A Dog’s Life at Fort Ontario
By Stephanie Bailey
When people imagine what life must have been like for those living at historic forts in American history, they might often think that they were solemn businesslike places where soldiers drilled and trained with little fun to be had. As it turns out, this was not necessarily the case, and army life was not always a Spartan existence. One way in which life at army posts such as Fort Ontario were brightened was with canine companionship. That’s right; dogs have always been with the army and welcome at the fort, and have been members of the changing garrisons since 1755. For many years dogs roamed freely about the post, and neighborhoods across America , but those halcyon days of canine freedom are sadly gone, and they must be leashed as they scratch and sniff their way around the old fortification.
Throughout military history, from before the Roman Legions marched, to the War in Afghanistan, soldiers and dogs have been inseparable; so too at Fort Ontario. The earliest image of a dog living at the fort was in an 1870 photograph in which a soldier holds a small black and white dog in his arms. In 1908 Edwin Nell of Oswego sued Major Henry H. Benham, formerly of Fort Ontario, for ten dollars after it was alleged his dog bit him.
In 1917, when a recent immigrant from Austria enlisted in the army at New York City, he received permission to bring his German Shepherd dog with him. Unfortunately, there is no record of later to be famous children’s author (Madeline series) Ludwig Bemelmans’ dog being at Fort Ontario. During World War I when the infantry post was converted to a Base Hospital it, truly went to the dogs. In a September 1917 issue of the post newspaper an Airedale puppy named Wow was put in uniform and declared mascot of the post.
Wow was a member of a short known list of canines at the fort which included Dynamite, Shrapnel, and Kaiser. Not to be outdone, soldiers from a rival barracks made a uniform for Dynamite to wear, and thus commenced a rivalry between the best dressed barracks mascots. Dynamite also had a knitted olive drab jacket made for him as the weather grew colder.
An October, 1941 post census revealed that there were a total of eleven dogs officially living at Fort Ontario. Two dogs that had rank due to the higher military status of their owners included Flash, a Boston Bull Terrier, owned by Post Commander Colonel Willis Shippen, and Tina, a Saint Bernard owned by Colonel George J. Schultz of the 198th Coast Artillery Regiment. Tina was the biggest dog at the fort. The smallest dog living on post was a mongrel named Cur, belonging to Second Lieutenant Dorothy Armstrong of the Army Nurse Corps. The youngest fort dog, Yard Bird, was a three month old German Shepard. Rusty, a six year old Irish Setter owned by Captain Edward F. Engel of the Army Medical Corps, was the oldest dog living on post. Adolph, also known as the Admiral, strayed into the headquarters of the coast artillery at Camp Upton in a cut up condition, and remained with Captain Charles T. Lawrence Jr. of the 198th as the regimental mascot. The last few fort dogs were Sally Ha-Ha (Gordon Setter), Wiggle (English Setter), Ink (Chow), Prince (Water Spaniel), and Nipper (Spitz).
Loose dogs and strays visited the fort on a regular basis and often got in the way of military activities by capering between the legs of officers on parade, and barking through evening retreat ceremonies. Fort dogs were better trained in military etiquette and generally stayed out of the way. For a time Captain George T. Lagash, police chief at the post, brought the “visitors” back to their homes or to the dog warden, but eventually he gave up because they just kept returning. Earl “Shooter” McCarthy, a World War I veteran, was a civilian employee of the Fort Ontario Fire Department living off post during World War II, who was usually accompanied by his dog “Popeye” around the firehouse.
Some of forts strays were adopted by refugee families in 1944 when the post became the only Emergency Refugee Shelter for victims of the Nazi Holocaust in the United States during World War II. Ten dogs were “officially” adopted by the refugees and received their rabies shots in the summer of 1945, each family paying fifty cents to register them. In 1947, Betty Morgan Bowen, a Quaker volunteer teacher working with the refugees, published Milo’s New World, a fictional story about a refugee boy named Milo, his friends, and one of the fort’s bedraggled stray dogs they named “Bubie and kept as a communal pet. In the book Milo nursed the puppy back to health and soon they became inseparable. One day, a city resident recognized Bubie as a neighbor’s dog, and Milo resolved to do the right thing by returning Bubie to his original owner. For a while, Milo visited Bubie regularly where he remained tied up and neglected in the yard, each miserable without the other. Then, Milo got a wonderful surprise, the man was moving and returned Bubie to him and the refugee children!
After some time the refugees received the good news that they could stay in America or relocate to wherever they wished. Many refugees couldn’t bring along pets to their new homes, so Milo came up with a brilliant idea; he collected all pets destined to be left behind and found Oswego families to take them in. Unfortunately, Milo couldn’t take Bubie with him, so he gave him to his best friend who lived in Oswego. Milo and Bubie do get a happily ever after; as soon as Milo arrived as his new home, he found out that he could keep a dog and telegrammed his friend Johnny who agreed to ship Bubie to him.
After the refugees left in 1946 the fort was converted to apartments for returning GI’s from World War II and their families; no doubt many of them had dogs. Since 1953 some of the staff members living in the little stone residence just outside the old fort have kept dogs. The most recent dog to live and work at the fort was General Brown, or Browny, a Cockapoo who retired in 2012. The General now lives comfortably at his country residence and occasionally returns to walk the grounds, visit with old friends, and enjoy his favorite treat, a hot dog from the snack bar at the Little League field.
Since 1755, dogs have left an indelible paw print on the hearts and in the lives of the officers, soldiers, civilians, and displaced refugees at Fort Ontario. Today the fort is a popular place where dogs and their masters from all over walk the windswept grounds from dawn to dusk. Fort dogs still come in all shapes and sizes, as I found out in interviews while interning at the fort in April, 2015. For example, I met Bailey who was visiting from Syracuse one sunny day and is part Chihuahua and part Pug. This little girl was adopted around Thanksgiving in 2014, and was a little over a year old. She is a friendly little pup that loves people and belly rubs.
Another dog I met at the fort was Chloe, a three and a half year old Cockapoo with a great disposition who enjoys the beautiful view of the lake and quiet open spaces.
The old stone fort is dog-friendly so tourists bring their four legged friends into fort to explore the buildings and ramparts with them. Dogs inside and outside the fort are required to be on leashes, and bags are provided to clean up after them.