Sweetheart of the Pines ~ The Story of Hillbright Susanna
J.R. Sealy — “Bobby,” to those who knew him — drove a hard bargain. But then, the likeable but eccentric sportsman from Dothan, Alabama, could afford to, because all the chips were on his side of the table.
For one thing, Sealy wasn’t really looking to sell. For another, he had a pretty good idea of what his dog, a three-year-old, 30-pound, black-ticked English setter bitch, was worth. Although she’d placed only once, earning a first in a members only derby stake sponsored by the Southern Amateur Field Trial Association, the consensus was that her potential was unlimited. “A fireball,” they said. She had the whole package: blinding speed, enormous stamina, ideal range, superior bird-finding ability, and style to burn both running and on point. She was tough as nails, too, bold almost to a fault, but at the same time her personality was vivacious and decidedly feminine.
As if all this weren’t enough, she also possessed a special kind of presence, a flair for the dramatic that emphatically set her apart. Whether crossing far to the front on a long, searching cast, joyfully skimming the sedgefields with that effortless gait, or swapping ends to strike point, her response to scent so instantaneous that onlookers blinked their eyes in disbelief, she had a way of making judges and galleries alike ride taller in the saddle.
She’d just made her all-age debut on the historic, tradition-rich quail plantations of south Georgia, and to everyone who’d seen her, she was already the sweetheart of the pines. No truly great setter bitch had graced the major circuit since the legendary La Besita, the 1915 National Champion. But Sealy’s little dog, with the right training (she’d all but cinched the 1940 Continental Championship until blithely busting a covey late in the two-hour finals), had a legitimate shot at becoming the next longhaired lady to write her name in the history books.
As far as she was concerned, her name was simply Dot. That’s what her people called her; that’s the word that made her prick up her silky, speckled ears and open her eyes, eyes that glistened like dark jewels, a bit wider.
The rest of the world would come to know her by her registered name, a name that had a ring to it, like the title of a bluegrass song: Hillbright Susanna.
And if Bobby Sealy drove a hard bargain, it was equally the case that the man intent on acquiring Dot, M.G. Dudley, refused to take no for an answer. A genuine Southern gentleman and sportsman of the old school, the cotton broker from Greenville, South Carolina, was among the handful of diehard setter enthusiasts — Carl Duffield, Virgil Hawse, Fred Farnsworth, et. al. — whose unflagging efforts stemmed the tide of pointer domination in the 1930s ’40s, and ’50s. But while Dudley had a general interest in the breed, he had a particular interest in Dot. You see, he was her breeder. He’d sold her to Sealy as a puppy; now, after witnessing her near-miss at the Continental, he was determined to buy her back. In Dot, he saw the high-caliber major circuit contender he’d always hoped to produce. The ante was steep: $3,500, a fortune by those Depression-era standards. Dudley couldn’t write the check fast enough. By all accounts, he considered it the best investment he ever made.
Hillbright Susanna fashioned an extraordinary field trial career, a career climaxed by her smashing victory in the 1945 Continental Championship — fittingly, the very event in which she first established herself as a force to be reckoned with. (After the victory was announced, Dudley picked up his dog in his arms, carried her behind a horse barn and, thinking no one could see them, kissed her cold black nose.)
From 1943-45, Dot virtually owned the Georgia All-Age, a stake that has existed for longer than most of us can remember (and became a championship in 1968). She garnered two firsts and a second during that span, the equivalent, today, of two titles and a runner-up. (What must be kept in perspective is that there were far fewer championship events then — perhaps seven or eight at the most — than there are now.) Of Dot’s eleven placements, all save her single derby win came on the major circuit, against many authorities believe was, dog for dog, the most awesome assemblage of talent in the 120 year history of American field trials. Ask any student of the sport to name the best dogs ever, and the pointers Ariel, Luminary, and The Texas Ranger — dogs whose careers exactly coincided with Hillbright Susanna’s — are likely to be at the top of the list.
1942 National Champion Luminary
The roster of handlers active in Dot’s heyday was no less impressive. It reads like a roll call of the Hall of Fame: Chesley Harris, Clyde Morton, Ed Mack Farrior, John S. Gates, Herman Smith, Jack Harper, Fred Bevan, Ray Smith — the list goes on. The quality of Dot’s competition adds luster to her achievements. It also explains, at least in part, why Hillbright Susanna often wound up playing the bridesmaid when it looked for all the world like she’s be the one throwing the bouquet.
