sergeant, and they called him “Sgt. Troubles.” His troops felt so highly of him, they just couldn’t believe that he was just so “gung ho,” but that was just the same spirit he had when he was driving dogs.
After he was killed in the war, his folks, from St. Paul, donated a trophy, a very beautiful trophy carved by Mel Fishback (Riley). It was a sportsmanship trophy called the John Weber Memorial Trophy. It was donated to North Star to be given to the Open or Unlimited Class driver who’s named the top sportsman by his fellow drivers voting at the St. Paul Race. They also made a donation to the mushers’ Hall of Fame up in Knik, Alaska. And since then, the award has been given out, I believe, it’s either twice or three times, to both Ozzie Bayers of North Star and Art Allen of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who have won the award in the years it’s been given. The award just kind of exemplifies what we’re trying to do to maintain John’s driving spirit in our Club. It’s as good a thing to try and follow or emulate as is around at the present time: this spirit of sportsmanship and competitiveness, and just the whole thing of sled dog driving — all of the good points of it are kind of rolled into John Weber and the John Weber Trophy.
*Stuart White was actually North Star’s second president, serving from 1965 to 1966. Our first president was Don Gale, who served from February 13, 1965 to June 13, 1965.
The Incorporators of NSSDC who are listed by the State of Minnesota and who served on its first Board were:
Ed (Oz) Bayers
**The race results from the 1966 St. Paul Winter Carnival might be of interest:
Open Class (2 days)
1. Art Allen, Cedar Rapids, IA 1:45:19
2. Judy Allen, Cedar Rapids, IA 1:50:55
3. John Weber, St. Paul, MN 2:27:51
4. Denis Christman, St. Cloud, MN 2:28:08
5. Dennis Hitchcock, Mankato, MN 2:28:40
6. Gene Lee, Circle Pines, MN 2:30:30
7. Bill Tucker, White Bear Lake, MN 2:32:03
8. Don Gale, Couderay, WI 2:38:03
9. Dave Olson, St. Cloud, MN 2:38:06
10. John Cooper, Bloomington, MN 2:38:11
4-Mile Women’s Race (1 day)
1. Suzanne Tucker, White Bear Lake, MN 21:02
2. Mrs. Fredericka Miller, Cedar Rapids, IA 40:16
4-Mile Novice Race (2 days)
1. Julie Nelson, St. Paul, MN 24:35
2. Burt Kelly, Clarence, IA 27:06
3. Lois Kotilinek, St. Paul, MN 28:01
4. Lawrence Smith, Courday, WI 31:21
5. Patrick Boemer, St. Paul, MN 32:36
6. Larry Christman, St. Cloud, MN 33:41
7. Jack Bisson, New Richmond, WI 34:59
8. David Hitchcock, St. Paul, MN 38:20