Togo's Final Journey

By:  Lance Jensen

Leonhard Seppala -- The legendary Alaskan dog driver and Siberian breeder.  He would become renowned as the greatest musher of the 20th century and would make significant contributions to the establishment of the Siberian Husky breed in the USA.

Togo -- A Siberian dog who initially was an unpromising pup, but would become Leonhard Seppala's favorite and lead sled dog.  Mr. Seppala would later say that Togo was "...the best dog that ever traveled the Alaskan trails", and "I never had a better dog than Togo."

Leonhard Seppala and Togo made many journeys together in the land of Alaska.  No doubt their greatest journey was as major participants in the 1925 Serum Run to Nome.  Togo died on December 5, 1929 at the age of 13.  His mount is currently on display at the Iditarod Trail Headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska.  Leonhard Seppala died on January 28, 1967 at the age of 89.  His ashes were ceremoniously scattered along the Iditarod Trail near Knik, Alaska.  The distance between the ITC Museum in Wasilla and Knik is only about 12 miles.

That would seem to be the end of the story.  But not so!  After his death, Togo had one more journey to make.  A journey that would last for more than half a century.  A journey that would eventually reunite him with his beloved master in his native land -- the place where they had made so many journeys before, such a long time ago.

During late October of 1926, Leonhard Seppala left Nome, Alaska with a large group of dogs from his kennel to go to the Lower 48 to do a nationwide tour.  Togo was in that group and the tour was originally scheduled to start in Seattle, Washington.  Due to a change in financial circumstances upon arrival at Seattle, alternate arrangements were made in order to complete the tour.  After crossing the nation, Seppala and his dogs ended up in New York City, and were invited to participate in a sled dog race at Poland Spring, Maine in late January of 1927.

Leonhard Seppala with Fritz (left) and Togo upon arrival at Seattle on November 2, 1926.  Seppala reported that Togo was 10 years old at that time. Photo credit: Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle, WA

During the Poland Spring race, Mrs. Elizabeth Ricker, who was a co-owner of the Poland Spring estate, convinced Seppala to give Togo to her so the dog could live out the rest of his life in retirement.  At some point in late January or early February of 1927, Seppala and Mrs. Ricker also agreed to establish a Siberian dog kennel on the property.

By the latter part of 1929, Togo was in a bad way.  He was now 13 years old and had been diagnosed with severe neuritis as well as skin ailments. This once vibrant dog who had run tens of thousands of miles during his life was now suffering from severe mobility problems.  He could barely stand and could only walk a few steps.

Ralph Morrill came to the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University in 1924, and became the Chief Preparator in the Zoology Dept.  During the late 1920's the Peabody Museum was in the process of establishing a rather large dog exhibit of famous champions.  Arrangements had been made whereby Leonhard Seppala and Elizabeth Ricker would donate Togo to the museum upon his death.  When the decision was made to end Togo's suffering, Mrs. Ricker made sure Seppala would have an opportunity to say goodbye to his old and devoted companion at Poland Spring.  Ralph Morrill had traveled from Yale and was also present.  He took a solemn and touching farewell photo of Leonhard Seppala with Togo on December 5, 1929.  After that, Mr. Morrill took Togo to a veterinarian in Brunswick, Maine where he was euthanized.  He then took Togo's body to the Peabody Museum, where he would eventually join the other famous dogs in the exhibit.

On November 30, 1930, almost a year after Togo's death, a public announcement was made advising that Togo had joined the other dogs in the exhibit at the Peabody Museum.  Ralph Morrill later reported he had some difficulty in completing Togo's mount due to his age and skin problems.

Togo received many visitors during his time at the Peabody Museum.  He would receive one very special visitor near the end of his stay there.  It would be from his beloved master, Leonhard Seppala!

In early April of 1960, Leonhard Seppala, now in his early eighties, traveled to Laconia, New Hampshire, to be the honorary judge of an annual sled dog race.  After this event he went to the Peabody Museum to see Togo.   Ralph Morrill was also present during this 30 year reunion and they reminisced about Togo.  No doubt Leonhard Seppala was thinking about his last reunion with Togo three decades earlier.  Perhaps he was also thinking that as he was in the autumn of his life, this would be the last time he would see his best dog.  But fate would decree that Leonhard Seppala and Togo would be reunited one final time.

A few years after Leonhard Seppala's visit to Togo, the Peabody Museum made the decision to permanently retire the dog collection.  Ralph Morrill, knowing Togo's history, didn't want him to end up in storage somewhere. In March of 1964 Morrill wrote a letter to Lorna Demidoff advising her of the situation and asking her assistance in finding a new home for Togo.  Mrs. Demidoff agreed to help and took possession of Togo in April.  She kept Togo in her garage until she was able to secure a new home at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, in early May of 1964.  Togo had a new home, but his troubles weren't over.  He had been on display for many years.  Countless hands had touched and petted him.  As a result, his coat was threadbare in places and his tail was worn down to the wire component of his mount.

