By Tom Davis
For almost 60 years some of the finest Labrador retrievers in the world—national champions, hall-of-famers, sires and dams that have made incalculable contributions to the breed—have come from Mary Howley’s Candlewood Kennels. Since the late 1990s the kennels have been located on 64 gently rolling acres near Portage, Wisconsin, in the central part of the state; prior to that they were in a residential neighborhood in Madison just a few minutes’ drive from Truax Field, the local airport. In the days when shipping dogs by air was still a normal part of doing business, Mary pulled so much weight that once, having discovered she’d put the wrong puppy on the plane, she was able to get the flight delayed until she could get the right pup on board.
Regardless of the address, there’s always been a curious disconnect between the physical reality of Candlewood Kennels and the collective luster of its accomplishments, influence and reputation. It’s a little like one of those farmhouse restaurants in France or Italy that appears utterly unremarkable from the outside but serves some of the most sublimely delicious food in the world.
Indeed, as most of us understand the term “kennels,” Candlewood doesn’t qualify. The Madison version was a modest single-story home; I remember arriving there to interview Mary in the mid-’90s at a time when Candlewood-bred dogs had won an unprecedented five consecutive National Retriever Championships and thinking, This can’t be the right place.
But of course it was. While there were a few runs in the backyard, most of the “infrastructure,” including the whelping pens, was in the basement. Some of the greatest Labs in history began their lives there, including the immortal Lottie, Candlewood’s Tanks A Lot. One of only two dogs to win the National Retriever Championship on three occasions—she did it in 1990, ’91 and ’93—Lottie was the very definition of a working mother. She was bred five times, and an astonishing 22 of her offspring earned the title Field Champion (FC) or Amateur Field Champion (AFC).
“Mind-boggling,” in Mary’s words.
And get this: When she wasn’t nursing puppies or setting field-trial records, Lottie was hunting pheasants with her co-owner, Iowa sportsman Randy Kuehl. She was a natural in the uplands; one of the first inklings that she might be something special came when, while still a puppy, she dug a wing-tipped grouse out of a hole for Andy Attar, the then-up-and-coming professional trainer who gave Lottie her start before turning her over to his boss at the time, Mike Lardy. It was Lardy who piloted Lottie to her National Championships, helping him become, with seven total titles, the all-time-winningest handler in the history of that event.
If ever a dog was a lock for the Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame, it was Lottie. She was enshrined in 1997, three years after her sire, Candlewood’s Super Tanker, achieved that distinction. One of only a handful of dogs to win both the National and National Amateur Retriever Championships, Tank was raised in that Madison basement too.
Now, a light snow falling as I navigate the wintry back roads to Candlewood’s Portage address, I wonder what I’ll find. It’s good country to drive, with landmarks like the Fox River National Wildlife Refuge and the place, now a county park, where a Scottish-born lad named John Muir developed his abiding fascination for the natural world.
The drive affords me plenty of time to think about Mary’s backstory too: how she acquired her first Lab pup at the suggestion of her duck hunting dad, Harold, when she was a junior in high school, training the dog so well (with guidance from members of the Madison Retriever Club) that Hall of Fame trainer Charley Morgan eventually purchased him; how she fell in love with Labs and went on to train many others and handle them herself in field-trial competition (when Harold wasn’t taking them duck hunting, that is); how she began her breeding program in the 1960s and worked as a dog groomer at a shop on State Street in downtown Madison until, in the late ’80s, the success of the Candlewood Labs enabled her to devote herself full-time to them; how her accomplishments, her contributions and her legacy of generosity and fairness have made her one of the most respected figures in the retriever world . . . .
This time, thanks to a sign on the road that says simply “Candlewood,” I know I’ve come to the right place. There’s a similar sign on the pole building at the end of the driveway—but nothing to announce to passersby that a kennel of any kind, much less a world-renowned facility for the breeding of Labrador retrievers, is located on the premises.
The house, another single-story affair, doesn’t call attention to itself either. I ring the doorbell, and from inside I hear Mary’s big, brassy voice telling me she’s on her way. It’s a voice you never forget; if Ethel Merman had grown up in Wisconsin, she’d have sounded like Mary Howley.
