Fisher's Island: Birthplace of the ESSFTA by Bill Fawcett
Fisher's Island brace work course from
The English Springer Spaniel in America by Henry Lee Ferguson.
In the early part of the last century, the Fisher's
Island Sportsmen's Club began releasing hundreds of pheasants annually on this small island off the coast
of Connecticut southeast of New London. In 1910, the club brought over William Sinclair from Scotland to
serve as Head Gamekeeper. Sinclair had worked with spaniels his entire life.
This was the significant start of Springerdom in the United States.
An early field trail on Fisher's Island, photo
from The Cocker Spaniel
by Ella B. Moffitt
The English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association (ESSFTA), the first springer club in the United
States, was formed in 1922. The club founders included Samuel G. Allen, William Hutchenson, and the three Ferguson brothers: Walton Jr., Henry and Alfred.
Naturally, Fisher's Island was selected as the location of the first field trial, which was held in October of 1924, on land owned by
the Ferguson brothers. The winner of that trial, Aughrim Flashing, later became the first FC.
By 1927 (1), the AKC recognized the ESSFTA as the "parent club" of the breed. As such, they developed
the breed standards (comformation) and the field trial rules and procedures.
A Fisher's Island gallery from
The English Springer Spaniel in America by Henry Lee Ferguson.
The ESSFTA recieved much assistance from William Humphrey of the Horsford Kennel in England. Humphrey
helped with the development of the US trial format that has changed little over the years. He also had expertise in comformation having judged at Westminster in
1924. Walton Ferguson and William Hutchenson also helped with the expense of "importing" English judges for many of the trials, after Humphrey - all Amateurs,
a practice that continued into the 30's. Each of these judges worked with an American judge, mentoring the development of their judging skills.
A bench show was held along with each of the early field trials, and this emphasis on comformation as
well as field skills is reflected in a few of the trophies that are still awarded today. Dual Champions from this era include DCh Tedwyns Trex (import) and
home-grown DCh Fast.
"At intervals after Labor Day every year, about
thirty-five hundred pheasants are set loose on the
island in batches of five hundred by the English
Springer Spaniel Field Trail Association. By the time
of the trials, the birds are presumable sufficiently
acclimated to behave naturally. The dogs compete in
pairs, and each dog has two men with him, a "handler"
(sometimes the owner, sometimes a trainer) and a
"The dogs start off on parallel courses and one ofthem
usually flushes a bird in fifteen or twenty minutes.
His gun shoots it, his handler gives orders, an dthe
dog retrieves it, and the judge takes notes. When each
entrant has got a bird, the "series" is over."
-- The Talk of the Town, published in The New Yorker magazine, October 20, 1934
How quickly things change. By 1932 William Humphrey had this to say about the situation:
"A large number of people believe that bench shows in the case of sporting dogs are of little or no benefit
to the breeds. To be a winner at a bench show, a dog must be sound and of good type and must be able to show himself on the end of a leash. A perfect specimen
he may be, but few of these dogs are ever good in the field. They are bred to conform to a certain standard and from this breeding they do not inherit what a
sporting dog should have, the blood of generations of trained shooting dogs running in their veins. A winning show dog is bred to a winning show bitch, and
the resulting puppies to the get of other well known show dogs. Seldom does a field trial dog, or even a good shooting dog, go high in the show-ring; a few do,
but they are the exceptions."
The last Dual Champion was made up in 1938. Notwithstanding, most field trialers still appreciate
a field-bred that is also a superb physical specimen.
Special Prizes awarded only to dogs winning a
including a judges' award of merit:
British Challenge Cup (Sterling Silver) presented by the English Springer Spaniel Club of
England to the winner of the Open All-Age Stake. The winner's name to be engraved on the cup.
The International Gun Dog League of England Challenge Cup (Sterling Silver) awarded to the dog in the Open
All-Age Stake who, in the opinion of the judges, has shown by his work in the field his superiority by his keenness, drive, game finding ability and
The William Rauch Memorial Challenge Trophy (Sterling Silver) presented by Mr. and Mrs. Walton Ferguson for
the best dog in the meeting.
The Walton Ferguson, Jr. Memorial Trophy (Sterling Silver Bowl) awarded to the winner of the Amateur
All-Age Stake, to be held until a subsequent winner is declared. The winner's name to be engraved on the bowl.
The Horsford Dual Challenge Cup (Sterling Silver) presented in 1926 by William Humphrey, Esq. of
Shrewsbury, England, retired in 1967 by Dean Bedford and put back in perpetual competition by him in 1968, for the Best Working and Best Looking dog at
the Annual Field Trial.
The Dr. Samuel Milbank Memorial Challenge Trophy (Sterling Silver) donated by the Parent Club, to be
awarded to the winner of the Amateur All-Age Stake. The Trophy will be in competition until won five times by the same owner but not necessarily with the same
dog. The name of the winning dog and owner to be engraved on the trophy which will remain in the custody of the winner until a subsequent winner is
The Dungarven Perpetual Challenge Trophy presented by Mrs. Mabel Brady Garvan in memory of Walton Ferguson,
Jr. for the Best Working and Best Looking dog in the Annual Licensed Trial.
For more on Fisher's Island:
(1) - Bea Smith states "In 1926 The English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association applied and was
admitted to membership in the American Kennel Club and was designated as the Parent Club of the Breed." All
other accounts found state 1927. Smith, Beatrice P., The English Springer Spaniel in North America, ESSFTA 1970
(2) - Ferguson, Henry Lee, The English Springer Spaniel in America, Derrydale Press, New York 1932
Bill Fawcett resides in the Shenandoah Valley of
Virginia with his wife, Cindy, and his Smythwicks Springers: Jenna, Beebe and Drake. He is a
hunter, field trialer, breeder and member of the M-AHSC and
the ESSFTA. He maintains a public FB ESS
pedigree database at smythwicks.org.