To Honor the Great Bird Dog

In the southwest corner of Tennessee, about an hour’s drive east of Memphis, sits the small city of Grand Junction. Founded in 1858, this small town with a population of about 300 residents is known around the sport of field trialers as the “Bird Dog Capital of the World.”

Grand Junction, Tennessee, is home to the National Bird Dog Museum, Field Trial Hall of Fame and Wildlife Heritage Center, as well as Ames Plantation, home of the National Field Trial Championships.

To those enthusiasts who are bird dog lovers, the National Championship for bird dogs is the premier field trial event worldwide. The National Championship was first organized and run near West Point, Mississippi, in 1896. Later, the competitions were moved to field trial grounds south of Grand Junction near Rogers Springs, Tennessee, before finding its permanent home north of Grand Junction at the Ames Plantation, the early 20th century home of Hobart Ames, a wealthy Massachusetts factory owner. Each year since 1915, the running of the Championship has been on the “hallowed” field trial grounds set in place by the late Mr. Ames. The gentleman’s bird dogs participated in the trials three times before Ames himself became a longtime President and Judge of the National Championship. There are numerous books available that chronicle and detail the great history of this prestigious event.

The National Bird Dog Championship is held under the guidance of “The American Field.” The American Field has followed the field trial sport since 1874 and the “Field Dog Stud Book” is the oldest purebred dog registry in the United States.

If you love bird dogs and field trials (especially Pointers and Setters), you need to make plans to witness this fantastic event. The running of this event takes place on a 6,000 plus acre area of Ames Plantation and is an annual event that begins on the second or third Monday in February. The average entry consists of about 36 English Pointers and/or English Setters. However, as late as 2016, there have been nearly 50 competitors. The qualifiers are winners or placers at over 80 qualifying trials held throughout the United States and Canada.

It is an event that—to be ideally executed—requires a good population of bobwhite quail in an all-age field trial habitat. Thousands of field trial enthusiasts from all over the world come to Grand Junction to attend the trials every year.

Following the drawing of the braces, the trials host two braces each day to travel one of the two separate courses. The dogs range over about 6,000 acres searching for some 300 coveys of quail. There are two separate courses, one for the morning and one for the afternoon. Each course is an 11.5 mile (linear length) course in which the dogs will run 22 to 26 miles over three hours. The judges follow the “Amesian Standard” when judging the trials and look for dogs with almost as much enthusiasm at the end of the three hours as they had when they started the course. Unless there are call-backs required, the trial will take up two-to-three weeks until all the braces have been completed and a Champion is named.

For many years, the trials were held on consecutive days. The gallery of riders following the dogs on horseback would, at times, exceed 1,000 horses and riders. As you can imagine with that many people on horseback, occasional incidents and injuries befell some in the gallery. So, at some point in the 1980s, it was decided to run the trials only on weekdays to help discourage those folks who came out on the weekends to use the trial as an excuse for a trail ride. Even after the cancellation of the weekend running, the galleries still average 300 to 500 people on horseback following each brace.

The braces run daily regardless of weather—and February weather in west Tennessee can run the gamut of warm, hot, sunny, overcast, rain, and even snow. But as the saying goes, “the Trial must go on.” So, the draw of your brace does have an element of luck as to the conditions.

Through the years, I have had the pleasure to ride in the gallery for numerous braces and, on occasion, I have ridden behind every brace for the duration of the trial. I can tell you, six hours a day in the saddle for a couple of weeks will take a toll on your body.

I find it kind of ironic that the National Championship for bird dogs coincides with the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York. Both events have long and storied histories dating back over 125 years. Westminster is held in the city that never sleeps under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and [is broadcast on] millions of television sets around the world, whereas the other is held in the quaint, small town of Grand Junction with little fanfare except for the thousands who attend and the reporting that is done in the American Field following the event.

Although all of you reading this are familiar with the great tradition and history of Westminster, I would guess there are very few who are aware of the Bird Dog Championships.

