When Alton and Esther Foster’s oldest son was responsible enough to care for a pet, they went looking for a dog.
Alton didn’t have to search very far. A co-worker at the Bibb County Tax Commissioner’s office offered to let him pick from a litter of cocker spaniel puppies. Another co-worker rode in the back seat of Alton’s 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, holding the little dog on the way home.
Son Al had a habit of befriending dogs in their neighborhood in Shurlington.
“I guess my parents got tired of me bringing home stray dogs, so they got me my own,” he said, laughing.
It was a surprise gift for 10-year-old Al and his younger sister, Andrea. He remembers it being a cold, autumn night, close to Halloween.
“Daddy snuck him home, and I knew something was up,” he said. “We were out in the carport, and they told me and my sister to close our eyes. My mother said, ‘Oh, what a pretty pumpkin.’ When we turned around, there was a little, black cocker spaniel.”
The Fosters called him Smoky because Alton said he was “as black as black can be.”
He was a handsome dog and gentle with the children. He wasn’t a prissy purebred. He mostly stayed outside to dig in the dirt, chase squirrels and bark at the mailman.
One spring morning, they took him inside the house, gave him a bath, combed his fur, stuck him in the car and rode eight miles across town to participate in the Museum of Arts and Sciences annual pet show.
Smoky had never competed in a show. He was just an ordinary dog. He wasn’t famous, like Lassie or Uga. He would never be a candidate for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
That day, however, Smoky turned out to be something special. Al paraded him around on a leash in front of the judges, and soon the little black dog was wearing a first-place blue ribbon.
That was in 1976, so Smokey is long gone. If he were still alive, he would be 287 in dog years.
The Fosters have carried that blue-ribbon memory with them for more than 40 years. And it’s the same way for hundreds of other local families and their critters.
The Museum of Arts and Sciences annual pet show is now in its 62nd year, making it the museum’s longest running event and one of the city’s oldest.
Sunday’s show is from 2-4:30 p.m. (weather permitting) on the lawn at Coliseum Northside Hospital. It’s free and a family event. Contest entries are $2 per pet.
There will be categories for best dressed, best behaved, cutest walk and most unique.
With between 200 and 400 entries expected, it’s the closest thing Macon has to a zoo.
The idea for what began as the Macon Youth Museum came in 1954 when a Bibb County school librarian named Celia Moore visited a children’s museum in Nashville.
Inspired by the possibility of starting a similar facility in Macon, she made her proposal to school superintendent Mark Smith and Mayor B.F. Merritt. They loved the idea but said there was no money for funding.
Moore refused to give up or back off. She pitched her idea to the Association for Childhood Education, and 160 interested citizens attended a meeting to start the process. A committee was formed and a large room in the basement at the old Wesleyan Conservatory was rented for $100 a month. The museum opened on June 11, 1956, and Elizabeth Watson White was named director.
Eleven months later, a group of museum volunteers known as the Mother’s Guild was ready to – pardon the pun – unleash a pet show on the community. It was for dogs only, with an emphasis on “pets, not pedigree.” The entry fee was a whopping 10 cents.
There were two classifications – big dogs and little dogs. The museum recruited a local veterinarian, the president of the humane society and a member of the Macon Kennel Club to serve as judges. Ribbons were awarded for the “oldest, youngest, most obedient, cleanest, prettiest, longest tail, lowest to the ground, saddest eyes, curliest ears, longest whiskers, shortest tail and best stick jumper.”
By the following year, the dogs had to share the stage. The pet fair was open to every animal that hopped on the boat with Noah.
Folks began bringing their cats, canaries, chickens, ducks, hamsters, pigs, goldfish, rabbits, turtles, frogs, snakes, squirrels, horses, goats, lizards, and even insects. (Yes, even crickets and bees have made past appearances.)
Old Smoky would be proud.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sunday in The Telegraph.