It’s been 20-plus years since we’ve seen one another, but it takes about a nanosecond to conclude that Mary, who’ll be 80 on her next birthday, hasn’t changed a bit. She’s still the same feisty, funny, disarmingly plainspoken woman, with the same outsized personality, she’s always been. And when she talks about her beloved Labs—her descriptions peppered with superlatives like “awesome,” “phenomenal” and “unreal”—you feel yourself all but swept away on the tidal wave of her enthusiasm.
Her first order of business today, though, is to apologize. “I don’t have a Lab on the place right now,” she says. “Just my two Frenchies,” she adds, nodding toward the fat French bulldogs milling around underfoot. She explains that her bitches as well as an “awesome” young stud dog—“classically handsome and a great hunter”—are with various friends in the area. This was her MO in Madison also; the dogs enjoy amazing lives as family companions (whether they’re hunted or not) while remaining available to Mary to breed as she sees fit.
Sometimes the puppies are whelped in, yes, her basement—which is set up with pens, play areas, grooming tables and the like for just that purpose—while other times her “cooperators” whelp the pups (under Mary’s supervision, of course) in their own homes. They share expenses and receipts equally and, as Mary puts it, “It works out great for both of us.” In clement weather the pups are given the run of her property, which includes several large fenced paddocks and mowed trails through the woods. Her friends are welcome to use the grounds for training, too, although Mary herself no longer actively trains.
Last year she offered seven litters of Candlewood puppies for sale. The most she ever had in a year? Twenty-two, she tells me. “I don’t know how I did it,” she says, growing wide-eyed at the memory. The going rate for a Candlewood puppy is $2,000, which may sound like a lot but, considering what the “typical” Lab pup sells for these days, is incredibly reasonable—like going shopping for bourbon and discovering that Pappy Van Winkle is just a few dollars higher than your usual pour.
“There are people who are getting a lot more,” Mary shrugs, “but that’s OK.” She never gives prospective buyers the hard-sell; instead, she encourages them to do their homework and come to an informed decision—although she argues that the Internet, where she fumes, “Your dogs can be whatever you want them to be,” has muddied the waters terribly in this regard.
To emphasize the point, she picks up a green plastic accordion file bulging with hundreds, maybe thousands, of Labrador pedigrees. “This is my computer,” she declares. She pulls out the pedigree of one of her females and starts rattling off names: Tank, Lottie, Harley, Lean Mac, Nellie-B-Good . . . .
“I know every dog in here,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I’ve seen ’em run, I know their characteristics, their conformation, their temperaments, the way they performed in the field. I know what they produced too.”
Warming to the task, she adds, “You never know what a dog will produce until it’s bred, but after 55 years I can look at the individual characteristics of a sire and dam, compare their pedigrees and predict what I’m going to get.”
And what is it, exactly, that you “get” with a Candlewood Lab? According to veteran professional trainer Wayne Curtis, who first met Mary 44 years ago when she judged a derby stake in which he was competing, it isn’t just one thing; it’s everything.
“Mary’s dogs are very balanced,” he observes. “They have the performance characteristics you need for hunting and field trials, and they also have the intelligence and temperament to be great companions. They have good conformation; they never have any health issues—they’re just very sound dogs.”
Curtis adds: “In my mind Mary’s the nation’s top Labrador breeder, and she has been for a long time. When you think of what the Candlewood dogs have done in competition, no one can compare to her.”
Just to expand on Curtis’s remarks, to me one of the most powerful testaments to the integrity of Mary’s breeding program is that a significant percentage of her pups go to owners who aren’t hunters or field-trialers—in other words people who simply want all the wonderful qualities a well-bred Labrador retriever brings to the party over and above the ability to mark a fall, take a line and so on.
Mary tells me that she recently sold two pups to a client from Utah who intends to train them as avalanche rescue dogs. “They need brainy, physically sound dogs with high prey drive for that kind of work,” she explains. “It gives me goose bumps to think that a couple of my pups will be doing it.”
Driving home through the snow-mantled countryside, it occurs to me that what Mary said about her pedigree file being her computer isn’t quite right. I get the metaphor, but the pedigrees ultimately serve as a kind of external memory. The real computer is Mary’s mind.
It occurs to me, too, that if you’re a Labrador retriever, there’s no better place to be born than Mary Howley’s basement.