Serving and Preserving at the Old Hemlock Foundation

By Ian Gray, Preserve WV AmeriCorps serving at the Old Hemlock Foundation

“It is pleasant to hope when Kay and I are no longer gunning Old Hemlock setters will keep our ideals alive.”  George Bird Evan Troubles with Bird Dogs

runion (graffious's and me)

Helen and LeJay Graffious and Ian Gray (right)

Most days when I head into the “office,” the first thing to do is reach down and greet the black and white ball of energy that runs to the front door.  While serving with a pair of dogs is a soothing experience and an incredible perk, it also stands as a metaphor of the unique legacy and nature that makes Old Hemlock (http://www.oldhemlock.org/) so special.  Many places claim it, but we at Old Hemlock can truly say that our history is alive.

Enthralled by the Allegany Mountains, grouse hunting, and English setters from a young age, George Evans knew the type of life he wanted to lead and lived it well.  Finding success as a graphic artist in New York, George was able to secure the funds to acquire the country home he dubbed Old Hemlock and demonstrate enough talent to convince his art director at Cosmopolitan that working from the beauty of the West Virginia mountains was in everyone’s best interest.  After the interruption of WWII, George quickly wrapped up his professional illustration career and turned his full attention to the things he loved the most, his wife Kay, grouse and woodcock hunting, writing, and breeding the line of gun dogs that have become a living legacy.  Every March, that living history gathers in the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania in the form of a small herd of beautiful dogs and their doting owners.

For three days, the Hunting Hills Shooting Preserve is filled with the sounds of joyous conversation, the sharp crack of gunshots, and collective barking from dozens of Old Hemlock setters eager to hit the field and find the waiting birds.  Having never even held a gun, much less embarked on a hunting trip, being able to simply follow the dogs and owners into the field was an eye-opening experience.  I had read the literature and had a basic grasp of the history associated with Old Hemlock, but the three-day immersion made everything come together.  The bond between gunner and dog, the beauty of the slender setter on point, the exhilaration of a productive shot and subsequent retrieve, and so many other things described so eloquently in the pages of George’s writings were now before me in living color.  In each dog rested the legacy of the man and woman who so carefully bred the line and the equally carefully selected owners carried on George’s view of hunting and respect for the game.  While we are blessed at Old Hemlock with the natural beauty of nature around us and a literal house full of artifacts to tell the story of George and Kay, the real legacy and best storytelling tool will always remain the dogs and owners who gather at the reunion.  Luckily for myself, the first AmeriCorps member to serve here realized the same thing and left an incredible resource to build off of and add to.

dogs plus owners

At every reunion, stories of times spent with George and Kay, their writings, their legacy, and, most numerous, the line of setters can be heard around the tables and out in the field.  The history that the foundation was established to preserve rests in the hearts and minds of the close knit group of dog owners that form the Old Hemlock family, and in an external hard drive sitting in a box on a shelf back at the foundation.  These precious stories, around twenty interviews, were copiously compiled and transcribed to provide the foundation with an Oral History archive of the anecdotes, thoughts, and feelings that were alive in the oral tradition but never written down or recorded.  At the recent reunion, I got the chance to try my own hand at adding to the already rich archive.

Over the three days, three interviews were conducted capturing the perspectives of a new member to the Old Hemlock family and two individuals that experienced a common interest in dogs and gunning evolve into ownership of a setter placed by George and Kay and a treasured friendship.  Having conducted oral history interviews before, I knew the stories shared by interviewees can be powerful, and it’s often surprising how much people are willing to share.  However, I was still amazed and horned at what was spoken of in the interview process.

First and foremost, talking to the interviewees brought the subject and history squarely into the present.  The interviewees’ testimony made memories of George and Kay, the dogs, and past reunions seem if they had happened only yesterday.  I was brought back to the moments shared by the interviewees that conjured warm feelings of fond embraces, and at one point a few tears of joy, and felt, in some small way, that I had gotten to meet the people behind the wonderfully written books I had been reading the past few months.  Beyond the figurative aspect of the past existing in the present, each interview made clear the story of Old Hemlock has yet to end.  As the new member to the Old Hemlock family aptly demonstrated, the writings of George and Kay, the line of setters, and the annual reunion continue to carry on their memory have ensured that legacy will not die anytime soon.  Old Hemlock’s mission is to preserve and promote the legacy of George and Kay and it benefits immensely from that legacy being more than static objects and writings, it is a group of people and a line of dogs that continues to grow with every new litter or owner.  With this archive of interviews laying at my fingertips, the natural next step was to get the content out of the archive and into the public sphere.

The internet is a truly wonderful thing.  A few clicks of the mouse can share virtually anything around the world in an instant.  Having basic video editing skills in my tool belt, the possibilities inherent in the over twenty hours of raw video stuck out like a sore thumb.  Each interview contained segments that eloquently and powerfully spoke to the many aspects of Old Hemlock’s history that were screaming to be shared and help the foundation’s mission.  After taking inventory and some brainstorming, a plan emerged.  Each interview would be dissected and the beset of the best content pulled out to form short (one to four minute) clips and then organized into groups (the impact of George’s writing for example) to be uploaded to the foundation’s YouTube page and shared with the online world.  So far, the subsequent implementation has provided further valuable experience in video editing and gleaned a deeper appreciation for the past and present so enthusiastically shred by the interviewees.

Each time I hear and see the voices and faces on the screen, faces that went from strangers to incredibly welcoming and good natured people over the reunion, the tales told become more and more like conversations shared in the relaxed atmosphere of the reunion rather than files on some hard drive.  Each clip sheds new light on the muti-faceted story we celebrate here at Old Hemlock and puts it in words that seem to be inspired from the pen of George and Kay as they look down on what they would be proud to call their legacy.  As George poignantly stated, “Some men tell of beauty, speak of grace.   I tell of grouse dogs that enriched me beyond measure and made me glad.” [1]  Thanks to that intimate love for the dogs and his tireless effort to perfect the line, the Old Hemlock Foundation has, itself, been enriched beyond measure in the dogs that still bear the breeders mark and the owners who carry on a living memory that shows no signs of fading.

[1] George Bird Evans, An Affair with Grouse (Bruceton Mills: Old Hemlock, 1982), 110.

AmeriCorpsThis position is made possible through an AmeriCorps State and National Grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service and Volunteer WV.

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