Take the 1941 National Free-for-All Championship, held on the vast, prairie-like grounds near Shuqualak, Mississippi. In the grueling, three-hour finals, Dot scored seven immaculate covey finds, ran to the very limits of the country, and finished with drive and stamina to spare. It was a championship performance in every respect, a performance that, in any other year, would have earned her a decisive victory.
Club House at Shuqualak, Mississippi, circa 1940s
Trouble is, Dot’s bracemate, The Texas Ranger, was just a shade better. He was a splendid animal to begin with, but on that day at Shuqualak, he reached deep into his magician’s hat and pulled out the race of his life. Nothing less than that would have been enough to best Dot. Nothing less rarely was.
The Texas Ranger
At the same event three years later, it was Ariel’s turn to spoil the party. Both dogs rang the bell in their qualifying heats; as Nash Buckingham reported, “Tiny Hillbright Susanna fairly sparkled as she dug out her birds, traveling wide to find them.” Braced together in the finals on a morning when a gray, lowering sky had the birds hunkered down, Dot punctuated a gritty race with four bang-up covey finds — but the big pointer, Ariel, had five. Little wonder that an early observer of Hillbright Susanna’s career reflected, “She was a threat in every major event in which she competed…but it always seemed that a super dog came along to thwart her.”
Nash Buckingham, Dr. T. Benton King, Hobart Ames
Sometimes, too, Dot was the implement of her own destruction. Despite the immense skill and devotion of the Crangles — son Earl, who was only 22 when M.G. Dudley entrusted Dot’s development to him, and father George, the future Hall-of-Famer who handled her after Earl left for military service in late 1941 — her manners at wing and shot were never entirely reliable. Part of this was due to her own volatile nature, to the white-hot intensity of her desire; occasionally, the fire simply burned out of control. But the bigger reason was that Bobby Sealy, whose training methods were on the quirky side, shot hundreds of birds over her as a puppy, blazing away with his 12-gauge autoloader. She got in the habit of catching the cripples, and for the rest of her life a crippled or weak-flying bird would prove a sore temptation.
For example, at the 1941 Georgia All-Age, Dot had the victory sewn up when, with a few ticks left on the clock, she put an exclamation “point” on her sterling performance with one final covey find. She stood high and tight while Earl put a large covey to wing. But then, as he turned to take her on, a weak-flying “sleeper” fluttered up — and Dot was on it like white on rice. As a dejected Crangle led her to his horse (from a standing start, she’d jump right into the saddle with him), judge Henry Banks smiled wryly and mused, “Son, you won it — and then you lost it.”
And then there was the plain, unvarnished, damnable bad luck. William F. Brown, who edited The American Field for half-a-century and reported every National Championship from 1938 through 1982, always insisted that the most fabulous two-hour exhibition he ever witnessed at Grand Junction was authored by Hillbright Susanna in 1941. Unfortunately, as everybody knows, the National is a three-hour trial.
Henry P. Davis and William F. Brown, 1941
Earl Crangle brought Dot to the Ames Plantation in peak condition physically and, even more importantly, mentally. She was as ready as she could possibly be, every facet polished bright. And it showed. For two hours, Dot was absolutely dazzling. Hunting with verve and purpose, handling as if she were on the end of a string, she posted six superb finds. The gallery was buzzing, pressing close, straining to catch a glimpse of her as she rimmed the distant field edges, so fleet and graceful that she seemed not to be of this earth. Her proud, defiant points took the breath away; her bracemate, the immortal Luminary, was outmatched, overshadowed, all but forgotten.
Then, with the sport’s most coveted and prestigious title within reach, Dot vanished. It was a treacherous portion of the course, an area riven with deep, brush-choked ravines. There was no doubt she was on point, but where? Standing in open country, Dot seemed to grow when she made game. It was part of her mystique, this ability to transform herself from a pocket-sized setter into a monument. Buried in the briars, however, her small stature and heavy ticking made her as hard to see as a black cat in a cave. A frantic Crangle spurred his horse into a lather, searching high and low as the precious minutes ticked away.
Finally, desperate now, Crangle fired his shotgun. Dot came to him a few moments later, but after standing on point for nearly half-an-hour in sub-freezing temperature she was, as Earl puts it, “stove up bad.” Her gait labored, her range restricted, Dot gutted out the remainder of her heat. Like all champions, titled or not, there wasn’t an ounce of quit in her. The fact that she finished on game, tallying a seventh covey, testifies to her courage, to her indomitable spirit.
