Touched By Fire - Richard F. Stratton
It has often been claimed that geniuses, whether scientific, mathematical, or musical, were touched by a divine fire that made them special, but it also could be a curse because it seemed that geniuses were more likely to be plagued by madness than those of us of normal intelligence. Actually, there is a certain controversy regarding the latter supposition. It may just be that the mental illness of an otherwise normal person goes more unnoticed than that of someone who is famous because of genius capabilities.
But I am taking the phrase to refer to the Old Family Red Nose dogs. The red color of the nose and eyes is seemingly touched by a fire, albeit not divine. Similarly, there is much controversy about the grand old red nosed dogs. And like geniuses, the Old Family dogs have been considered by many dog men, including this one, to be something truly special.
One of the areas of misunderstanding is that many fanciers think that any Pit Bull which shows the red nose is a member of the Old Family Red Nose strain. Such is not the case, as many strains of dogs will occasionally throw a red-nosed pup or two. The term Old Family Red Nose refers to a particular family of dogs that was especially successful during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. They came from the old Lightner strain of the early part of the century. In fact, they were often called Lightner dogs, rather than the term that began to be used in the early 40s.
It was my privilege to know William J. Lightner and his wife, Mary, back in the 40s and 50s. I just wish I had known what questions to ask them. At that time, they lived in Colorado Springs, but this was at the tail end of a career in dogs that started way back in the 19th century. Lightner’s father, grandfather, and his uncles had been raising a strain of dogs they had kept pure since before the Civil War. Mary Lightner was also a fan of the dogs, and she kept the pedigrees straight and handled the correspondence. Although the Lightner's were wonderful people and quite helpful to me, I was not aware of what high regard their dogs were held until I had been in the military and gotten to know a lot of the dog men across the country. Notables such as Bob Wallace, Bob Hemphill, Bert Clouse, and Leo Kinard, to mention just a few, were quite impressed that I knew Bill Lightner.
All of these people knew more than I did about the history of his dogs. They knew, for example, that there was a separate strain of dogs that Lightner had early in the century (having obtained them from his relatives), and these were very much sought after. Then there was what these dog men called the "latter day Lightner dogs." Even the most astute student wasn’t sure where the later strain came from, but they felt that it was testament to Lightner’s genius at breeding dogs that he could create yet another great strain. I asked Lightner about the first strain when I got back, and he said that he had gotten rid of them because he didn't like the color of the red nose. He also liked small dogs, and as far as he was concerned, the red-nosed dogs were running too large. Lightner was a giant of a man himself, and I had always been surprised by the big men, including Bert Clouse and Ham Morris, who liked their pit dogs on the small size. As a matter of fact, Lightner had been a renowned prizefighter in his time, and he had been good friends with some of the great old-time boxers, such as Jim Corbett (famous for beating John L. Sullivan).
I wish I had quizzed Lightner about the later dogs, but I surmised that they had been a blend of his old strain with some other quality line, and the rumor was that it consisted primarily of Colby dogs. But we are concerned with the early dogs here, as that was what produced the Old Family Red Nose strain.
While the Lightner family had never sold dogs, they sold off a few before the first World War, as the dog matching had subsided considerably in the area of Colorado in which they were living at that time. Al Dickinson of El Paso and Joe Peace were able to get some of these dogs, and they treasured them highly and kept the line going. These were primarily the large dogs that tended to show the red nose. When Joe Peace and Al Dickinson were both drafted during the World War, Red Howell took their dogs, and some of them went to Bourgeous in Louisiana. The men who used Lightner dogs to the extent that the Old Family Red Nose line became famous were Arthur Harvey and L. C. Owens of Amarillo, Texas. The breedings of these famous dog men produced many great dogs, including Hemphill’s Gold Dust and Hemphill’s Broke Jaw. A candidate for the best pit bitch of the century was Lightner’s Speed. In 1926, she was bred to Allen’s Fighting Tige to produce Harvey’s Red Devil. Red Devil was the sire of Centipede and Gold Dust. Centipede was generally considered the greatest dog of his time. And he was 54 pounds pit weight, quite large even for today’s dogs. With Lightner’s predilection for small dogs, I can imagine the look on his face at raising these large dogs! The interesting thing here is that it was a very inbred strain that was producing such large dogs. In fact, it was probably inbreeding which produced the red nose and red eyes. These are recessive traits, and they are more likely to come to the surface in a program of heavy inbreeding.