Westminster and our dog shows are judged, as we all know, against the standard for each breed represented. The National Bird Dog Championship is judged by what is known as the “Amesian Standard” which is described below:

The dog under consideration must have and display great bird sense. He must show perfect work on both coveys and singles. He must be able to quickly determine between foot and body scent. He must use his brain, eyes, and nose to the fullest advantage and hunt the likely places on the course. He must possess speed, range, style, character, courage, and stamina—and good manners, always. He must hunt the birds and not the handler hunt the dog. No line or path runner is acceptable. He must be well broken, and the better his manners, the more clearly he proves his sound training. Should he lose a little in class, as expressed in speed and range, he can make up for this, under fair judgment, in a single piece of superior bird work, or in sustained demonstration of general behavior. He must be bold, snappy, and spirited. His range must be to the front or to either side, but never behind. He must be regularly and habitually pleasing governable and must know when to turn and keep his handler’s course in view, and at all times keep uppermost in his mind the finding and pointing of birds for his handler.

Wow, what an amazing standard to live up to. First, we must remember that these dogs run for a full three hours in all types of conditions across all types of terrain. This alone requires a very special physical specimen with the proper conformation of not only the running gear, but also of the body for heart and lung capacity, good bone, correct feet, and a sound mind and body. When I think of the many Sporting breeds that have been bred to hunt, I often wonder how many could regularly meet these challenges.

When you attend this trial and witness these dogs
enthusiastically doing what they were bred for, you gain a better understanding of why some standards were written as they were.

There are many books available about the National Bird Dog Championships and each will give you a greater insight into this amazing field trial event.

The home of the National Bird Dog Championship is the historic Ames Plantation. The site is an 18,657 acre plantation owned and operated by the Trustees of the Hobart Ames Foundation under provisions of the will of Julia C. Ames. The site also serves as an agricultural experiment station within the University of Tennessee system. The property contains over two hundred 19th-century historic sites. In 1901, Hobart Ames purchased the plantation, one of the region’s largest, and turned it into his own private rural retreat. The manor house itself is furnished with early 20th century furnishings that appear much as they did when the Ames family departed in 1950.

The plantation is also home to a replica mid-19th century family farmstead, typical of those that once dotted the antebellum landscape. It is home to the third oldest herd of Angus cattle in the United States and boasts many other areas of historical significance. A little research on your part will give you a ton of information on this historic and unique piece of American folklore.

As I mentioned earlier, Grand Junction is not only home to the National Championship; it is also home to the Bird Dog Foundation and the National Bird Dog Museum. The foundation and museum can be traced back to the 1970s and Dunn’s Sporting Goods Store in Grand Junction on Hwy 57. Wilson Dunn, owner of the store located within five miles of the center of Ames Plantation, had devoted the back rooms of the store to an impressive collection of photos, memorabilia, and history of the National Field Trial Championships at the nearby Ames Plantation. He referred to his collection as the Field Trial Museum. The store and the rooms in the back received many visitors throughout the years.

In the late 1970s, Gary Lockee arrived in Grand Junction to compete in the National Championship and would later become a Field Trial Hall of Fame inductee. Lockee visited Dunn’s Sporting Goods where Wilson Dunn shared his collection with Lockee. The two men began a friendship and often discussed a need to establish a museum to better recognize and honor all Sporting dogs, with the capability to educate visitors about the history of field trials.

In the past, previous attempts to build a Field Trial Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, had failed. So, following many discussions with fellow enthusiasts and friends, a group decided that Dunn’s collection should be expanded and used as the basis for a museum that could then be added to for generations to come.

Dunn, Lockee, and other bird dog enthusiasts traveled to
Chicago, home of the American Field, to talk with Bernie Matthys, Managing Editor of the American Field at that time. They encouraged Matthys to help them in publicizing information about
their plans to create a non-profit organization, The Bird Dog
Foundation. The foundation would raise funds for a National Bird Dog Museum.

Wilson Dunn, Gary Lockee, Bernie Matthys, and John O’Neall Jr. started a tireless effort to achieve their dream. A charter for the proposed non-profit organization was prepared and approved on May 25, 1988. The subsequent by-laws were approved on October 24, 1988 and the Bird Dog Foundation, Inc. was officially established on May 15, 1989.