On the basis of five well-spaced covey finds and a level, intelligent three hours of hunting, the crown was bestowed on Ariel. But the judges made no secret of how profoundly impressed they were by Hillbright Susanna. Hobart Ames himself, the patriarch of the Ames Plantation and as critical a judge of dogflesh as ever lived, made a point of telling Earl Crangle to be sure to bring her back to Grand Junction. (As it happened, Dot’s three later appearances in the National were made under George Crangle’s whistle while Earl was in the military.) Ames even took the time to write M.G. Dudley a letter expressing his tremendous admiration for the fiery setter. To a bird dog man, getting a letter from Hobart Ames was like a devout Catholic getting a letter from the Pope. That piece of paper became one of Dudley’s most treasured possessions. He carried it in his wallet for many years, a kind of portable touchstone of Dot’s greatness.
Ariel won the National Championship in 1941, 1943, and 1945.
Sadly, the Ames letter does not survive. A letter addressed to “Dud” from another giant of American field trials and bird dogs, however, does. Speaking of Hillbright Susanna, Henry P. Davis wrote, “You will very likely never have another one that will suit you quite so well…if the fraternity could have more setters like Dot, there would be more pointers saying their prayers.
Earl Crangle carried a special piece of paper in his wallet for a long time, too. It was a check in the amount of $1,500, signed by M.G. Dudley but otherwise blank. If anyone boasted that they had a better dog than Dot, Crangle was instructed to invite them to put their money where their mouth is and go head-to-head in a three-day match race. The dog that posted the highest bird score would win the bet for its owner. Needless to say, there were no takers. It was common wisdom in field trial circles that in terms of pure, day-in/day-out bird finding ability, Hillbright Susanna was without peer.
Perhaps the best summation of Hillbright Susanna’s career is that it was brilliant, but at the same time star-crossed. A break here, a dose of luck there, and she might well have compiled a record unequaled by any setter before or since. But what she won, and what she lost, is finally less important than how she won and lost: spectacularly. Gale Sayers, in his all too-brief NFL career, set no rushing records — but no one ever carried the ball the way he did. It was the same with Dot. What people remember about Ariel and The Texas Ranger is the titles they captured; what people remember about Hillbright Susanna is her. Even if she’d amassed half-a-dozen championships, she would have been the same dog: the dog that people hoarded their wartime gas coupons for in order to make the drive to see the dog whose name was on everybody’s lips, regardless of the outcome of the trial; the dog that etched her luminous image on the memories of every man and woman who ever watched her run. The ultimate measure of Hillbright Susanna’s greatness is that she was as unforgettable in defeat as she was in victory.
“You couldn’t take your eyes off her,” recalls Bob Wehle of Elhew pointer fame. “She had such wonderful speed and animation, such terrific tenacity. She was very lofty on point, too, and she had unusual stamina. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a setter with such remarkable endurance — very few pointers, for that matter.”
“She was a true four-hour dog,” asserts 77-year-old Earl Crangle, who knew Dot better than anyone. His patient, perceptive tutelage molded her stunning potential into a vision of bird dog excellence. The two enjoyed a bond that surpassed mere rapport, a bond that crossed the border and entered the territory of love. Along with another memorable performer, Tarheelia’s Lucky Strike, Dot lived in Earl Crangle’s house (“Like folks,” he says); she slept in the motel room with him when they were traveling the field trial circuit. And while, by his own admission, he doesn’t see too well any more, his adored Dot remains as brightly real and visible as she was when she rode in the saddle with him, one strong hand holding the reins, the other placed lightly on her back, feeling the whipcord muscles there, the beating of her heart a steady, rhythmic pulse against his fingertips.
Hillbright Susanna backing Tarheelia’s Lucky Strike
“When Dot ran,” he recounts, “you couldn’t find a horse to ride anywhere. They were all rented out. The galleries loved her; I recall them on several occasions breaking out in applause when she had one of her brilliant finds. Even when she beat herself by making a mistake on her game, she never failed to thrill with her style, speed, and class.
“Let me tell you, there has never been a dog like Dot…”
These aren’t the nostalgic musings of an old man; they were saying the same thing about Hillbright Susanna 50 years ago. After witnessing her performance in the 1940 Texas Open Championship (she placed third when the judges refused to name a champion and the stake reverted to an open all-age), a former professional who had been out of the game for several years, Gordon DuBose, had this to say: “It was like kindling a new fire, for when Earl Crangle cut loose his little setter bitch, Hillbright Susanna, I got the fever all over again. I am frank when I say that this is the runningest bird dog I ever saw. All of the time she was down she looked like a million. It was amazing that any dog could run as fast as she did and still hunt and find birds at the same time…anyone who wouldn’t get a thrill seeing Hillbright Susanna run just doesn’t care for dogs.”
