About North Star Sled Dog Club: The Formative Years and Beyond

By John Cooper and Sally O’Sullivan Bair

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. It has a rich history in the Minnesota area – significant accomplishments, humorous anecdotes, colorful personages, and tribulations – that fill its relatively extensive history.

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 1965 and was formally incorporated by State statutes in 1969. The Tugline, the official publication of NSSDC, first came out in 1969 with Joyce Lillie as its first editor. It was printed on the old mimeograph machines. It wasn’t until 1993, under the editorship of Sally Bair, that publication went high tech, being done on computer in a professional desktop publishing program (Quark XPress). Bair has continued to do the Tugline to this day. In 1996 NSSDC also went online with a website presence.

In the early days a small group of enthusiastic mushers would gather at the home of Mabell Hill in Stacy, Minnesota, to train and talk dogs. (She was originally from Circle Pines.) These fans included the early icons of NSSDC: brothers Dave and Denny Hitchcock, Dave Olson, Bill Tucker, John Weber, Dennis Christman, and others. They began to germinate the idea of a club.

Hill also got the idea back in the 1960s to re-introduce sled dog racing to the St. Paul Winter Carnival. Several years before the North Star Club came into being, she had approached John Geisler, who was managing director of the Winter Carnival Association, to rekindle a race, and they had a race from, it is thought, around Cottage Grove, or someplace to the south side of St. Paul, into the city of St. Paul, running along the highways and freeways with just a number of small teams.

Then, the race itself on the chain of lakes at Phelan Lake was rekindled. Bill Tucker and Bob McKenzie and several others got involved with putting that race on. It became known as the East Meets West Race. The usual order of winners had Art Allen from Swisher, Iowa, as first with his wife, Judy, second, and John Weber in third. Weber ran Siberian dogs from Priscilla Nelson’s kennel in St. Paul. Kashe and Kona were her best, and many of the old registered Siberian lines of sled dogs can be traced back to these two dogs.

As the St. Paul race developed, after a couple of years, they felt that a club should be formed to get more races going and more interest going. Thus was North Star Sled Dog Club born. Mabell Hill was 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 NSSDC started to increase a little bit. There was the race at St. Paul every year and a number of smaller races at different places around: over in Wisconsin and at Don Gale’s place over in Wisconsin. Gale had some weekend outing type races in Wisconsin. Denny Hitchcock lined up a race in Waseca, which went for three years.

About 1969 NSSDC was approached by Brian Stout of Ely, Minnesota, about a race. NSSDC helped that community line up, what was to become, a very successful race with pretty substantial purses. NSSDC people like Oz Bayers, Gary Lillie, and John Cooper helped Ely establish their race. During its heyday, Ely attracted the elite racers from Alaska and Canada, such as George Attla, Harvey Drake, and Doc Lombard from Massachusetts.

North Star used to hold its monthly meetings at the Northernaire Motel in St. Paul. In the early days there might be more than sixty people in attendance in the over crowded meeting room, and discussions could get rather lively. Hill took the presidency for a spell in those early days and forbade any alcoholic beverages at any meeting. When Oz Bayers took the job from her, his first executive order was to recess for a few minutes so that attendees could go get a beer in the bar!

North Star went through not only growing pains, accomplishments and agonies, but also controversies. In 1975, under Charlie Gould’s presidency, NSSDC invested in a Cushman Trackster, a piece of grooming equipment, weighing over 1,000 pounds. Although this worked well, one of the problems was hauling it from race site to race site. Eventually it was sold. NSSDC also invested in permanent race bibs with each member’s name and the NSSDC logo supported by a donation from Pabst Brewing Co. A big controversy erupted between North Star and the International Sled Dog Racing Association (ISDRA) in 1976 over ISDRA’s denial of sanctioning of a NSSDC race, which had been one of the premier ISDRA and NSSDC races in Minnesota.

In 1984 NSSDC hosted the first Annual Summer Seminar. This became an annual event for many years. NSSDC invited noted speakers in the sled dog community. In this same year, NSSDC revised its by laws to eliminate voting approval of the membership for new members. In the old days, a prospective new member would be required to leave the room while his/her application was reviewed. Of course, none were denied membership, but, nevertheless, this was a practice that was long overdue for elimination.

In the late 1980s under the presidency of Al Stead, NSSDC voted to get a charitable gambling license and operated two pulltab stations. Profits amounted to over $50,000 yearly, but irregularities and difficulties in its operation dictated its demise after two years.

The NSSDC race circuit was one of the best in the country outside of Alaska. Total purses amounted to over $30,000 … and this was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the 1985 under Al Stead’s presidency, season purses topped $97,000. There were the Ely race, Grand Rapids, Kelliher-Shooks, and Bemidji’s Paul Bunyan. Steve and Judy Bergemann developed a small race circuit in eastern Wisconsin, which drew many mushers and provided lots of good times. In 1984 Cannon Falls came on board with a race, which proved to be the epitome of good organization. It continued for many years but folded eventually due to lack of snow.

Today, North Star Sled Dog Club is still an active mover in the Midwest. However, like many organizations, it is affected by hard economic times and climate change. Its board of directors always have the visions for the future in mind when making decisions and go about promoting the future of the sport and the ideals of NSSDC.

The Incorporators of NSSDC who are listed by the State of Minnesota and who served on its first Board were: Ed (Oz) Bayers, John Cooper, John Frankson, Patricia Leonard, Lois Kotilinek, Floyd MacKenzie.

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The original NSSDC logo, designed by graphic artist Chuck Gould. It was changed in 1987 to its present design.

A Short Cruise Down NSSDC’s Memory Lane


**Note: In actuality, in reference to the beginnings of the Ely race, then NSSDC president, John O'Reilly, sent Gary Lillie to Ely (Lillie was the corresponding secretary at the time), in response to an inquiry from Brian Stout from the Ely Chamber of Commerce about having a sled dog race. Lillie went to Ely, did a slide presentation and signed them up for a $3000 race for 1970. John Cooper and Ozzie Bayers went there a bit later and were in charge of laying out the trail.
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