The foundation set its goals for the museum and chose a location in Grand Junction because the area had been the site of the National Field Trial Championship since the early 1900s. Lockee and Dunn personally bought 4.5 acres of land in Grand Junction for the future site of the museum and donated it to the Bird Dog Foundation. Shortly thereafter, more than 4,000 bird dog enthusiasts nationwide, as well as more than 35 corporations and businesses, helped to sponsor the proposed museum.

By 1990, the individual and corporate sponsorship had generated the funds to begin construction and, before completion, the entire cost of the museum had been fully funded. My wife, Carol, and I were present on February 16, 1991, when the National Bird Dog Museum was dedicated and opened its doors to the public. The National Bird Dog Museum is a part of the Bird Dog Foundation, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization with revenue generated solely through donations from supporters.

Since its opening in 1991, the museum continues to expand, and several additions have been built to house the growing collection. The Retriever Hall of Fame was opened to the public in 2004 and, in 2012, the Sporting Dog Wing was added.

The museum also houses the Wildlife Heritage Center consisting of a large collection of taxidermy showcasing the wildlife of North America as well as the William F. Brown Memorial Library. The Library has an extensive collection of bird dog and game bird literature, a collection of stud books dating back to the 1910s, and various periodicals, including the American Field and other material about wildlife conservation and resource management.

The museum is closed on Mondays, but opens from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM Tuesday through Friday, 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM on Saturday, and 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM on Sunday. The museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.

If you love bird dogs or any type of Sporting dog, a trip to the small town of Grand Junction, Tennessee, is the place to go. And if you truly want to see a bird dog work its magic, find a way to attend the National Championship in February. There is only one Westminster and there is only one National Bird Dog Championship, both known throughout the world for being the best at what they do.

  • Walter J. Sommerfelt

    Walter Sommerfelt of Lenoir City, TN has been involved in the sport of purebred dogs since acquiring his first Old English Sheepdog in 1972. He is a former professional handler as well as a breeder, and exhibitor of breeds in all seven groups, most notably Vizslas, OES, Pointers, Bearded Collies and Weimaraners. Judging since 1985 he is approved for All Sporting, Working, and Herding breeds and groups, Junior Showmanship and Best in Show and has had the honor of judging on four different continents. Mr. Sommerfelt has judged many of the most prestigious shows in the United States including the herding group at the 2014 Westminster Dog Show in New York City where he has judged on three separate occasions. Mr. Sommerfelt was the founder and chairman for the St. Jude Showcase of Dogs from 1993 until 2009, a unique event showcasing the world of purebred dogs. This special event was the largest collection of various dog events in one location, featuring an AKC all Breed Dog Show, AKC Obedience and Rally Trials, AKC Agility trials, (prior to AKC adding agility NADAC trials ) One of the largest Fly ball tournaments in the U.S.A., Herding and go to ground demonstrations, A main stage featuring performances by Canines from Television and the Movies, Freestyle, Demos by drug and various therapy dogs, A full room of booths for meet the breeds, over 50 AKC judges seminars annually, Lure coursing, A fun Zone for Children, and other dog related fun activities for the general public and their dogs. Over the years the event not only raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the world-renowned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, but also raised awareness of the many activities for people with their dogs as well establishing a voice for dog people in the Memphis area with regard to legislation. Many aspects of today’s AKC Royal Canin show can be traced back to the St. Jude event. Along with Carol his wife of 36 years they have bred well over 90 AKC Champions including Group, Best in Show and Specialty Winners, dual Champions and multiple performance titled dogs. During the past 40 years Mr. Sommerfelt has been active in a number of dog clubs and is currently the President of the Tennessee Valley Kennel Club. He is recipient of the AKC outstanding Sportsmanship Award and is also a career agent and financial planning specialist with Nationwide Insurance. The Sommerfelts’ have two grown children, both former Junior Handlers and they are still active breeders and exhibitors of the Vizsla breed.

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