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The Rockefeller Bullmastiffs

This prominent family’s role in bringing the Bullmastiff to America is little known – until now

The Rockefellers are associated with many things, among them unfettered wealth and equally munificent philanthropy. But missing from the long list of Rockefeller accomplishments is, in a word: Bullmastiffs.   The connection between America’s richest family and Britain’s premier estate-guardian breed is little known. But in the 1930s and ’40s – very discreetly and very quietly, as was their wont – the Rockefellers imported some of the nation’s earliest Bullmastiffs, and initiated one of the first breeding programs in the United States.  

The story, as with the Bullmastiff breed itself, begins with an estate.  

The two John D. Rockefellers – Senior (left) and his only son, Junior. The two John D. Rockefellers – Senior (left) and his only son, Junior.

 

The patriarch of the Rockefeller clan, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., made his fortune by founding Standard Oil, the largest refinery in the world. To call Rockefeller the richest man the world has ever seen is hardly hyperbole: He was worth $1 billion – more than a century ago.  

In the early 1890s, Rockefeller began purchasing land in the Pocantico Hills area of Westchester County, just an hour’s drive north of Manhattan. Two decades later, his patchwork quilt of real-estate acquisitions spanned some 2,500 acres, and by 1913, his Classical Revivial Georgian mansion was complete. Called Kykuit (rhyming with “high cut,” a creative spelling of the Dutch word for “lookout”), the 40-room stone home overlooked the blue expanse of the Hudson River – with the city skyline visible in the distance.  

Described by a visitor as “the kind of place God would have built – if only He had the money,” the Rockefeller estate was ten times the size of Monaco and five times the size of Central Park, with a staff of about 100 people. Pocantico, as it was called by the family, was essentially self-sufficient, growing its own produce and rearing its own meat. Whenever Senior visited any of the other Rockefeller properties – their brownstone on 54th Street in Manhattan, summer home in Seal Harbor, Maine, or winter retreat in Daytona Beach, Fla. – eggs, milk, butter, poultry, vegetables and even spring water from Pocantico followed by truck or rail.  

Well into the 20th Century, Pocantico’s outer fringes were extremely porous, with local residents riding its trails, fishing its streams and poaching its wildlife. Most of the Rockefeller residences were located in a 150-acre parcel called The Park, which in the very early years was left largely unsecured.  

“There was a gate, but it was open and unguarded,” remembered Tom Pyle in his 1964 memoir Pocantico: Fifty Years on the Rockefeller Domain, written with Reader’s Digest staffer Beth Day. “Villagers took shortcuts through the Rockefeller grounds; children played in the Park, swam in the Rockefeller-owned lakes. And the family turned their heads when members of the community collected a little Rockefeller firewood or took out of the woodlands a few gray squirrels or rabbits for food.”

 

Kykuit’s terraced Beaux Arts-style gardens were designed by landscape architect William Welles Bosworth. Bullmastiffs patrolled the area of the main house, as well as the circumference of the 150-acre parcel called The Park, where most of the Rockfeller residences were located.Kykuit’s terraced Beaux Arts-style gardens were designed by landscape architect William Welles Bosworth. Bullmastiffs patrolled the area of the main house, as well as the circumference of the 150-acre parcel called The Park, where most of the Rockfeller residences were located.

 

Pyle himself was an avid sportsman, and as a youngster he hunted the Rockefeller woods. “There were no regular guards or patrol, except for the watchman at the houses, and no one stopped me, except an occasional employee who saw me with a bag of game or string of fish and wanted a share of the loot,” he wrote. “Once a Rockefeller guard called me down out of an apple tree. But when I dumped out the apples, he merely picked the biggest one for himself and went on.”  

But this nonchalance had evaporated by the early 1930s in the wake of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, when concerns about the family’s personal security heightened.   And so the search for appropriate guard dogs began.  

 

Kykuit was built on high ground, affording spectacular views of the Hudson River.

Kykuit was built on high ground, affording spectacular views of the Hudson River.  

