An advertisement for Ranald Kennels in a 1930 Kennel Gazette (below), and a photo of dogs from the same kennel a year earlier (above). As is evident, type was still a moving target in the breed at this stage.
Regardless of how the Rockefeller estate arrived at the choice of breed, it was an inspired one: The Bullmastiff’s purpose was almost tailor-made for Pocantico. Dogs came on duty around 7 to 7:30 in the evening, and went off around 6 to 6:30 a.m. Sometimes during the night a second dog was brought in to relieve the first at around 10 p.m.
The fact that the Bullmastiff was specifically bred not to savage its human targets, but rather just hold them, fit in perfectly with the Rockefeller aversion to drawing undue public attention.
Pyle discovered this when one of the Bullmastiffs encountered a deer poacher.
“The dog’s behavior was perfect: he captured the man without biting and just stood over him, keeping him down until I reached them,” he wrote. “The only time the dog would bite was if a gun was pointed in his face.”
The dogs were “kind and ordinarily gentle to handle,” he noted – a constant refrain in the Rockefeller correspondence is the importance of their affection for children, whose presence on the estate increased steadily as Junior’s children married – “but hard to control once they had launched into battle.” As an example, Pyle told the story of visiting the kennel to find that two of the males were fence-fighting, and one had grabbed the other’s paw through the chain link.
“The more I beat him, the fiercer he fought,” he remembered. “Somehow in the struggle they managed to tear a hole in the fence large enough so that the other dog rumbled through, and then I really had a fight on my hands.”
Pyle tried drenching them with water, beating them with a broom and rake (both of which broke), throwing sand in their mouths – nothing worked. Desperate to keep the dogs from each other’s throats, he knocked the kennel phone from its cradle and could not break away to make the call. But the wily operator heard the bedlam and called the estate office, which dispatched MacVicar to the scene.
“When the fracas was over I found I had a dislocated thumb and recalled my hand being in one of the dogs’ mouths at one point,” Pyle wrote. “Even in the heat of battle he had recognized that my hand was not part of the other dog, and he had not bitten it.”
Intruders at the estate, however, had no such appreciation for the Bullmastiffs’ discretion.
According to Pyle, the dogs were an effective deterrent, and his description of how they functioned could have just as easily been written by a 19th Century British gamekeeper.
“Trespassers have more respect for a guard dog than they do for two men,” he explained. “In the dark a man with one good dog is more effective than a half dozen men, because the dog’s senses are much keener than a man’s, and he does not have to rely on sight.”
Pyle noted that with the use of the trained Bullmastiffs he could clear an area in 45 minutes that would take a solitary guard an entire night to secure. “The dog also proved effective from the standpoint of the guard’s safety, since a man with a dog is much more difficult to dispose of than a man alone."
Starts and Stops
The couple from which the Rockefellers obtained all their dogs, Herbert and Ethel Hignett, were relative unknowns in Bullmastiffs at the time. Indeed, the Hignetts did not breed any of the dogs they sent to the Rockefeller estate over the years, but rather procured them from others – logical, as the estate wanted security-trained adults.
Ironically, in the very year the Rockefeller Bullmastiffs arrived, John W. Cross Jr., who also lived in the New York metropolitan area, imported the first AKC-registered Bullmastiff, Fascination of Felons Fear, from S.E. Moseley. Fascination, a bitch, had the same sire as one of the Rockefeller imports, Ragger, though there is no indication the Rockefellers knew of Cross, or vice versa. If they had, a Ragger x Fascination breeding would have been an interesting inbreeding of half-brother to half-sister on their father, the relatively typey Ch. Farcroft Felons Frayeur, and could very well have changed the course of Bullmastiffs in America.
At first glance, it seems curious that inquiries into Bullmastiffs for the Rockefellers would not have lead them to Moseley, a well-advertised breeder of the period, or some of his other high-profile contemporaries, such as James Toney of Fenns Kennels or Cyril Leeke of Bulmas. At minimum, the estate might have sought out breeders with better pedigrees. But the Pocantico dogs were working dogs, no more. And if MacVicar was charged with procurement of the dogs, he likely used his own channels. Letters between MacVicar and Mrs. Hignett, who handled all the correspondence, indicate that she knew or knew of MacVicar’s wife, Agnes – perhaps that was the connection.
