Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Frozen 2: When Togo Came to Town


Yesterday was a snow day and the kids made a very "cool" snow dog.

This sculptural snow pairs well with our collection of winter related books in the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room. That collection forms the basis of our popular outreach programs on winter traditions, polar explorers and especially dog sledding in the Mount Washington Valley.  For more on our collection see our previous blog here.

As we sled into the new year, we watched Disney's new film Togo: The Untold True Story.

While the film has been acclaimed for its accuracy, (see History vs Hollywood comparisons here) it is a bit of an exaggeration to say it is an "untold" story. It has in fact been told a number of times. It is the story of the famous 1925 serum run in Alaska.

In the movie, Willem Dafoe plays Togo's master Leonhard Seppala.  We have a copy of Elizabeth Ricker's 1930 biography of Seppala that also includes a lot of info on Togo.

Many of the incidents in the film are detailed in this book. While we do not have a copy of it in the collection (yet?) my favorite version of the Togo story is Togo's Fireside Reflections published in 1928. There are only five copies of it listed in worldcat. I went to Bowdoin to read it.

This is the story straight from the dog's mouth. Here is the real Togo telling his own story in first person narrative by the fireside. (Ok, perhaps he had a bit of help from Ricker as "ghost writer").

Note the inscriptions by Ricker and Seppala and Togo's paw print in this copy.

We were somewhat disappointed by the Disney film's ending. While the film is a true story it doesn't tell the whole story. The film uses captions as an epilogue that ends Togo's tale with the phrase "He left us on a Thursday in December." The montage of images and text makes it seem like Togo stayed in Alaska, sired a few pups and then died soon after the 1925 serum race. 

It is true that Togo passed on a Thursday in December, but is was four years later and about 3,700 miles away in Poland Spring Maine. Over the years Seppala made many visits to the Mount Washington Valley.

Ricker's family owned the Poland Springs Resort. Here is a picture of Togo and Ricker with the book in her hand. 

Is Ricker reading to Togo, or Togo reading to Ricker?

Details about Seppala's connections to the Mount Washington Valley can be found through our online collection of the Reporter Newspaper starting here.

A search for the term "Seppala" or "Togo" reveals a number of references to nearby locations such as Wonalancet, Conway and Laconia.  The newspaper articles also refer to our own local sled dog heroes Arthur Walden and Chinook. When we put together the books, newspaper articles and other sources we can glean a number of interesting stories.

One story involves a pair of cigars, a chicken, a somersault and a handspring.

The website summarizes the story here

In January 1927 Seppala stayed as a guest at Walden's farm in Wonalancet with his 26 dogs. Walden didn’t think too much of Seppala’s little dogs. He referred to them as “Siberian rats.” Seppala, for his part, seemed equally unimpressed with what he later referred to as Walden’s “big, awkward mongrels."

That evening they were to speak at Fryeburg Academy. Seppala reported that "Walden preceded me and proved to be a good speaker. When it came my turn, I spoke of the trails back in Alaska and explained that although I was 50 years of age, my physical condition was excellent and stated that I attributed this largely to my abstinence from alcohol and tobacco."

"To demonstrate my agility, I turned a somersault and handspring, and while doing this, two cigars, which I had won from Walden in a bet, rolled out on the floor. The audience let out a roar and gave us a great hand. They evidently considered it all a part of the show."

How I came to have the cigars in my pocket is something of a story in itself. A short time before this, Walden had bragged that his Chinook would break out and pull a heavier load than any dog in the country. I had watched his dogs perform and answered with a challenge that my Togo, who weighed only 48 pounds in harness, could pull any load that Walden’s Chinook could. Although neither of us smoked, we bet two cigars on the result.

Seppala challenged Walden that Togo (whose weight was then a mere 48 pounds in harness) could break out and pull any load that Chinook (100 pounds in fit condition) could pull.

The sled was loaded with several sacks of cement onto which Walden hooked his dog. Chinook could not even start the load until Walden had kicked the runners loose from the snow.

I knew that Togo could do better but felt that here was an opportunity to inject a little comedy into the act. Kingiak, my Eskimo helper, hid one of Walden’s farm chickens under his parka and stepped out ahead of Togo a distance of 20 feet or so. On my command, Togo leaped to one side with his full weight straining against the collar, then another leap to the left and the sled runners were loosened. Just then Kingiak let the chicken clap his wings and Togo was upon him in a couple of jumps with a loaded sled following easily behind.

Walden was a good sport and conceded that Togo had won the cigars for me. And that, as I intimated, was how I happened to have the cigars on me when we spoke before the audience at the Fryeburg Academy.”

Like Ricker, Walden also penned a book written from a dog's first person perspective. In his 1931 book, Leading A Dog's Life, a  border collie named Shirley narrates a history of Wonalancet Farm and relates more interesting stories.

Another great book to follow the tale (or tail) of local connections is Arthur Walden's A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon from 1928. 

In 1896 Walden, age 24, left New Hampshire for the Yukon and stayed six years. Jack London left the following year and stayed for only nine months.

We have a nice early edition of Jack London's The Call of the Wild. first published in 1903.

The book was first made into a film in 1935 and the theme continues to resonate today...

A new ninth film adaption of Jack London's The Call of the Wild starring Harrison Ford and a CGI dog will premiere on Friday, February 21, 2020.

The following day you can meet some real sled dogs and learn about New Hampshire's State Dog at the 25th anniversary Chinook Winter Carnival to be held at the Tamworth History Center.

For more details on this or any other historical subject in the White Mountains, contact us at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room. 

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