 

The Mysterious ‘Mac’

The Bullmastiffs at Pocantico were true working dogs, expected to perform the very job the breed had been created for – patrolling a large estate at night to apprehend trespassers. They never saw the inside of a show ring. No photographs of them, if any were ever taken, survive. What little information that does exist about them, other than the recollections of Pyle or his daughter-in-law Edith, a well-known Bullmastiff breeder herself, resides in the Rockefeller Archive Center, which holds the family’s documents and makes them available to researchers.  

A meticulous and fastidious family – from boyhood, Senior recorded his every expenditure, down to the penny, in a daily ledger – the Rockefellers kept records of the acquisition of the dogs (in particular the cost of acquiring them), the details of building their housing as their numbers increased, reports of their illnesses and deaths. What is missing amid the bills and internal memos are the whys: Why was the Bullmastiff chosen, at a time when the breed was so rare as to be basically unknown in the States? Why did the family begin breeding them?  

The answer probably lies with a Pocantico employee named Donald MacVicar, affectionately called “Mac” by those who knew him. In his book, Pyle calls him “an experienced dog trainer,” and his supervisor thought of him as a “dog authority.” Perhaps not coincidentally, discussions of guard dogs at Pocantico began a couple of years after his employment there, and the initial breeding of the dogs coincided with his tenure.  

Of Scottish extraction, MacVicar was hired by the Rockefellers in 1927. Initially assigned to the family’s Manhattan brownstone, within a year or two he was working as Pocantico’s assistant superintendent, handling security.  

By this time, the running of the estate – and indeed, the sprawling Rockefeller fortune – was in the hands of Senior’s only son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., then in his 50s.  

In January 1931, MacVicar provided a price quote for untrained police dogs ($75 to $150 each) and older trained animals ($200 to $500). His boss, superintendent Frank Staley, attached a memo of his own before forwarding the correspondence to Junior. “We feel that instead of a straight police dog, it would be much better to have a cross between an Airedale and Police Dog. Such dogs were used in the War very satisfactorily,” he explained. “There is a strain in them which makes them kind to children and I think this very important.”  

On the other hand, Staley continued, “the common breed of watch-dog could probably be secured much cheaper and would answer the purpose we have in mind. The great objection to them, when they are untrained, is their barking.”  

Junior called Staley less than a week later. “Thinks it foolish to go into the matter of police dogs or any other trained dog,” Staley wrote in his notes. “Mr. R. had thought of some small, wide awake dog that would be easy to take care of; just the ordinary kind of dog he would think would be all right.”  

Then the Rockefeller files turn silent about any dog acquisitions for the estate – save for two “working sheepdogs” purchased that spring, presumably to tend to the flock of sheep that kept Senior’s golf course neatly clipped. As the Depression deepened, and Junior was distracted by economic woes of his own, perhaps the acquisition of guard dogs was relegated to the backburner. Indeed, it is not until almost three years later that the matter was raised again. But this time, the Rockefellers were ready for action. And the dog they chose was leagues away from the “small, wide-awake” mongrel that John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had envisioned for the job.

 

Because they were working and not show dogs, no photographs exist of the Rockefeller Bullmastiffs from the 1930s and ’40s. But these illustrations, from cigarette cards and other popular ephemera of the day, depict the varied appearance of a breed that was still in a formative stage of setting type.

Because they were working and not show dogs, no photographs exist of the Rockefeller Bullmastiffs from the 1930s and ’40s. But these illustrations, from cigarette cards and other popular ephemera of the day, depict the varied appearance of a breed that was still in a formative stage of setting type.

bullmastiff-sample-bm-2bullmastiff-sample-bm-3bullmastiff-sample-bm-4

 

And Then There Were Two

On August 10, 1934, MacVicar sent a note to Rockefeller office manager and aide Robert Gumbel, instructing him to cable $410 – about $6,800 in today’s dollars – to Mr. Herbert C. Hignett, near Preston, Lancashire, in Great Britain, with the following message:  

Ship dogs immediately. Insure for full value. Send leather muzzles.