Earlier that year, Dot took runner-up honors at the Dominion Chicken Championship on the billowing prairies near Pierson, Manitoba. It wasn’t easy; she’d had to outduel another diminutive setter bitch, Plagirl, in a frenzied hour that saw them rack up a dozen total finds. That evening, the eminent field trial judge, Dr. T. Benton King, was moved to address a group of sportsmen gathered at the local hotel.
“Gentlemen,” he intoned, “the race we witnessed today between Hillbright Susanna and Plagirl will be remembered for as long as men come to the prairies.”
But there was another race over those same shimmering prairies that Earl Crangle remembers even better. In an odyssean 50-year career that took him from New England to California, from Canada to Mexico, what Dot did on a sweltering afternoon in September 1941 — and who she did it against — stands out as his greatest thrill, and his sweetest memory. It was the day Dot turned the tables on her old nemesis, Ariel.
At the conclusion of the All-America Club’s open all-age, the judges awarded first place to Norias Acroflow, a fine pointer bitch piloted by the master himself, Chesley Harris, the dominant handler of the 1920s and ’30s. And they announced that they were calling back two dogs to vie head-to-head for second. One was the reigning National Champion, Ariel. The other was Hillbright Susanna.
There was a David vs. Goliath quality to this match-up; tiny setter against the burly, imposing pointer; young Earl Crangle — “Not yet dry behind the ears,” in his words — against Clyde Morton, arguably the preeminent handler of all time. Privately employed by the wealthy New Yorker, A.G.C. Sage, Morton campaigned his pointers sparingly, grooming them for a few specific, high profile trials — and ending up in the winner’s circle as often as not.
The showdown was scheduled to occur, as showdowns generally do, at noon. It was scorching hot. Just before the breakaway, Morton turned to Crangle and remarked, “I hope you’re carrying plenty of water, Earl. As hot as it is, that little setter’s going to need it.” The comment was sincere — but there was an element of gamesmanship wrapped in it, too. If Morton could plant a seed of doubt in his young opponent’s mind…
He should have known better.
When it came to Hillbright Susanna, a fleet of John Deeres couldn’t have planted a seed of doubt in Earl Crangle’s mind. Crangle drew himself tall in the saddle, looked his competitor straight in the eye, and said, “Mr. Morton, that big pointer’ll be needing water long before Dot does.”
Clyde Morton with Ariel
With that the judges ordered, “Turn ’em loose!” The light-footed setter and hard-driving pointer raced ahead, and within minutes the cry of “Point!” came ringing across the prairies. Like fighters trading punches in the middle of the ring, Hillbright Susanna and Ariel matched cast for cast, find for find. Everybody — the intent handlers and their scouts, the watchful judges, the murmuring gallery — knew they were witnessing something extraordinary, two marvelous athletes in the full flower of their greatness. No quarter was given, or taken, by either side.
But then, just as Crangle had predicted, Ariel began to wilt. His tongue lolled; his rib cage heaved; his gait grew labored. A “bluff” — a popple thicket — stood half-a-mile away across the open prairie. It was a likely spot for chickens, and both handlers hit their whistles, urging their charges on.
But only Dot responded. Crangle may have been wet behind the ears, but if there was one thing he knew, it was this: When he called on Hillbright Susanna, she would give him everything she had, and then some. She streaked for the bluff, where she slammed into one of those explosive points that were, along with her blinding speed, her trademark. Her manners were perfect as Crangle flushed and fired. The judges had seen enough. The verdict: “Second place to Hillbright Susanna!”
“No one who ever saw that duel ever forgot it,” says Earl Crangle. But then, no one who saw Hillbright Susanna ever forgot her, period. You can almost hear the song:
I’ve seen a whole lot of pain
In this lonesome life of mine.
But you gave me love,
And you gave it double,
And you’ll always be my
sweetheart of the pines.
You’ll always be my little
sweetheart of the pines.
Sweetheart of the Pines was first published in the Jan/Feb 1997 issue of Pointing Dog Journal. Thanks to our new Contributor, writer Tom Davis for allowing us to republish it here on Strideaway. Photos courtesy of The American Field, and Earl Crangles’ Pointing Dogs ~ Their Training and Handling available through Androscoggin Publishing, Inc.