Also unclear was how much influence MacVicar had in nudging the Rockefellers to breed their dogs. As MacVicar became a Bullmastiff breeder when he left Pocantico in 1942 – indeed, it is very likely the Rockefeller bloodline would never have left the closeted estate were it not for him – it’s reasonable to conclude that he did push for it. It would also have been a logical progression: Rather than pay to import more dogs, the estate could simply produce them itself.
Indeed, a mere two months after the original pair of dogs arrived, MacVicar began corresponding with Ethel Hignett regarding a bitch.
“I can let you have a real nice Bitch, under three years, over distemper, and good in every way with children, delivered in New York with all requirements, price £50, fifty pounds,” she wrote in spidery longhand in one of many transatlantic letters.
The deal never came to fruition – perhaps the estate wanted to see how the initial dogs would work out before committing to a breeding program. Instead, in December 1935, approval was given to acquire two more males, with Junior’s 27-year-old son Nelson specifically requesting “ a light colored dog.”
As the pair was to arrive the following March, discussions ensued as to how to house them. Prince and Peter were living in small wooden kennels near the sheep barn, just along the perimeter fence near the main entrance, that were clearly not ideal. Junior suggested that the dogs be housed near the farm barns, outside the enclosed Park, but his sons, along with MacVicar, made the case for having them within the perimeter.
In a memo to his father, Nelson Rockefeller ticked off the advantages of keeping the dogs within the family enclosure: the “psychological benefit” of having them accessible in the Park, even if they did not patrol in the daytime; the danger of them being poisoned or otherwise harmed; and, finally, the logistical question of how they would be transported to the Park for their eveningtime patrols.
In the end, a portion of the sheep barn was retrofitted to accommodate kennels for six dogs, with 28-foot long runs, for a cost of $1,000.
This was a far cry from the $5,000 estimate MacVicar had gotten to create his ideal plan – a total renovation of the barn with 10 interior pens, each with a 40-foot-long exterior run leading to an large exercise yard, and nine collapsible “sleeping houses.” In his book, Pyle described MacVicar’s very ambitious vision for his canine security team: “The original idea was one dog per man – our watching force had a minimum of fifteen men, which was built up to twenty-seven in the busiest summer months.” At its peak, it appears the kennel’s population of adult dogs never exceeded the single digits.
Even as the kennel details were still being ironed out, their new tenants arrived: Three-year-old “Rinto” (Tigers Vindictive x Princess Wonder), registered as Righto; and “Rodger” (Trustful Herman x Diana of Athos), registered as All Right, who was a year younger. “Both dogs have lovely dispositions and are splendid with children,” MacVicar wrote to Junior. “Rodger may I mention is the larger one, that Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller admires.”
Later that year, in November 1936, one of the original Bullmastiffs, “Peter,” died. He had been “out of sorts” and under veterinary care for 10 days, MacVicar reported; the post-mortem showed chronic kidney disease.
Peter’s death prompted an order for a replacement. Superintendent Staley wrote to another Junior son, Laurance Rockefeller, suggesting that “perhaps you would also want one of these dogs to protect your new house and family.”
It appears Laurance was in accord. In January 1937, £120 was cabled to Mrs. Hignett, and two Bullmastiffs – Jubilee Boy (Houldsworth Prince x Pencombe Beauty), known as “Sandy,” and Chang Felius (Chang x Trustful Fawn), called “Chang” – arrived that March, “in good shape,” MacVicar reported to Staley, “and, I am glad to inform you, good looking, strong and healthy.”
Exactly a year later, the Rockefeller estate sent Mrs. Hignett a bank draft for £50 for a Bullmastiff bitch. A couple of months later, in March 1938, a letter arrived from Mrs. Hignett regarding “Bessie,” which started off listing her attributes: “clean in the house, good with children,” and biddable, responding to hand signals or a press on the shoulders.
Then came a sentence that every breeder shudders to hear.
“Now, Mr. MacVicar, I must tell you, and I scarcely know how to put it, that Bessie came in season a fortnight ago, and we had a little mishap with her.
“I have been without help for nearly three weeks, and last Thursday, whilst I was in the poultry pens feeding, my little girl Joan came home from school, and straight away let the dogs out in their run, to have a romp with them, unfortunately she let Bessie out as well,” she continued. “I nearly had a fit when I came up the field and saw what she had done, and ran to put Bessie in at once.”
Uncertain as to what happened out of her eyeshot, Hignett said she was sending the bitch on. Should a litter materialize, she wrote anguishedly, “my dog is a lovely biscuit fawn, good bred dog, and we have taught him to do everything, only talk.”
