Everybody loves a cocker spaniel.
Well, at least they used to. For several decades at mid-20th century, and again in the 1980s, the little pooch reigned as America’s most popular dog.
Recent figures, however, show that the floppy-eared doggie’s number-one rank has come to an end. Of course, I have nothing against current champ Labrador retriever.
Rather, I’m pointing out this phenomenon because the rise of the cocker spaniel from odd little English import to American icon is a part of Wyoming Valley history. The breed’s popularity was spurred greatly by the work of a Kingston dog breeder named William T. Payne, better known locally as a coal baron and banker.
After graduation from the Sheffield school at Yale University, he entered the family business, the East Boston Coal Co., eventually becoming president. He was also a member of the board of directors of the Second National Bank of Wilkes-Barre.
But Payne’s true passion had nothing to do with anthracite or accounts. Born in 1871, by the early 20th century he was acquiring and breeding cocker spaniels – an English dog fairly new to America — and had become a force in the breeding world. By 1913, his ad in the magazine County Life in America proclaimed his business, Midkiff Kennels in Dallas, to be “the largest breeder and exhibitor of cocker spaniels in the world.”
The awards for his dogs began piling up. But Payne’s breakthrough as a breeder of the new line came in 1921 at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York City. The event consists of two days of judging, during which champions are crowned, in many categories. On the final evening, the category winners are matched and a “best in show” chosen.
At the opening of the event at Madison Square Garden, a pre-show favorite, according to The New York Times, was a beautiful Pekingese named Phantom of Ashcroft. Owned by famed Manhattan breeder Elbridge Gerry Snow Jr., the little dog had piled up awards in many other shows.
Payne’s entry was Midkiff Seductive, a parti-color (two-color) cocker spaniel, a relative unknown and, of course, a less-common breed to boot.
Yet on the evening of Feb. 12, the final judging for best in show came down to precisely those two dogs, champions of their respective classes, as the other champions were eliminated.
As tension built, the two judges split on their final vote, resulting in the show’s referee being called in to break the tie. Once more the two dogs had to walk, run and pose. Then, reported The New York Times, there “occurred something very unusual at a dog show.” Possibly sensing an upset in the making, the crowd began cheering for the little dog from Pennsylvania.
For the first time ever, a cocker spaniel was named “best in show” at Westminster. The breed had arrived and soon would become the most popular dog in America.
There were more awards for William Payne and his dogs as the years went on. In 1928 the American Spaniel Club retired a trophy after Payne’s kennels won it five times. To this day, that club honors the memory of “Billy Payne” in its publications as the man who brought the cocker spaniel from near-anonymity to pre-eminence in the dog breeding world.
Payne died in 1943. His Wyoming Avenue home is long gone, and his Wilkes-Barre Record obituary listed no local descendants.
But his life passion, the cocker spaniel – top dog or not - goes charmingly on.