Every age has its heroes, and to goggle-eyed youngsters of the 1920s, '30s and even into the '40s, Albert Payson Terhune was a godlike figure. Terhune, who died in 1942, wrote dog stories—most often about collies—by the score, and the influence they had was tremendous, if not traumatic. "I must have read every one of his books when I was a kid," says Merrill Pollack, a New York editor. "I wanted to be a collie when I grew up. Mention Terhune's name and I go to pieces." Most of the collie breeders going today got into the sport of dogs because of Terhune. "I grew up on Terhune's stories and cried salty tears over them," says Mrs. Peggy Young, a collie breeder in Finleyville, Pa. "I still cry," says Mrs. Eugene Price, a collie fancier in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. "My husband cries too. We're both sloppy that way." By working 11 hours a day, six days a week, Terhune was able to meet the demands of his public. In fact, his productivity was such that one critic remarked, "It is easy to imagine the printer of anyone of a half dozen magazines returning a dummy of the month's issue to the editor and saying: 'There's some mistake. You've left out the Albert Payson Terhune story.' "
Terhune buffs can quote phrases or recite plots from the stories and books, much in the manner of the Baker Street Irregulars reeling off Holmesian lore. There is Lad, "such a dog as is found perhaps once in a generation." Lad had "absurdly tiny silver white forepaws," which he was always licking clean when the action got dull. There was Lad's mate, Lady, "an imperious and temperamental wisp of thoroughbred caninity," and then there was Bruce, "the dog without a fault," or, to put it another way, "Bruce is not just a 'mere dog.' He is—he is Bruce."
Bruce, Lad, Lady, Gray Dawn, Thane, Athos, Buff—the mind reels from nostalgia at this roster of the great. They herded sheep, caught robbers, saved babies and cheerfully charged into battle against maddened bulls, angry hawks, lurking snakes and stags in rut. Almost every story had at least one rousing fight, and no matter how bad things went at first, "a collie down is not a collie beaten," for "the collie brain—though never the collie heart—is wont to flash back in moments of mortal stress, to the ancestral wolf." The piles of tumbled ruff hair gave "a protection no other breed of dog can boast," and the unfortunate opponent soon found that the collie "may bite or slash a dozen times in as many seconds and in as many parts of the body. He is everywhere at once—he is nowhere in particular."
Like knights-errant of old, collies roamed through Terhune's stories with big hearts that "ever went out to the weak and defenseless."
Terhune claimed he based most of his stories on actual dogs, often his own, and on occasion fact outdid fiction. When Sunnybank Wolf was killed saving a cur from being hit by a train,
The New York Times
ran a long obituary, and the American Kennel Club Gazette reported that "the world paused for more than a moment." Unlike Lassie, the TV collie inspired by a novel by Eric Knight, Terhune's dogs did not have perpetual youth. They led epic lives, and they had epic deaths, worthy of Beowult or Little Nell. Thus, "Over a magnificent lifeless body on the veranda bent the two who had loved Lad best and whom he had served so worshipfully for sixteen years. The Mistress's face was wet with tears she did not try to check. In the Master's throat was a lump that made speech painful. For the tenth time he leaned down and laid his fingers above the still heart of the dog; seeking vainly for sign of fluttering.
" 'No use!' he said thickly, bowing his head, harking back by instinct to a half-remembered phrase. 'The engine has broken down.'
" 'No,' quoted the sobbing Mistress, wiser than he. 'The engineer has left it.' "
Terhune, who admitted he was a rank sentimentalist, made a practice of burying many of his canine heroes on his estate, Sunnybank Farm, in Pompton Lakes, N.J. Lad was the first collie to be interred, and a granite block was placed over the grave with the carved lines: "Lad, Thoroughbred in Body and Soul."
Unfortunately for Terhune, his readers were not content with simply reading about the dogs. They wanted to see them, dead or alive, they wanted to visit "The Place," as Terhune called Sunnybank in his stories, and they wanted to chat with "the Master" himself. "The public at large seems afflicted with the belief that Sunnybank is a zoo; and that I am a freak of sorts," he complained in his autobiography, To the Best of My Memory. "This I judge from the hordes of motor tourists who swarm into the grounds to see our collies and to waste my own time." This intrusion of visitors "rips at my nerves and temper," he declared, and after counting more than 1,700 strangers in one season who came to see Lad's grave, he shut the iron gates to The Place and posted a sign saying, NO ADMITTANCE TODAY.
Despite Terhune's distaste for welcoming his readers to his home, he relished personal publicity, and at the height of his career his every coming and going was news.