Elkins man chronicles history of Ryman setter bird dog

By By John McCoy
Staff writer
JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Since the late 1950s, former DNR biologist Walt Lesser has owned and bred English setters like those developed by Pennsylvanian George Ryman in the early years of the 20th century. Lesser has co-authored a book, “The Real Ryman Setter: A History with Stories from the Appalachian Grouse Covers,” that chronicles how a handful of West Virginians perpetuated the bloodline and kept it from becoming lost.
Courtesy photo
For Lesser’s two Ryman-style setters, Kade and Dolly, a three-bird limit of woodcock is all in a day’s work.
Courtesy image
The cover of Walt Lesser’s book on Ryman setters features one of his own dogs, locked on point.

Walt Lesser remembers the first time he ever laid eyes on a Ryman-style English setter.

Lesser was in his early 20s at the time, looking for a room to stay in while he taught a course at West Virginia University. “A lady had advertised she had a room for rent, and when I knocked on her door I was met by a gorgeous English setter,” Lesser recalled.

The more Lesser looked the dog over, the more he liked what he saw. It was medium-sized, relatively short in the body and quite athletic looking. When Lesser expressed interest in finding a dog like that, the woman referred him to its breeder, who lived in nearby Preston County.

The breeder turned out to be George Bird Evans, a renowned writer of books and magazine articles dedicated to upland bird hunting. Evans happened to have a litter of eight pups at the time, and he offered one of them to Lesser. He also offered Lesser the brood’s dam, named Ryman’s Blue Heather, because the dog had been improperly trained and was too bird-shy to effectively hunt.

Both dogs were what Lesser calls Ryman-style setters, named for George Ryman, a breeder from northeastern Pennsylvania.

“Ryman had his own ideas of what a setter should be,” Lesser said. “When he started breeding, there was a marked difference between setters bred for show and setters bred for the field.

“He wanted what he called a ‘dual setter’ — a dog that could win a show, yet perform very effectively on game.”

Ryman bred dogs that were athletic and short-coupled, able to adapt readly to any kind of bird cover. “His dogs would move out and run in style, but also keep track of the hunter and not run over the next ridge,” Lesser said.

West Virginia in the late 1950s was a grouse and woodcock hunter’s paradise. The state had been timbered heavily during the first half of the century, and the forests were at the perfect stage of regeneration for those birds to thrive. Lesser soon found other bird hunters who not only shared his passion for the pastime, but also shared his passion for Ryman-style setters.

“In Pennsboro, I ran into two bird hunters, H.B. Davis and Bud Evans, both of whom had Ryman setters. We bred dogs together,” Lesser said. “Later on, George Hanson, Kay Pierce and Buck Ratliff did some breeding, too. Eventually there was a group of three to five people line-breeding the old Ryman bloodlines.”

Members of the group called their dogs “Ryman-style” setters rather than “Ryman setters.”

“The Ryman setter died when George Ryman died [in 1961],” Lesser said. “George’s widow tried keeping up the breeding, but she didn’t monitor the dogs’ field performance, and as a result the dogs gradually became larger and slower.”

In 1977, a Greenbrier County coal operator named David Francis bought the dogs from Ryman’s Pennsylvania kennels and moved them to Hillsboro in Pocahontas County. The operation went bankrupt within two years.

“The breeding stock was a mess,” Lesser said. “Some of the dogs weighed 120 pounds. They looked and performed nothing like the dogs George had bred.”

By then, Lesser said, he and his small band of Ryman enthusiasts had “the only dogs that looked like Ryman setters in the entire country.”

That group has since passed along their dogs’ blood lines to Cliff and Lisa Weisse of Island Park, Idaho. The Weisses’ operation, October Kennels, continues to breed setters that are true to the Ryman tradition.

After Lesser retired from his job as a Division of Natural Resources biologist, he set about writing a history of the Ryman setter. Lisa Weisse co-authored the book, “The Real Ryman Setter: A History with Stories from the Appalachian Grouse Covers,” which was released in January.

“Lisa expressed an interest in delving into the dogs’ pedigrees,” Lesser said. “She researched them, at one point even going to the American Kennel Club headquarters in New York to go through records. She put all those pedigrees on a CD, which comes with the book.”

In the book, Lesser described West Virginians’ role in keeping the bloodlines alive and as true as possible to George Ryman’s vision of what an English setter should be. To help bring the history to life, he punctuated the historical narrative with accounts of the dogs’ and breeders’ real-life hunting experiences.

The book is available from Lesser’s and Weisse’s website, www.therealrymansetter.com; from the Schiffer Publishing Co. website, www.schifferbooks.com; or from Amazon and other booksellers.

Reader response to the 160-page hardback volume has been positive, Lesser said.

“It has been very well received, even beyond our dreams. We never thought the book would be as popular as it’s turning out to be. What blew our minds was the amount of interest outside of bird-dog people. We’ve had a lot of interest from dog enthusiasts in general, and also some interest from people who are neither hunters nor dog people.”

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