Other dogs that helped make the red dogs famous were Ham Morris’s Pinkie, Howell’s Banjo, and William’s Cyclone. Since there were so many good dogs coming from this line, they were quite naturally bred along family lines, and this tended to perpetuate the red nose, the red eyes, and the red toe nails that so distinguished this strain.
As you can imagine, dog men were not so sure how to take these most unusual-looking pit dogs. They were, after all, accustomed to small dogs of brindle and various other colorations. Some dog men, such as McClintock, Williams, Hemphill, and Wallace, came to specialize in this line. When dogmen saw an entire kennel of such dogs, it was only natural to conclude that the dogs had been bred for appearance, but that was not the case. It was simply a matter of fact that a lot of great pit dogs of similar breeding had displayed the coloration. Since the colors were recessive to the more common colors, they were uniformly reproduced in all the progeny when these dogs were bred together.
Besides color, the red dogs showed other traits. In the pit, they were considered great ring generals, pacing themselves very well. They were smart dogs, and they used their intelligence in the pit. They were not really well known for a hard bite, but they could beat the dogs that had that trait. With their defensive prowess, they gave the hard biting dogs nothing to bite but air. They wore them down and then went in for the kill. Great endurance was also a trait of these dogs, but they were most renowned for their incredible gameness. Another trait they were know for was that they could be crossed with nearly any line and produce bone-crushing pit dogs. Because of this very trait, not many dog men elected to breed them pure.
To this very day, the red nose dogs remain quite controversial. For one thing, they are nearly always popular with neophytes, as they don’t look like the "mongrels with the mumps" that pit dogs have been so often called. The red nose and concomitant coloration marks them as something special in anyone’s eyes. But that is not necessarily a good thing, for dog peddlers tend to breed dogs with this coloration that have no claim to even being related to the true Old Family Red Nose dogs. Of course, all papers can be faked, but a dog of this line should trace back to Harvey’s Red Devil and Lightner’s Vick some place.
I can talk about the Old Family Red Nose dogs with some authority, as I knew so many of the people associated with them. But I can also do so objectively, for my present lot of dogs doesn't have a red nose among them. Nevertheless, the blood of those dogs runs in their veins. Wallace’s Bad Red is back there. Most of my dogs are down from Grand Champion Hope, who was sired by the immortal Tombstone. Most of the dogs that I have had turn out well for me were down from Tombstone. So that means I have gotten away from the original OFRN dogs, right? Well, not exactly. You see, Tombstone was mostly OFRN breeding, top and bottom. The immortal Black Widow, for example, was three quarters OFRN, even though she herself was black in coloration. And she was Tombstone’s paternal grand dam, while his mother was very heavy red nose.
Tombstone’s influence has been mighty all across the country, and this is all the more remarkable when it is considered how few times he was bred as compared to so many other vaunted sires. Recently some fine dog men who were natives of Mexico brought a descendent of Tombstone’s for me to see. I was thunderstruck when they got the dog out of the van. Before my eyes was an absolute reincarnation of the Old Family Red Nose dogs I had seen back in Wallace’s place (and those of other dog men, too) back in the 50s. The dog was Champion Boiler, a three-time winner, and when I saw video tapes of his matches, I was all the more enchanted. His style was exactly that of the old dogs. Take them where they want to go, but keep the mouth from doing any damage. Wear them down, all the while laying on damage, a bit at a time. And Boiler had exactly the same intelligence and attitude of the old dogs. The visit was so striking for me that it inspired this article.
I am frequently asked about the OFRN dogs. A lot of people want a pure dog of that strain. Well, the original strain was an amalgamation of several lines, including Colby (from Tige’s sire, among other sources), so I often am overly literal by saying that I don’t know of any pure lines left. But the fact is that these dogs are still around. There are still breeders that specialize in them. The challenge is to find the ones which are quality bred.
Bob Wallace used to refer to the red nose as a "badge of courage," and he mentioned friends that referred to them as "traffic stoppers." I'm like Lightner in that I didn't like the looks of them when I first saw them, but some of Bob’s enthusiasm rubbed off on me. There really is something special about the line. I'm not trying to say they are the best, but they are as good as the best. Sometimes it seems as though they truly were touched by a big of magical fire.