Icons of the Sport: Florence Ilch

Learn about the contributions of dog breeder Florence Ilch of Bellhaven Collies.

By Amy Fernandez | April 1, 2012

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Florence Ilch
Bellhaven Collies

Bellhaven, founded by Florence Ilch, finished over 130 champions, set records and remained a major force in the Collie breed for 47 years.

Collie popularity climbed steadily through the 1880s and it was AKC’s top breed when Florence entered the sport as a rank novice in 1919. American breeders were beginning to produce notable dogs, but a healthy transatlantic Collie industry remained the mainstay of quality for major players like Mowbray Palmer, Samuel Untermeyer and J.P. Morgan. “There existed a sort of hands-across-the-sea fraternity of Collie interest [among] great bankers,” commented the AKC Gazette in January 1934. Blank checks commonly changed hands for top winners.

Florence was born in 1891, the daughter of British immigrants who settled in Brooklyn and realized the American dream. They built a summer home along 1,000 feet of waterfront property in Red Bank, N.J., called Bellhaven, which became the site of her kennel in 1919.

In 1919, she purchased her first Collie for children who insisted on showing the family pet at Westminster. Florence made up her mind then and there to breed and show top Collies.

With her mother’s help she financed a startup kennel and her first purchase became the joke of the Collie world. Starbat Strongheart, an 11-month-old son of Ch. Laund Luminous, was a big heavy-coated dog and the only leftover from his litter. Florence purchased him on the spot for the substantial price of $1,000. Ignoring her critics, she promptly purchased three bitches from Clara Lunt’s Alstead kennel. Lunt also became her mentor, and she could not have done better.

Her progress was steady and strong. The following year, Florence took Winners and Reserve at Westminster, and spent $15,000 on dogs — almost $200,000 by today’s standards. In 1923 Ch. Starbat Strongheart took the breed at Westminster. AKC approved her to judge Working breeds in 1924.

A decade later, Bellhaven Collies had gone BOB eight times, and taken the breed’s first Westminster Group with Laund Hero of Bellhaven in 1926. She was the talk of the Collie world.

Florence had some money to throw in the game, but it was paltry compared to her competitors who had spent millions and had a 10- to 20-year head start, trying and failing to win Westminster.

Her 5-acre kennel housed 70-130 Collies, producing about 100 puppies a year. It sounds huge by today’s standards, but it really was a family-run operation. Bellhaven became famed for sound hindquarters and magnificent coats. Florence attributed this to the excellent climate in Red Bank and her personal kennel management strategies.

Her handler and kennel manager, Miles Kennedy, had worked for big Collie kennels like Greystone and Knockladye, but he was generally regarded as Florence’s equal in terms of not having any background or political clout.

Success is the best revenge. Interviewed for the AKC Gazette in 1934, Florence said, “One of the reasons for Bellhaven’s success is the cooperation between owner and manager.” Their sensational partnership lasted 50 years.

Florence became legendary for her ability to import good ones. In 1929, one of these imports earned Bellhaven’s first BIS, and it was a win heard round the world.

Most of her imports came from William Stansfield who frequently brokered top Collies in America. In January 1929, he arrived with Jeanson of Ashtead. Stansfield discovered his littermate, Lucason of Ashtead, while judging the British Collie Club’s Championship show. He put this 8-month-old puppy all the way to Best and immediately purchased his brother. They descended from the best of his Laund breeding.

“Don” arrived days before Westminster. Florence entered the unregistered pup in his first show as Laund Loyalty of Bellhaven. The Collie world took notice when he defeated 120 entries, and waltzed through the Working Group.

Kennedy found himself facing a BIS lineup of world-class competition with a 9-month-old puppy. “The result was so unexpected that the crowd was rather taken aback,” said Bill Stifel in his comprehensive history of Westminster. “There was a momentary hush in the arena. It was not a popular win.” Don remains the only Collie and youngest dog to win the Garden.

Don was never shown again. Florence explained that this win proved his merit. Too true, but she later claimed the decision was motivated by anonymous threats against Don. She later wrote that he had been blinded when acid was thrown in his eyes by a jealous competitor.

No one ever knew the truth. However, she was unquestionably targeted for intimidation. The previous year, when Bellhaven showed 23 Collies entered at Westminster, Florence fainted after receiving an anonymous telegram shortly before judging, saying that her son had in fact been killed in a car crash.

Don sired only one champion, most likely because of his prohibitive $150 stud fee. Florence quickly acquired Don’s brother, Ch. Lucason Ashtead O’Bellhaven, and he became the source of this quality, sired 17 champions and contributed to major bloodlines of the 1930s like Hertzville.

Bellhaven’s last specialty winner was Ch. Laund Liberation of Bellhaven in 1946, and Florence finished her last champion Braegate Model of Bellhaven in 1960. Bellhaven closed in 1966. Mike Kennedy died in 1979 and Florence in 1982. Breeders continue to debate Bellhaven’s role in breed history, but Florenc Ilch’s groundbreaking achievements are beyond question.

 

From the April 2012 issue of Dogs In Review magazine. Purchase the April 2012 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs In Review magazine.

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