Ultimo aggiornamento:  04.11.2019 16.11
October 6, 2009

The Sunnybank Collies

By  George Bancroft Duren

St. Nicholas, 1922 - Digitized by Google. Original from University of Chicago. Courtesy of Hathi Trust


Readers of ST. NICHOLAS who are dog lovers and I feel certain that you all must be will no doubt recall two stirring stories written by Albert Payson Terhune, one of which appeared in April, 1918, and the other in December, 1919.

Wolf, a big, loyal collie dog was the hero of both these tales, one of which, perhaps, as with me, made upon you a deeper impression than the other. Does the title "One Minute Longer" bring it back to you? There was Wolf and the Boy of the place, who loved his red gold and white companion as much as the dog, in his mute, appealing way, worshiped him. It tells of a hunting expedition, enjoyed by the dog as much as by his inseparable friend the Boy. While trudging across the frozen lake, the Boy suddenly steps into a gaping air hole. It is needless to repeat all the incidents, but at the end when the dog, bleeding and exhausted, leads the rescuers to the spot where the Boy, half frozen, is mum bling as he clings to the crumbling ice, "Heroism consists in hanging on one minute longer", something queer and un comfortable seems to stick in your throat. "Gee whiz!" you say to yourself as you close the magazine, "it must be great to have a dog like that! Wonder if there was a real Wolf, or did Mr. Terhune just make him up."

Later, you probably read the two books of Mr. Terhune's, "Bruce" and "Lad a Dog," the latter a story of the father of Wolf.

Then you perhaps wondered again if there was really a Wolf and a Bruce and a Lad, and if they really worshiped their master as told in Mr. Terhune's stories. Of course, you realized that all the thrilling parts of the various tales could not be true but the lovely things, the bits of true dog devotion were they true? And so if you thought these things, just as I must confess I did, you may save yourself further perplexity by answering the questions in the affirmative. Yes, there was a Lad and a Bruce, and there is now a Wolf, who is loved and returns the love of his master just as the story said he did. I know, for I have made the journey to Sunnybank, Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, the home of Lad and Bruce before they died, and the kingdom now of Wolf. I have seen the grave where Lad lies buried, the cave under the piano where in his kingly days he reigned supreme, just as Mr. Terhune related in the ST. NICHOLAS stories; and what is more, I have had the cold nose of Wolf tucked affectionately into the palm of my hand. For a morning, at least, I have lived, it seems, within the very pages where youngsters have existed many times in fond imagination.

However, I am getting ahead of my story. So to begin at the beginning. As I swung through the wide-open gate and down the zigzagging road to the house, a stone's throw from the silver gleam of the lake, there was no question that I had really reached the home of the Sunnybank collies. A chorus of ear-piercing "yap, yaps," punctuated by an occasional youthful squeal, heralded my coming. They apparently were not un-friendly barks, but merely of warning. The collies were leaping about in their screened enclosure, telling those in the house below that a stranger had entered the gates. To their master they left unconditionally the decision as to what sort of welcome I should receive.

And so I came to Wolf's kingdom; for it is he who rules the clan now that Bruce and Lad are no more. Then came the master. And here, perhaps against his will, I must pause a moment to speak of the author of these charming tales. The one word which describes Mr. Terhune is "immense" immense in stature and in heart. He has a hand shake that measures up to his size; and yet those vise like hands, which had made me wince, turned immediately to pat tenderly the well formed collie head that rested against his knee. His eyes were just as kind as the caresses which he had been bestowing upon Wolf.

There are ten collies at Sunnybank now, Bob son of Bruce, Wolf son of Lad, who are house dogs, and eight others who live a less palatial existence in the kennels adjoining the house. Hardly a day goes by that the diary of these frolicsome, four legged companions is not crammed to the very margin with interesting events. Perhaps it is a wild chase after Tippy, the dreamy eyed Persian house cat, or maybe the arrival of a new family of fluffy, clownish looking puppies. But be the event ever so humble, it is never theless of great import to the Terhune house hold and to the Sunnybank collies in particular.

Mr. Terhune is, naturally, not without his host of admirers. Few and far between are the summer days that several motoring parties do not whim through the open gate and draw up, simply bubbling over with excited youngsters, in front of the veranda. "Where is Laddie's cave?" "Show us where Lad is buried." "Which dog is Wolf?"

The questions are fired like shots from a machine gun, and Mr. Terhune would have to have at least a dozen tongues to keep up with them. The great majority of Mr. Terhune's visitors are those American boys and girls who have learned to love these story dogs just as if they really knew them. Of the grown ups who find their way along the lake shore to Sunnybank, there are few mere curiosity seekers. Most of them are true dog lovers who have either lost their own four footed companions or have dogs at home who have earned as warm a place in their hearts as the Sunnybank collies have in the affection of their master.

And also to Mr. Terhune's mail box every day come many letters from little admirers some wanting to know if there honestly is a "Wolf"; others asking for pictures of the great dog. Though these letters average a hundred a week, he has answered every one of them that is, all but two which blew out of his automobile one day. He was unable to find them and has always had a guilty feeling in his heart about the incident.