The two fully grown male Bullmastiffs arrived in New York City in October 1934. The breed had just been recognized by the American Kennel Club the year before, and the dogs would have been among the first AKC Bullmastiffs if Rockefeller had registered them – but he didn’t. Instead, the dogs were simply transferred by the Kennel Club in the U.K. into MacVicar’s name. Indeed, the estate made a point of not having a Rockefeller name associated with the dogs’ importation – though, shrewdly, MacVicar was required to sign a transfer paper, in the event Junior wished to become the owner of record, which with some later arrivals he eventually did.  

One dog, “Ragger,” was sired by the well-known UK Ch. Farcroft Felons Frayeur; his dam, Patricia, had unknown parentage. The other, “Robberman,” had a relatively unremarkable pedigree (Bowdencourt Stormer x Mona of Ivor).  

Tom Pyle’s first impression when he accompanied MacVicar to meet the English-bred Bullmastiffs at the station was one of trepidation. “They were big, biscuit-colored dogs, weighing around 140 pounds – about my own weight, but they had better teeth,” he wrote. Leashing the new arrivals, he and MacVicar loaded a dog in each of their cars and drove to the kennel, where MacVicar explained his plan: “We’ll each keep away from the other man’s dog, and when the time comes I’ll try my dog on you; you try yours on me.”  

Pyle expressed his misgivings, but MacVictor dismissed them with assurances that the dogs would be muzzled. Besides, the training compound he was building had a platform and ladder that would provide a handy escape.  

“The day of our first dog trial, my orders were to hide in the field, and Mac would search for me with his dog,” Pyle recounted in his book. “As I lay there in the tall grass, watching them come toward me, Mac’s mastiff, Prince, looked, from my view, like a fair-sized lion. When Prince saw me Mac released him. Prince ran a few yards, stopped, hooked both feet over his muzzle and, to my horror, ripped it off, then came at me full tilt.” Thankfully, Pyle made it to the ladder – noting wryly that they never switched places and tried his dog on MacVicar.  

Perhaps understandably, given the severity of their original names, the dogs were rechristened “Prince” and “Peter.”  

It is very possible that MacVicar, being the resident dog authority on the estate, came up with the idea of Bullmastiffs as estate patrollers. His wife was British, and perhaps through her relations back home he learned where the dogs could be procured.  

 

An advertisement for Ranald Kennels in a 1930 Kennel Gazette (right), 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.

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. bullmastiff-ranald-1

 

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.

 

Population Explosion

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.  

 

Postscript

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 FuscoEdith 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. Right: Pocantico Lass in the obedience ring, date unknown.

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.   

bullmastiff-pocantico-lass2

 

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.  

 

Pedigrees, Please

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.

 

1934

Ragger (Dog)

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.Ch. Farcroft Felons Frayeur, sire of one of the first Rockefeller dogs, Ragger.

 

Robberman (Dog)

Sire: Bowdencourt Stormer

Dam: Mona of Ivor

Whelped: Dec. 14, 1931

Breeder: Mr. W. Cumblehume  

 

1936

All Right (Dog)

Sire: Trustful Herman

Dam: Diana of Athos

Whelped: Feb. 13, 1934

Breeder: Mrs. M. Walker

Tigers Vindictive, sire of Righto.At right: Tigers Vindictive, sire of Righto.

 

Righto (Dog)

Sire: Tigers Vindictive

Dam: Princess Wonder Whelped: Dec. 9, 1932

Breeder: Mr. J. Barnard  

 

1937

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  

 

1938

Beryls Choice (Bitch)

Sire: Warlord of Wolstonhill

Dam: Tenby Lass

Whelped: May 10, 1935

Breeder: Mr. E.E. Jackson  

 

1940

Dorothy Gay (Bitch)

Sire: Max

Dam: Stall

Owners Stormer

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.
Ch. Lancelot of North Castle, the first American-bred Bullmastiff champion, was heavily linebred on the original Rockefeller dogs.
 
 

 

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