In a memo to another Junior son, John Rockefeller the 3rd, MacVicar outlined the situation, noting that if a litter was a problem at the time, the bitch – Beryls Choice (Warlord of Wolstonhill x Tenby Lass) – could always be sold and a new one procured.
There is no further mention of Bessie’s fate, although in a 1940 memo reporting the death “of natural causes” of 10-year-old Prince, one of the first two Bullmastiffs imported in 1934, MacVicar notes that there were four dogs left – presumably the males Rinto, Rodger (renamed Remi), Chang and Sandy.
In that same memo, MacVicar – ever seeking to expand his canine empire – made the case for ordering two more Bullmastiffs, shrewdly noting that wartime would affect not just the supply of Bullmastiffs but – a push button for the penny-counting Rockefellers – their price.
In February 1940, Mrs. Hignett wrote again regarding a bitch. “Now I can supply you with a very nice Bull Mastiff bitch, excellent guard, good with children, and proved breeder, price sixty guineas, delivered to you in March.”
The estate paid her $249.17 (a little over $4,000 today), and soon Dorothy Gay (Max x Stall Owners Stormer) arrived. MacVicar lost no time in orchestrating a breeding. Bred to one of the 1937 imports, Chang Felius, Dorothy Gay produced six puppies – three dogs and three bitches – on January 6, 1941.
Unlike the first two Bullmastiffs that had arrived at Pocantico, these puppies were AKC registered. The estate name seemed a logical prefix, and five of the six were given alliterative “P” names: the males Pocantico Pathfinder, Pocantico Permit and Pocantico Panther, and the females Pocantico Phoebe and Pocantico Petrel.
A third bitch was registered in the ownership of Donald MacVicar, and given an entirely unrelated name – Taurus Tigress. MacVicar’s recommendation to Junior was that the estate keep one male and two females, as the war could soon start to affect imports, and some of the estates dogs were “beginning to show age.” In the end, it appears Rockefeller kept four – two of each gender. One male, Pocantico Panther, was sent to Colonial Williamsburg.
Soon after the first litter at Pocantico was whelped, MacVicar had his own hands full: In February 1941, Junior informed him that due to overstaffing, the assistant superintendent position was no longer needed. Clearly feeling an attachment to MacVicar – the Rockefellers had attended the funeral of his namesake son, Donald, in 1937 – Junior promised to continue his salary through the end of the year. He also gave him Taurus Tigress, whom MacVicar called “Becky”; in return, if she were bred, the estate could have as many of her puppies as it needed, and MacVicar would train them.
Meanwhile, MacVicar rooted about for what to do in his impending post-Pocantico life. In April 1941, he told his boss Frank Staley that he had found a small farm in Maryland for $6,500, where he could relocate. Junior offered to give MacVicar $5,000 to buy it, but the farm was already sold.
In September, still jobless, MacVicar decided to partner with two other men to buy a piece of property in nearby Peekskill, N.Y., and go into the dog-breeding business. Junior sent him a total of $4,000 out of the $5,000 promised, but by the end of the year MacVicar and his business partners were embroiled in a lawsuit with neighbors, who didn’t want a kennel operation in their backyard. And Rockefeller discovered that MacVicar never had title to the property.
Despite all this, MacVicar maintained a cordial relationship with Rockefeller and his former colleagues at Pocantico. MacVicar set about trying to raise and train dogs to sell to the military, and the estate referred any inquiries about purchasing Bullmastiffs to MacVicar, calling him “a good friend of Mr. Rockefeller.”
In July 1942, MacVicar bred 19-month-old Becky for the first time. The sire was Righto, an unrelated male from the second pair imported to Pocantico in 1937. Rockefeller did not charge a stud fee, and MacVicar offered him a puppy, Eric of Kijkuit, which Rockefeller accepted.
“Because I fancy you must be passing through a difficult period pending the finding of some permanent activity, I hope you will let me tuck in the enclosed little check as a reminder of the warm friendship which all of the members of the Rockefeller family have for you and yours,” Rockefeller wrote to MacVicar in October 1942.
But Rockefeller’s patience with his former employee was soon tested. In November, with his application to the Army pending, MacVicar sent Becky back to Pocantico, and began complaining about how difficult it was to place the puppies, although he did sell a bitch, Diana of Hunterbrook, to Cleveland lawyer Joseph C. Hostetler. A month later, when MacVicar reported to Fort Robinson in Nebraska, Becky’s three remaining puppies joined her and her brother at Pocantico.
