This webpage tells the tale of Leland Abbott and his trek to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York by dog team and with his good buddy.
This webpage chronicles the trip itself, but if you came to this site first and desire to know the context and full lead-up of Leland’s early family life prior to the trip then it is recommended that you go back to that family history webpage site now using the weblink below:
Leland and Hector were up in northern Manitoba working their connections in the late 1930s when they heard about the next Worlds Fair that was going to open in New York City in 1939. At some point, they also read in an out of date publication that others were planning to arrive at the fair by walking or bicycling great distances. Together they began to hatch the idea that they too should make the 3800-mile trip by mushing a dog team pulling a sled. Other mushers hailing from The Pas had earlier undertaken long forays before, gaining considerable notoriety in the process, and so this idea wasn’t beyond the realm of imagination for them. There is some storyline that a wager was involved, but that remains unconfirmed, and likely was of little consequence in any event as to their decision.
Whatever the motive, in the summer of 1938 while up in the extreme north of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories along Hudson’s Bay the two men began plotting the trip. They decided they would need to carefully select a new team of sled dogs specifically for this trip, choosing to keep Leland’s lead dog Satan to break the new team members in. Leland apparently at one point was up north as far as Repulse Bay, NWT with a dog team that included Satan, and in later accounts, the media ran with the story that the trek to New York actually started from there. Regardless of geographical beginnings, 6 new pups were purchased from the Inuit at Tavani where Leland and Hector were at the time trapping muskrats and guiding prospectors, and they all returned south to The Pas with them at the end of that summer to begin the remaining preparations for the big trip ahead.
Once back in The Pas there was much work to do. Leland and Satan began breaking in the new sled team and a local craftsman made a new komatik (the indigenous name for the sled) out of oak and designed especially for the trip. It was 14 feet long and it had to carry all 700 pounds of gear they would need to bring along. Together they worked the concept of their trek and marketed it around town, seeking sponsorships and assistance as they could. Ducks Unlimited paid them to affix a banner to the sled for the trip. At some point, a processing company began to supply the pair with dog food. On November 28, 1938, Leland and Hector posed the team one final time in The Pas before departing. The mayor of The Pas gave them letters as they were leaving to deliver to the mayors of Winnipeg and New York City.
Hector, Leland and Satan and the rest of the new team on the Main Street
getting ready to depart The Pas - November 28, 1938.
Article from Winnipeg Tribune - November 30, 1938, as the press
begin to pick-up the story on a wider regional scale.
December 1, 1938 article from the Winnipeg Free Press.
From The Pas, the men headed out intending to be in New York for the grand opening of the World’s Fair on April 30, 1939. Most of the time one man would mush the sled team and the other would walk. Walking with the team would keep the dogs from running, which was a calculated move to preserve them for the long trip ahead. They stopped while in Swan River for a few days to visit with Leland’s sister-in-law’s family there. At some point during the trip, they began to further commoditize the venture, selling photographs and other memorabilia to folks along the way fascinated with traditional northern trapping and Inuit culture.
Article from the Minneapolis Star newspaper - December 1, 1938
An article from the paper in Swan River about the emergent voyage of
Leland “Eskimo” Abbott as he leaves the north country of Manitoba
Article from The Dauphin Herald
December 15, 1938.
A holiday card made up of the team members posing on the main street
in Dauphin as they were passing through in December, 1939.
South of Dauphin winter unexpectedly let up and the team started to run out of snow. Apparently, a farmer there and a garage in Neepawa helped them create a rig where the sled was elevated on wheels so they could continue but it proved to be problematic and only presented a partial solution. With the weather not cooperating they hitched rides for portions of the journey towards Winnipeg when lack of snow was an issue. The goal was to stage there over the holidays.
Windsor Ontario Star article - December 21, 1938.
Vancouver Province newspaper article - December 28, 1938.
Winnipeg Free Press article depicting the team’s arrival in Winnipeg
December 21, 1938.
After staying for the holidays in Winnipeg, resting up, and letting the weather settle back down, the team again got underway in mid-January 1939. It was reported that Winnipeg and the traffic there was very disruptive to the dogs, who were extremely skittish of these new experiences. They now had three and a half months to get to New York City before the opening of the World’s Fair. They would typically travel 25 to 45 miles each day. Most of the time one man would walk upfront with the team to hold them back and to keep them from breaking out in a full run while the other would mush from the rear of the komatik.
Article in Winnipeg Tribune - January 18, 1939
In Minnesota, the team again began to run out of snow and canvas footgear for the dogs needed to be cobbled together and once more small tires were fitted to the sled. Steering became an issue, however, and the rig was not safe for the public roadways they were now taking. Once an old Model A steering assembly was added to the front, with the controls re-worked to the back of the sled, they were good to go for the remainder of the trip. By early February the pair and the dog team were also bona fide celebrities, making the papers all over the U.S. as the story got picked up by the Associated Press wires. That meant they were now being lined up by the media and local businesses and organizations for event appearances as they would approach and pass through a new metropolitan area along their route.
