Johnny and his dog

This bit of Dayton history is a reblog from a post on our sister site, Raising a Super Dog, that I published a while back. And by a while back, it’s possible I may mean about ten years ago or so.

I’ll publish the story as it happened back then, complete with photos. At the end of the article, I’ve added new information that I’ve uncovered since the original post went live in 2010.

Imagine this. You’re exploring an old city cemetery during the early evening hours. You like this time of day because of the softly muted light. You’re taking photos of an interesting monument and thinking intellectually deep thoughts about macro shots, f-stops and ISO settings.

You’re in the zone. If you lean at this angle, is the depth of field too shallow or should you maybe bump it up to . . . and suddenly from behind you comes a deep bass “EXCUSE ME.”

What do you do? Turn around smoothly with an air of cool authority that says clearly, you wouldn’t DARE accost me? Or instead make a weird little strangling sob sound that is shorthand for “my purse is on the front seat of the car”?

What did I do? Oh, as if. Option B, naturally. Just about dropped my stupid camera, I did. To my relief, the interruption to my artsy musings was merely a young college student from the adjacent University of Dayton who was taking his evening constitutional through Woodland Cemetery. Although I did make clear that I HAVE MY DOG IN THE CAR.  Perhaps a little too loudly. Thinking this may thwart any untoward thoughts against my chubby, middle-aged person.

The young man was merely curious; he’d heard stories about a haunting at Woodland. Something about a boy and his dog. He couldn’t help but notice that I was taking photos of a monument of the same. Taking photos is right. I was trying to get a macro shot of the stone dog’s nostrils (f-stop, depth of field…) when he caused me to jump out of my skin. But more on dog nostrils in a minute.

Hey fella, she left the keys in the ignition.

So, what’s the story on the boy and his dog; did I know? Are you kidding me?  Heck yes, I know.  Just give me a sec here to swallow first so I can get my heart dislodged from my tonsils, though.

In waning summer of 1860, 5-year-old Johnny Morehouse was playing with his dog near his father’s cobbler shop in downtown Dayton, Ohio. Dayton was still enjoying her youth during these pre-Civil War times and relied on the nearby river, along with the Miami & Erie Canal system, for commerce with other Ohio cities. This was long before the Great Flood of 1913 when folk still had a tentative trust in the Great Miami River and its tributaries. 

Johnny ignored his mother’s warnings and was playing at the edge of the canal, tossing a ball into the water for his dog to retrieve. When he put all his weight into a hard throw, Johnny lost his balance and fell into the dark water. When Johnny didn’t come back up, his dog jumped in to pull his boy back to safety.

But it was not to be.

Little Johnny Morehouse drowned on that warm summer day of August 14, 1860.

Johnny was laid to rest later that week in beautiful Woodland Cemetery, which was also in its youth, having been established less than twenty years prior. Legend has it that his dog stayed at his graveside, refusing to leave. For a time, kind families would come by to bring food and water to the dog.

Then one day, the dog was gone and never seen again.

It’s said that in late summer, at the last light of the day after the cemetery gates have been locked, you can hear a boy in the distance, laughing and playing with his happily barking dog.

But really, people

Johnny’s father, John, was a cobbler, making shoes and boots for his Dayton neighbors. Making an honest living, but certainly not a rich man by anyone’s standards. The family could only afford a modest grave marker for their youngest son. But a local businessman, Daniel La Dow, was inspired by the story of Johnny’s valorous dog. La Dow himself was a skilled stonecutter and owner of a prosperous marble works in the city. His team designed and created the remarkable monument that is at Johnny’s gravesite. ‘Tis truly a work of art that is not duplicated anywhere else within our fair city.

The monument has no dates on it – no date of birth nor death. The only inscriptions are Johnny’s name and the words Slumber Sweet. We see that after these past 150 years, the dog remains vigilant with a protective paw over the young boy as he sleeps. Forever to be alert and watchful in stone.

At their feet rests Johnny’s cap and the toys found in his pocket that horrible day; his ball, a top, and mouth harp (harmonica).

Woodland Cemetery states this is their most visited gravesite – and the most decorated. The site changes daily as families come by to pay their respects to this lost boy by leaving toys, trinkets and clothing. These items are later collected and donated to charitable organizations.

