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Alfred Gilbert was born in 1884 in Salem, Oregon. About the same time, in Western Germany, Max von Stephanitz began to standardize a breed of yellow and grey wolf-like working dog that would become the German Shepherd. Horand von Grafrath, the first registered German shepherd. The Industrial Revolution was overtaking pastoral Germany. Von Stephanitz’s Sheepherd became an icon of a simpler, purer time.
In 1914, the A.C. Gilbert Company began to make toys for the new industrialized age. Still, Gilbert built for himself log cabins reminiscent of his simpler, purer roots.
Germany’s Industrial Revolution also built the engines of a brutal new kind of war. World War I was a war without heroes... except perhaps for German Shepherds.
...they found and rescued the injured
...they guarded the trenches
...they carried supplies
...because radio did not yet connect armies, Shepherds carried messages.
Against the inhumanity of war, Shepherds were icons of courage.
Allied soldiers brought Shepherds back to America. The most famous of these, a puppy from Paris, became a major star in silent motion pictures.
Rin Tin Tin had a limousine, a cook, an entourage, and a nation of fans.
The War devastated European dominance of the toy industry. The A.C. Gilbert Company grew to worldwide fame. Gilbert attempted to establish a factory in Vienna in 1922. That adventure failed. But he brought back an important gift: Vigo, his first German Shepherd.
As an athlete, a magician, a manufacturer, Gilbert was a fierce competitor. When his beloved Vigo was snubbed in the Westminster Kennel Club Show, Gilbert returned to Europe with his checkbook. In 1923, Gilbert bought Alf von Tollensetal, the English Champion for a princely $2,500.
Then he bought Asta von Kaltenweide for an astonishing $6,500.
Asta von Kaltenweide
He bought Klodo Von Boxberg, the Czechoslovakian champion.
Klodo Von Boxberg
He brought William and Fred Toller from Germany to train his dogs. Gilbert built Maraldene Kennels on his 32 acre estate in North Haven
A.C. Gilbert, Lucretia Gilbert, and William Toller at Maraldene Kennels
Asta became the American Grand Champion in 1926 and the Von Stephanitz International Champion in that year Gilbert’s Kennels dominated American German Shepherd lines.
Having mastered the breeder’s art, Gilbert moved on to other interests. He abandoned the business of breeding. He donated his favorite dogs to the Peabody Museum's important canine collection. Was Gilbert’s infatuation with German Shepherds the caprice of a man who had made his fortune by his 35th birthday?
His financial investment in the Maraldene Kennels was hardly frivolous. His prolific champions earned their keep. He boasts that a movie star offered him $12,000 for Asta. He declined.
Was he attracted to the social circles of the elite breeders? He found sport of the shows petty and annoying.
German Shepherds served Gilbert on three levels:
The Practical Gilbert
Gilbert was his company’s own best salesperson. He was its brand. He used his sports achievements and his dogs’ achievements to promise boys that they could become red blooded, rugged achievers... not bookish nerds.
The Intellectual Gilbert
Gilbert produced educational toys but little abstract educational philosophy. He loved the the intelligence, structure, and scientific directness of Shepherd training. Gilbert’s grasp of this behavioral psychology is a generation ahead of its time.
The Emotional Gilbert
Gilbert was comfortable in public settings, performing, leading but somewhat reserved emotionally. His kennels were part of his home. His champions were his pets, his loyal friends. His chapter on his dogs in his autobiography’ its most expressive. He tells us more about his Shepherd’s feelings than he tells us about his children or his wife. And his Shepherds tell us more about him.