In January 1943, MacVicar wrote to Junior’s office manager, Gumbel, vaguely apologizing (presumably for the inconvenience he had caused), and then inquiring if Rockefeller planned to breed any of his Bullmastiffs. “I have an idea after the war time there will be a demand for them,” he said. “We have been trying to get one or two here for training but so far have not succeeded. There are not many in the country.”
Rockefeller did indeed go on to breed Bullmastiffs; Tom Pyle likely had a hand in this matter, as a few years later, with his daughter-in-law Edith, he would begin breeding them himself. In October 1943, Pocantico produced two litters, with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., as the breeder of record. Both litters were brother-sister inbreedings, utilizing the four remaining dogs from the estate’s first litter two years before: Pocantico Permit was bred to Pocantico Phoebe, producing only one registered dog retained by the estate, Pocantico Bounce. Two days earlier, Pocantico Petrel whelped a litter by Pocantico Pathfinder, which included Chang of Pocantico (sold to a Louis Collins), Pocantico Lass (later owned by Edith Pyle), Pocantico Bruce and Pocantico Christine.
Then there was a litter that Rockefeller likely wouldn’t have approved, as it involved another man’s property. Earlier that year, in May 1943, MacVicar’s Taurus Tigress was bred by her littermate, Pocantico Permit, producing nine puppies. Among them were Acadia Lady and Princess Chloe, who was acquired by breeder Stanley Wolff.
By April 1945, Pocantico had divested itself of all of MacVicar’s dogs; the puppies from the presumed “oops” breeding were sold or given away, and MacVicar had found a buyer for Taurus Tigress as well. Almost as soon as it started, the Rockefeller breeding program was finished – no more litters would be bred.
But intentionally or not, Rockefeller had seeded interest in this new breed. In September 1945, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Burn of Valiant Kennels in Bristol, Connecticut, called at the Rockefeller Center offices to invite Junior to accept the presidency of the fledgling Bull Mastiff Club of America.
“Mr. Burn told me that there was at one time a Bull Mastiff Club, but something happened to it and it seems to have gone out of existence,” wrote office manager Gumbel in a memo. “It seems that Mr. Rockefeller is responsible for the revived interest in the Bull Mastiff, he seemingly having been the first to breed the dogs here with success. Mr. Burn believes there are something like fifty Bull Mastiffs now registered in the American Kennel Club – all offshoots of Mr. Rockefeller’s dogs. A group of owners believes that Bull Mastiffs are likely to become quite popular, and they think by starting this Club, it will be the beginning.”
This was not quite accurate, of course – some of the registered Bullmastiffs had been previously imported and registered by John Cross, though the later additions to the registry were indeed Rockefeller-derived. Knowing what Rockefeller’s response would be, Gumbel politely begged off. But the visit likely paid off for Burn, whose kennel name should be familiar to Mastiff fanciers, as he bred Valiant Diadem, who was sent to England to revive the breed after the war. Burn also bred Bullmastiffs, and in July 1946, he was the breeder of record of a litter by Pocantico Permit out of Pocantico Phoebe. Presumably, Rockefeller wanted out of the breeding business and sold the dogs to Burn.
A decade later, in November 1955, the fate of the remaining Bullmastiffs at Pocantico was sealed. A new superintendent, Lester Sleinkofer, suggested that the Bullmastiffs – which were “too old to train” for guard work – be replaced with trained German Shepherd Dogs. Only two shepherds would be needed, he indicated in a memo to Junior: one to accompany the patrolman and one for Kykuit. The dogs were $1,000 each, which included the training of the handlers, a cost that would be offset by the sale of the four remaining Bullmastiffs.
The Rockefellers maintained their Bullmastiff kennel for a little more than two decades at Pocantico. But some of their offspring were sold or given away outside the estate, helping popularize the breed locally. One prolific bitch who was the best hope of carrying the Rockefeller strain of dogs into the future was Taurus Tigress’ inbred daughter, Princess Chloe.
Her owner, Stanley Wolff, at first bred her to her half-brother, Eric of Kijkuit, who was owned by Rockefeller, producing one male, Bryn of Pocantico, in November 1944. In June 1949, Chloe whelped another litter, this time by her uncle, Pocantico Pathfinder. That yielded Ch. Lancelot of North Castle, the first American-bred Bullmastiff champion.
