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Old Hemlock Setters

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Old Hemlock breed protected in Preston County

By CYNTHIA McCLOUD For The State Journal

BRUCETON MILLS — Old Hemlock Setters are skilled hunting dogs, loving companions and a tribute to George Bird Evans's life philosophy.

Evans was an outdoorsman, conservationist, author, artist, philanthropist, preservationist and dog breeder. Originally from Uniontown, Pa., he was an illustrator for Cosmopolitan magazine. He also collaborated on mystery novels with his wife, Kay, and wrote about the outdoors, including hunting grouse and woodcock.

Evans was particular; some would say stubborn.

The Evanses moved to a 1782 log cabin near Bruceton Mills in Preston County in 1939. They called the property Old Hemlock.

Someone else owned the rights to cut the property's timber which included virgin hemlock, said Roger Brown, a trustee of the Old Hemlock Foundation and co-owner of the line of bird dogs Evans developed.

"He went to the timber man and paid him more than they were worth to keep them from being cut," Brown said. "That was something very unusual in that era."

Before Evans died in 1998, he looked at leaving his 230-acre estate on the Brandonville Pike in northern Preston County to the Nature Conservancy or West Virginia University. But neither group would promise that they would never sell the land. So Evans developed a foundation to manage and preserve the property after his death and his wife's. Kay died in 2007.

Just as Evans wanted control over his land, he wanted to control the breeding and registering of bird dogs bearing the Old Hemlock name.

He was choosy about who bought his dogs.

"My request to George and Kay to acquire my first Old Hemlock seemed more an adoption interview than a business arrangement," said Steve Hitsman. "I was deemed acceptable, and Bevy came home with me."

Evans wanted to keep control after the sale.

"We co-own the dogs," Brown said. "George and Kay did that later on toward the end of their breeding career. When I first got my dog in '73, it was a gentleman's agreement. He wanted to advise you and be consulted on the breeding so any dog that carried the Old Hemlock name would look and be the same quality.

"There were a lot of unscrupulous people who wanted to get the bloodline and they wanted to breed indiscriminately. Basically they were producing dogs he wouldn't want and didn't like and they were carrying the Old Hemlock name."

Evans went to signed agreements, but it was nonbinding so people still bred dogs indiscriminately and registered them as Old Hemlock. Joint ownership means both owners have to register dogs together, and establishes great control of the bloodline.

For Evans, getting what he wanted was how the dogs came to be in the first place.

"He didn't like the direction that a lot of (English setter) breeders were going," Brown said.

People who wanted to show the dogs bred them to achieve a certain look and the dogs' hunting skills were lost. A long coat wasn't practical in the field. People who wanted a super bird dog bred to that strength without regard for how the dog looked. 

"The Old Hemlock line of English setters was a vision of the kind of dog George Bird Evans desired and wanted to hunt for grouse and woodcock and to live with every day, a true companion dog," Brown said. "He wanted a setter with deep muzzles and sensitive skulls, looking for the calm, easy-to-handle dogs of the former years.

"George never wanted a dog that was close and underfoot," he said. "He wanted a dog that would hunt with you and for you and not run off. 

"Our setters are a handsome belton type (a color pattern in English setters that can be orange, liver, black or lemon) averaging 62 pounds for the males and 52 pounds in the females, with a deep muzzle, a typical long, fine boned head and are natural gun dogs with nose and style," Brown said.

The line has 67 setters with another litter due soon.

"My six have all lived in the house, rarely seeing the inside of anything like a kennel," Hitsman said. "They sleep on the furniture, eat in the kitchen, ride in the car, and drape themselves across my lap any time they have the opportunity. Incredibly gentle and devoted, they have gazed at me with adoration now for over 30 years.

"I've never thought of myself as an owner and I'm fairly certain most of the Old Hemlock family feels the same," he said. "And ‘family' more accurately reflects the relationship with these setters, indeed George Evans said that he felt related to these dogs."