"There must be two youngsters in this big land of ours who must think me the worst kind of a piker," he said, as he stroked Wolf's straight, pointed nose. "But it could n't be helped. Along came the wind, out went the letters, and that 's all there was to it."

You might guess that a man who writes with as much feeling as Mr. Terhune does about dumb animals would be a lover of children. If so, you have guessed correctly. But in Mr. Terhune's case it is like our rel-atives "who are thrust upon us," as some one has said he can not get away from the young folks even if he would; for hundreds of them have made, and will continue to make, their pilgrimage to the lakeside home of the Sunnybank collies. Yet he and the dogs are always glad to see them, and there is always a welcoming handshake from the master and a sniff of approval from the collies.

Of all the praise Mr. Terhune receives about his stories and dogs (and he is far prouder of the latter), he cherishes most the kindly words from children.

"I'd rather get a letter of praise from a youngster than from all the grown ups in the world!" he exclaimed, as he laid down a packet of letters which he had just received; "When they say that they love Wolf, they speak from the depths of their hearts. They are not ashamed to admit their fondness even for so vague a thing as the dog character of a story. And it is their sincerity, their childish enthusiasm, which makes me so proud and happy in their praise."

Many of the reminiscences which Mr. Ter-hune brought to mind were of children. For instance, and he smiled broadly as his mind went back in retrospect to the occasion, there are the youngsters who want to see with their own eyes and touch with their own hands every spot and object of which they have read in the dog-stories. The spot on the piazza where so and so happened to Lad, and the rug where Bruce as a puppy curled up and went to sleep, and so on and so on. Often Mr. Terhune is nearly stumped, for the youngsters have learned these trivial details by heart and evidently begin to doubt the genuineness of the tales if he fails to reply immediately.

One day last summer, a little shaver came tramping down the dusty roadway, whistling merrily. He rang the bell, and, upon Mr. Terhune's appearance, graphically described himself as "the one who wrote him about his dog stories in ST. NICHOLAS." Of course, the mailman had brought Mr. Terhune about ninety nine other letters from boys and girls that very week; but in this little fellow's mind, his description of himself seemed quite sufficient. For had n't he scrawled his letter all by himself, and had n't he told Mr. Terhune in simple, but heartfelt, words how much he should like to have a really truly meat and bone dog like Wolf to play with?

But the simple introduction was all that Mr. Terhune desired. What matter if this little fellow were Pete or Jim or Charlie? He was a lover of the Sunnybank collies and he should have his reward.

Mr. Terhune related another interesting tale about Wolf. Two boys about fourteen years old were the visitors on this occasion. So anxious were they to pat and fondle the dogs which they had heard and read so much about, that they let their affection become a bit rough for Wolf's nervous collie temperament. He emitted a deep growl of warning. Of course he did not mind having his ears pulled by some toddling youngster who knew no better, but by a full grown youngster well, that was stretching his good nature a bit too far. Almost a month later, Mr. Terhune was

waiting in his automobile at the railroad station when Wolf suddenly reared himself in the back seat of the car and began snarling angrily. Another car had just passed by, and in it you have guessed were the two boys who had maltreated him.

Not by sight had Wolf recognized the little offenders, but by scent. And this is all the more remarkable, because he had been in contact with them for a very short time. But they had not treated him with the kindliness of other children, and he had put their scent among those which were odious to him; and in his life such scents were few, for he was a lover of children, just as they were of him. Thus as the unwelcome signal was carried to his nostrils, he immediately recognized it as something he did not like. And his growl of disapproval had been his answer. This is even more strange when one considers tympany thousands and thousands of scents which fill the air and earth.

On one occasion a little girl was the heroine and Wolf was the hero of an exciting drama played on the veranda at Sunnybank. Like the countless other tots who had come before her, she was there for the sole purpose of becoming acquainted with the son of the dog hero that her mother had so often read to her about.

Barely had her father turned his back, when a strange thing happened. Just as if Wolf had been a prancing steed and she a fairy princess, the girl clambered aboard the Ělog's back, and with happy "giddaps," she began digging her tiny heels into his soft flank. You can readily realize her father's horror when he suddenly looked up and saw what was happening. More quickly than I can write of it, he was out on the porch and had snatched his daughter from the back of her strange steed. But this is the peculiar thing, the thing which makes you love the dog for his almost human action: ambling slowly over to his little rider, he thrust his muzzle into her pink, chubby hand. And if a dog can smile, then there most certainly was a broad grin on Wolf's face. And besides the smile, there was a deep affection in the dog's soft brown eyes. For Wolf knew, even though perhaps the frightened father did not, that in what this little girl had done she had meant him no harm, and, doglike, he had known it instinctively.

This tale led Mr. Terhune to a discourse on the feeling which dogs, as a class, have for children. A collie will never attack a very little child, Mr. Terhune declared, no matter how badly he is maltreated, for he instinctively sees in this small, helpless little creature (perhaps in his own mind he thinks of the child as a puppy) a thing which he naturally should protect.

