by Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director
Somewhere between ten and fifteen thousand years ago, people first domesticated dogs from the gray wolf. Some experts believe that people domesticated wolves when humans took in a lone wolf cub to raise. Much like today, people probably favored pups that were less aggressive, trainable, and good at begging for food; thus favorable traits were cultivated. Other experts believe that dogs sought out and attached themselves to humans by scavenging garbage piles. Those that stuck around when the people came near were most likely to survive, and they became increasingly tame over time.
Dogs were bred to serve a role in the family or a business. According to Jennifer Leonard, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, “We know that dogs were useful for lots of things in Stone Age culture, as draft animals, in hunting, for warmth, and for protection.” Today, dogs still work alongside their humans when called upon to do so, but they primarily serve as loyal, loving companions.
I am an animal lover; I have a weakness for both cats and dogs. As a historian and an animal lover, I am fascinated by the stories of relationships between human and pets; but in my experience, history has not often documented beloved cats of the distant past—at least not like it does “man’s best friend.” Stillwater’s history documents at least three beloved pets from our community’s past.
The earliest account I know about is of Pep, the Payne County Courthouse dog. The Courthouse property also featured a shelter to house bloodhounds, presumably used by the law enforcement, but Pep was different. Pep seems to have belonged to the Donart family, and he accompanied members of the family to work at the courthouse, overtime becoming the courthouse mascot. The Donart family have loomed large in Stillwater’s history ever since Charles and Sarah Donart homesteaded the quarter section located at present-day Perkins and 12th in 1889. The original homestead is now Couch Park and the Southside Baptist Church is on the site of the former Donart home.
Pep is documented in a couple of different Donart family photographs, one taken inside Court Clerk Harry Donart’s office in 1905. Pep is seen lounging in a corner of the office beside Harry Donart. This photograph is currently on exhibit at the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History, located at 702 S. Duncan Street. The second photograph features Pep and another canine friend on the Payne County Courthouse steps with county officers, including Deputy Court Clerk Charles “Elmer” Donart. The high school, built in 1960, was named for C.E. Donart who had served his community in a variety of ways including as clerk of the Board of Education.
Another important figure in Stillwater’s history is Dr. W. C. Whittenberg who is remembered fondly for his founding of the first hospital, his compassion for his patients, and his love of dogs.
Dr. Whittenberg came to Stillwater to practice medicine in 1911, performing operations at his home at 404 South Duck. Around 1917, he rented the former Liden Hotel building on the southeast corner of Ninth and Lewis and it became Stillwater’s first hospital. In 1920, Adam Focht, who had struck it rich in oil, financed the second Whittenberg hospital built at 8th and Lewis where the municipal building now stands. Dr. Whittenberg was a compassionate physician who felt sorry for patients suffering hard economic times during the Great Depression. According to a former nurse, he often never charged his patients for his services.
Local historians are most familiar with a photograph, taken by Smith’s Photography Studio, of Dr. Whittenberg and one of his favorite dogs. Unfortunately, we have had little luck in locating the name of this dog, although it is our hope that someone in the community will be able to provide this information for posterity. Looking at the portrait, the observer senses that Doc Whittenberg took great pride in this dog—so much so that he commissioned a professional photograph of himself and the prized dog.
Local history and lore memorializes a third dog, Sparky, who served as the Stillwater Fire Department’s mascot from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. The Gerald Bradshaw family gave the energetic Dalmatian to the Fire Department. The Fire Fighters trained and cared for Sparky and local Veterinarian, Dr. Erwin, offered his skills to care for the dog whenever necessary. Well-known to Stillwater residents, Sparky was allowed the run of the town. He was very fond of children and he often walked down to the Dairy Kitchen on Main Street to beg for ice cream. A true member of the department, Sparky was trained to growl at the first sight of any form of fire. He participated in Fire Department, as well as Fire Protection Society, activities and educational programming. Sadly, Sparky disappeared in the late 1970s and never returned, but his memory lives on in many treasured photographs and a small display memorializing Sparky at the Fire Department’s headquarters on south Main Street.
Every pet lover has had a Pep or Sparky in their life; a family companion that we have taken pains to preserve in photographs and stories. The relationships we have with these animals and how we preserve and treasure those memories of them–through photographs and written accounts of their place in our lives—reveals something of our humanity. Pep the Courthouse Dog, Doc Whittenberg’s hunting dog, and Sparky illuminate a bit of the Stillwater community’s past and provide us with a glimpse of who the dog’s best friend might have been.