Tom Pyle’s daughter-in-law Edith Pyle, now 89, started working at Pocantico in 1943, helping to train the dogs at the kennel. She remembers them as being well temperamented and “very mastiffy.” Intense linebreeding on this phenotype may have simply not produced dogs that were typey enough to be good Bullmastiffs.
Edith Pyle, who started working in the Rockefeller kennels in 1943 and later went on to breed her own Bullmastiffs under the Pocantico prefix, pictured here on her Vermont farm in 2004. Photo: John Fusco
“You would see Bullmastiffs at shows when I first started that were not typical at all, all sizes and shapes to start with,” she remembers. “I think that due to this, people imported English dogs, because their breeding was much more uniform. You heard a name, like Oldwell, and they were very typical, very consistent.”
Pyle herself owned Pocantico Lass (Pocantico Pathfinder x Pocantico Petrel), the first Bullmastiff to get her Companion Dog obedience title, as well as Pocantico Snowshoe, a Princess Chloe daughter named for her inordinately large feet as a puppy. Lass never had puppies. Pyle bred Snowshoe in 1949, to Pride of Parkhurst II, but the bloodline never went any further.
In 1952, Pyle moved to Vermont, where until recently she and her husband Walter ran a dairy farm. She continued to breed Bullmastiffs until the 1990s, slyly using the Pocantico name since the Rockefellers were no longer breeding. But she acquired new stock along the way, and none of the Pocantico blood carried on beyond her lines, or Stanley Wolff’s.
Above: The earliest image from the family of Bullmastiffs bred by the Rockefeller is this photo of Pocantico Lass, at 11 years and 10 months old. Registered as a light fawn with a black mask, she was bred by John D. Rockefeller in 1943 out of a brother-sister inbreeding: Pocantico Pathfinder x Pocantico Petrel. Her rather Mastiffy appearance is consistent with what Edith Pyle remembers of the estate dogs. She never produced offspring. Below: Pocantico Lass in the obedience ring, date unknown.
Today, Kykuit is managed by Historic Hudson Valley, and visitors can admire its stunning vistas, immaculately groomed gardens and precious works of art. The Bullmastiffs are all gone, even their memory. The tour guides are unaware that 80 years ago this property, spectacular for so many reasons, was also a haven for a rare breed, and a proving ground for its very purpose. But now, perhaps, they will know.
From 1934 to 1940, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., imported eight purebred Bullmastiffs to patrol his estate at Pocantico Hills in Westchester County, N.Y. They are listed here by their year of arrival. All were owned by Mrs. Ethel Hignett at the time of transfer, but the identity of a previous owner, if known, is noted.
Sire: Ch. Farcroft Felons Frayeur
Dam: Patricia (no pedigree information)
Whelped: Feb. 29, 1932
Breeder: Mr. P.T. Hartley
Ch. Farcroft Felons Frayeur, sire of one of the first Rockefeller dogs, Ragger.
Sire: Bowdencourt Stormer
Dam: Mona of Ivor
Whelped: Dec. 14, 1931
Breeder: Mr. W. Cumblehume
All Right (Dog)
Sire: Trustful Herman
Dam: Diana of Athos
Whelped: Feb. 13, 1934
Breeder: Mrs. M. Walker
At right: Tigers Vindictive, sire of Righto.
Sire: Tigers Vindictive
Dam: Princess Wonder Whelped: Dec. 9, 1932
Breeder: Mr. J. Barnard
Jubilee Boy (Dog)
Sire: Houldsworth Prince
Dam: Pencombe Beauty
Whelped: Nov. 21, 1934
Breeder: Mrs. P. Flood
Original owner: Mr. S. Brierley
Chang Felius (Dog)
Sire: Chang (KC note: “an unregistered dog, and not the dog with this registered name”)
Dam: Trustful Fawn
Whelped: June 11, 1934
Breeder: Mr. A.G. Putnam
Original owner: Mr. J.H. Chapple
Beryls Choice (Bitch)
Sire: Warlord of Wolstonhill
Dam: Tenby Lass
Whelped: May 10, 1935
Breeder: Mr. E.E. Jackson
Dorothy Gay (Bitch)
Whelped: June 8, 1938
Breeder: Mr. J. Trodden
Ch. Lancelot of North Castle, the first American-bred Bullmastiff champion, was heavily linebred on the original Rockefeller dogs.