Now, about those nostrils

To avoid cracks in the stone due to temperature changes, La Dow included an air vent inside the monument. This rather clever design allows barometric pressure changes to be released through the dog’s nose. It is true that if you hold your hand near the dog’s nostrils, you can feel it “breathe.”  In the coldest of temps you can see steam coming from the nose.

What’s really surprising to me though, is that in spite of the various legends of this boy and his dog (I’ve only shared one story), we don’t know the dog’s name. This is lost to history as well as the dog’s breed. I don’t know, it seems disrespectful to me to even nickname this boy’s dog. But what kind of dog is it?

Take a break, Hero Dog. I got this.

But isn’t it obvious? Love, responsibility and a never-ending devotion? It’s got to be a golden retriever, don’t you think?

Ok, so what is it that I’ve learned about the legend of Johnny Morehouse and his dog over the last ten years?

Johnny’s father, John Morehouse, was born in 1828 in Newark, New Jersey. John later came to Dayton with his parents, John and Nancy, where he helped his father re-establish their family’s craft of boot and shoemaking. Eventually the two set up a wholesale shop on Third Street in Dayton’s “Miami City” neighborhood, not far from where the Wright Brothers’ would soon start their printing business (and later their famous bicycle shop). The Miami City blocks were located west of downtown Dayton, separated from the city by the Great Miami River.

John Morehouse married Mary Browning in 1851, when John was only twenty three years old. Four years later Mary gave John a son, a namesake who they called Johnny. They might have imagined Johnny to be a third generation shoemaker, but first there was a childhood to be had.

In the days before municipal playgrounds and little league teams, the river banks served as the Victorian Era child’s amusement park. And the Great Miami River was a mere three blocks from both John’s wholesale Boot & Shoe business on West Third Street and the Morehouse home located on Williams Street.

The Miami-Erie canal was across the Third Street bridge, far into the downtown milling and manufacturing areas. It was unlikely that five-year-old Johnny was near the canal on August 14, but he was certainly not a stranger to the Great Miami River or the adjoining Wolf Creek that meets the river just before the bridge.

Although prone to flooding during the spring, the Great Miami’s waters would be down during the hot, dry days of late summer. We can imagine a cobbler’s young son neatly placing his shoes under his bed, then stuffing his pockets with beloved toys before running down to the river’s edge. With the August sun on his shoulders, it would be hard to deny the temptation to walk barefoot into the lapping water; to cool his toes in the silty mud. His dog, a water lover himself, is splashing along at his side, entertaining the thoughts of playing fetch with his favorite boy.

John continued his boot and shoemaking business after Johnny’s death. Then after Mary passed, John remarried the widow Barbara Shook and they relocated their home to the other side of the Great Miami to live on Baxter Street. Barbara died at the age of 51 in 1878, leaving John twice widowed.

Later in life John closed his shoemaking business for good and made a living as an insurance salesman. John died on August 7, 1903, almost 43 years to the day after Johnny’s early death. He’s buried in the Morehouse family plot at Woodland, with the Boy and Dog within sight.

Daniel La Dow, the designer behind the Boy and Dog, owned La Dow & Hamilton Marbleworks (later La Dow & Winder) located downtown on Third Street, between Jefferson and St. Clair Streets. He is buried at Woodland Cemetery as well. His monument is an impressive obelisk to honor the life of this generous man. I wonder if he designed this himself and feel that he very likely did.

Another bit of history with the Boy & Dog monument happened in April, 2008, when the head of the dog was displaced from its perch. I was visiting the cemetery and was dismayed to see this demarcation of our city’s beloved monument. While taking a photo, a Woodland security guard drove past and yelled something from his car.

“What?” I said.

“We got the head!” he repeated.

Ok, good to know. I was worried. The damage wasn’t vandalism as first rumored, but something more in the line of natural causes. One story blamed a falling tree branch, while another suggested it wasn’t unusual to expect some wear and tear over the hundred plus years of Ohio weather patterns. Restoration was done promptly by Woodland and all is as it should be today.

Do you have your own stories with the Boy & Dog monument at Woodland? What legends have you heard about Johnny and his dog? Share your experiences in the comments!

Sure, it’s been ten years. But I can still fit into the same collar. You should know that.