In 1979 the Shelburne Museum got a new director -- Ben Mason.  Togo's condition had further deteriorated over the years and one of the staff asked the director to take "the raggedy dog" off exhibit.  The museum director agreed and placed Togo in storage, where he was forgotten.  Mr. Mason later admitted he was not aware of Togo's past and reputation at that time.  Togo seemed consigned to languish in storage.

Ed Blechner worked at the Shelburne Museum as a carpenter.  He also had a background in raising and racing sled dogs.  One day, he discovered a rather poor looking stuffed dog sitting on top of a refrigerator in a storage building.  Mr. Blechner was curious about this dog.  After doing some research, he learned that the stuffed dog was Togo.  Blechner informed the museum director of the identity and heroic history of this dog.  After hearing this, Ben Mason agreed that they could not just leave Togo in storage.  One of the things Mr. Mason did was to send word to some people in Alaska.

It didn't take long for the news media to pick up the story.  Soon the museum was flooded with inquiries from Alaskan school children, members of both the Vermont and Alaska state legislatures, dog clubs, museums, and various city officials.  Most of them wanted Togo returned to his native homeland.  Other suggestions were also offered as to Togo's disposition -- bury him where he had died in New England, do a taxidermic workover, or create a separate museum for him.

The Shelburne Museum also received an inquiry from Elizabeth (Ricker) Nansen who wanted to know what was going on with her dog.  It was decided that Mrs. Ricker no longer had any standing to claim ownership of Togo.  This was based, in part, on the fact that both she and Leonhard Seppala had agreed to donate Togo to the Peabody Museum back in 1929.

Ben Mason agonized for several months over what was the right thing to do with Togo.  One of the offers received was from the Iditarod Trail Committee based in Wasilla, Alaska.  They proposed, should Togo be transferred to Wasilla, that the dog would either be buried beneath a monument honoring his accomplishments, or displayed at a proposed new museum.  Mr. Mason liked this idea best out of all the offers he had received.

On February 18, 1983, "The mounted Togo (catalog number 38.2-2) was deaccessioned from the Shelburne Museum collection and was transferred to the Iditarod Trail Committee (Wasilla, Alaska)."  Ben Mason gave due credit to Ed Blechner by saying "If there's one person who made all this happen, it's Ed Blechner."  After more than 5 decades, Togo was finally on his way back home!

One of the first things that needed to be accomplished when Togo arrived in Alaska was to have him refurbished.  Dr. Bob Sept, DVM, was the President of the Iditarod Trail Committee and was also a veterinarian for the Iditarod race.  Dr. Sept took Togo to Nelson's Taxidermy shop in Anchorage.  Nelson Stimaker was the owner and Joe Romero worked there.  Togo would remain at the taxidermy shop for a little over 2 years.

Togo's tail and ears definitely needed to be replaced and a suitable donor would have to be found in order to accomplish this.  One day, a lady contacted Mr. Stimaker.  Her dog had just died and she wanted the hide tanned so that she could have a pair of fur gloves made.  Mr. Stimaker considered the shape, size and coloring of the ears and tail of this dog to be a good match for Togo.  He asked this lady if they could use the ears and tail of her dog on another dog, to which she agreed.

Joe Romero was assigned the task of doing a complete taxidermic restoration and reconditioning of Togo.  He also provided measurements for a glass case. The glass case was subsequently ordered as the Iditarod Trail Committee did not want Togo's condition to deteriorate again.  After the restoration process was completed, Togo went to the Iditarod Trail Committee retail store at the Northway Mall in Anchorage, where he was on display for a time. Once the Iditarod Trail Headquarters building in Wasilla was completed in 1987, Togo was relocated there and has been on display ever since, enclosed in the glass case.

Togo's final journey, marked by his arrival at the Iditarod museum, had lasted for more than 57 years.  He had returned to his homeland of Alaska and also to the same area where Leonhard Seppala had been laid to rest. During the latter part of his life Seppala was quoted as saying, "And when I come to the end of the trail, I feel that along with my many friends, Togo will be waiting and I will know that everything will be all right."  As it turned out, Leonhard Seppala made his final journey to Alaska before Togo did.  But no matter the order, Seppala's wish had come true -- the team of the greatest musher and the best dog that ever traveled the Alaskan trails had been reunited once again.  And this time, it would be forever.

Major sources for this article:  Peabody Museum at Yale University - Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, - Ed Blechner - Joe Romero - Mushers Hall of Fame at Knik, Alaska - JoAnne Potts, Iditarod Trail Committee - Bob Sept, DVM - The Seattle Times, Hartford Courant and New Haven Register newspapers. "Pal of the Trails!" reference on the Home Page is from page 50 of the book "Togo's Fireside Reflections" (1928) by Elizabeth Ricker.  A special thank you to Pam Thomas for helping to edit this story.

©2007 & 2015, Lance Jensen

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