"It is just the same as with human beings," said Mr. Terhune, by way of illustration. "If a three-year-old child should hit you, you wouldn't strike back, would you? But if I should, you 'd very soon do so, would n't you?"

I had to acknowledge that the example was an excellent one; but when I measured Mr. Terhune's six feet and more with my own five and some odd inches, I thought to myself that the characters in his illustration might have been more wisely chosen.

In boyhood days, long before Mr. Terhune had ever written his first dog story, he was a tireless reader of ST. NICHOLAS. Particu-larly he loved the letters in the back of the magazine, and he often hoped that some day he might read there a com-munication from his own pen. One day he saw a pig eating a real live pickerel, and he thought this would make an ex-cellent subject for a story. But unfortunately, he couldn't spell "pickerel," and so his great ambition had to b e restrained until a later day. At last, years after, came the oppor-tunity to appear not in the LETTER-BOX of ST. NICHOLAS, but in the story section, with one of his first dog stories. One youngster who read the ST. NICHOLAS tale brought a copy of the magazine all the way to Pompton Lakes to see if the line drawing of Wolf was like the dog himself.

If Dawn and Bob and Wolf and the rest of the collie band are not human beings, they come as near being so as dumb animals can. Each year about the middle of December, the Terhune family begins to think about returning to New York. A week or so before the preparations are begun, the collies instinctively seem to sense that something is wrong; they become nervous, and an unhappy look steals into their eyes. What the explanation of it is, Mr. Terhune can not say. Perhaps they catch smatterings of talk about "New York" and "leaving Pompton Lakes." Who knows but what they understand this much of the human tongue?

And a similar thing takes place in the spring-time, only the dogs' eyes then are filled with dumb anticipation. Several days before the family arrives, according to the keeper of the kennels, the dogs become wild with excitement and there is no restraining them. They are like children waiting for the curtain to rise on their first theater party. There are little yelps of delight from the younger dogs, and much wagging of tails and jumping about by the older ones. Somehow they have learned that the folks they love are soon to be with them again.

Occasionally, during the winter, Mr. and Mrs. Terhune make weekend visits to Sunnybank and each time, before their arrival, their visit is the signal for a day of rejoicing among the dogs. This Mr. Terhune can more readily account for; as the fires in the house are lit a day or so before their coming, and Mr. Terhune believes that the collies know that smoke curling from the chimney and a warm feeling in the deserted house is a signal that the master is returning.

Farewell between dogs and master is always a sad time, for, of course, the collies can not be taken to the city, but must be left where they can have the freedom that is just as vital to their existence as sleep or food is to you or me. There is one of the dogs which it is I can not recall which for half an hour after the automobile has disappeared in the distance, will lie down and moan like a child.

During the war the Sunnybank collies were far from being slackers. There was not a single one among them who did not earn, by his own efforts, at least one Liberty Bond, and some of them gave substantial contributions to the Red Cross. Lad, in fact, lies sleeping beneath the green earth with the honorary Red Cross fastened about his noble neck. These funds were chiefly raised from cash prizes which the dogs won at shows and from the sale of many Sunnybank puppies.

One of the oddest stories which Mr. Terhune told was of the two collies Lad and Bruce, who were to pose for their photographs. The plan apparently, did not appeal to them, and despite the coaxing of the photographer, they simply wouldn't face the camera. Each time the photographer jumped nimbly in front of them they promptly turned their backs before they could be snapped. Mr. Terhune at last came to the rescue, and taking the head of a dog under each arm, he pointed their faces directly toward the camera's eye. But the dogs were not to be outwitted, at least to their way of thinking, and when the films were developed it was discovered that both had their eyes tightly closed. Like the ostrich who buries his head in the sand and thus believes that he can not be seen by the approaching hunters, these dogs evidently believed that if they could not see the camera, it, of course, could not see them.

I did not have to spend many moments at Sunnybank farm to learn how deeply these collies love their master and what implicit faith they have in his kindly treatment of them. Standing in front of Bob, Mr. Terhune made a quick move, bringing his foot within an inch of the dog's eyes, but Bob never stirred. Raising his hand, he made another motion, as if to strike him upon the head not an eyelash trembled. Instead, there was confidence that was almost human shining in the wistful eyes. Bob knew that in all his life the master of the house had never struck him, and that he would not do so now.

As I stood on the veranda making my farewells, Wolf walked up beside me and pushed his moist nose between my fingers. I thought as I stood there, that here was Wolf, son of Lad, whose name is almost sacred in the hearts of the youngsters who have learned to love him, honoring with his friendship a poor dog-lover who at best could only write a few heartfelt words of appreciation about him.

Soon our automobile had swung around the house and past the kennels. Several collies were peering from behind the wire of their enclosure. Perhaps they knew instinctively that I was going to write about them and that it wouldn't be dog etiquette to bark at me. As the driveway rounded into the main highway I glanced back and saw them still looking after me. Trees hid the road and blue specks of water gleamed through the thin November foliage. A hundred yards more, and Sunnybank and its famous collies had faded into memory.