Article from the Minneapolis Star
An article appearing in the Dotham, Alabama Eagle newspaper
February 26, 1939. Similar articles to this would be picked up by the
Associated Press and appear all over the U.S.
From Minnesota, they travelled to Iowa. The American public along their route, already smitten with "cowboys and Indians” at the time, was now also undergoing a similar hype around the “Eskimo" way of life. The pair would educate the public about trapping and life in the far north and show off the working dogs as they went along. It also became more common for the press to now report the men as having started the journey up in the Northwest Territories, oftentimes citing Repulse Bay in the arctic as where they hailed from and with the trip originating back to September of 1938 when it was still unorganized in the final form, and well prior to it coming together a few months later in The Pas.
Article from The Windsor Star newspaper
March 1, 1939.
March 2, 1939 article from Freeport, Illinois
Finally headed east towards Chicago, the team came across the immediate frenzy in the big city after a robbery and shoot-out there. They tried to avoid the larger centres and roadways if possible, but it was a balancing act as the press and locals were now hyped to what was happening and starting to make plans ahead for the new "celebrities" as they passed through. The dog team would become agitated around heavy traffic and sometimes it would be so bad that a fight amongst the pack would break out and need remedial attention. In Chicago, they enlisted help from a trucker to cart them past the worst of the traffic.
Article from Munster Indiana Times
newspaper March 7, 1939.
Article from the Louisville Kentucky Courier-Journal
newspaper March 8, 1939.
Article from Chicago Daily Herald newspaper
March 10, 1939.
The wheeled sled with it’s revised steering chassis was proving to be very effective and the trip was going well. By late March, the men were traversing along the bottom shore of Lake Erie across Ohio. Time was now of the essence to make the opening of the World’s Fair at the end of April.
Article from Sandusky Ohio Register
March 26, 1939.
By early April, the team was in upstate New York and ready to make the final push to The Big Apple. Leland now reports that the dogs are used to traffic and have adjusted to this. The men, however, are starting to hint to the reporters that they are tiring somewhat of their celebrity status and steady demands for their time by local politicians and civic organizations.
Livingston County, New York - The Daily Press & Argus newspaper
April 5, 1939.
Article from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper - April 3, 1939.
Fairbanks Alaska, the Daily News-Miner newspaper
April 11, 1939.
On April 25, 1939, with less than a week before the official opening of the fair, the team rolled into New York City and settled into full-on celebrity status there amidst all the rest of the hype going on around the World’s Fair. They made news by choosing to eschew a hotel and to set up camp initially, just as they had done along the entire trip.
Thereafter, the team would ride the subway and be taken to the top of the Empire State Building. At the RCA Pavilion, the company was introducing the world to the newly invented television and they filmed a spot using Satan as part of that, thus apparently having him become the first dog to ever appear on broadcast TV. The dog team was set up at the fairgrounds and provided rides to thousands of children. They were taken out to New Jersey, where the world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, the famous “Brown Bomber”, had a training camp set up and he was given a chance to mush the team. The group were also made guest members of the prestigious Explorer’s Club in New York City during their stay.
Article from The Montreal Gazette
April 26, 1939.
Daily News, Wednesday, April 26, 1939.
Article and photo from New York Daily News - April 26, 1939,
showing the men and their dogs with the Perisphere in the
background in Queens, New York.
The Trylon and Perisphere in Flushing Meadows, Queens would become the central symbol of the 1939 World's Fair, with their image reproduced by the millions on a wide range of promotional materials and serving as the fairground's focal point. The United States issued a postage stamp in 1939 depicting the 700 foot tall Trylon tower and the adjacent orb Perisphere, which one entered via a moving stairway to view a model "city of tomorrow”.
The Trylon and Perisphere depicted on a period stamp as central symbols
of the 1939 World's Fair in New York.
Article from Logan Utah Herald-Journal newspaper
April 26, 1939.
Photo of the team on top of Empire State Building - 1939.
The World's Fair was scheduled to run for two seasons over 1939 and 1940, and be open from April to October each year. Although the U.S. would not be drawn into WW2 until the end of 1941, the event was overshadowed soon enough by the war. It is believed that Leland and the dogs were around for the entire first season, as he later recounted doing Christmas promotions in the city. There are accounts that he was at one point exploring taking the dogs to Finland as part of some kind of Red Cross fundraising mission after that country was invaded by Russia late in 1939. It is reported that this was perhaps close to happening, but that President Hoover’s administration felt that he could raise more money touring in the U.S. for the cause instead.
At one point Leland would come to leave the city with the dogs and go "on tour” with them, and it is at this juncture that it is believed that he and Hector parted ways and began to take separate paths as celebrities. Leland met up with a young Pennsylvania-Dutch woman named Ruth Fonner from Altoona, Pennsylvania at some point and would be with her soon after his time at the fair was over. Satan, the beloved lead dog and celebrity in his own right, would continue to father pups and even those would be used in advertised promotions, taking full advantage of the mania happening at the time.
Leaflet promo from 1940 advertising a “Husky pup from Satan”
giveaway by a soft drink company.
Satan, who was already a mature dog prior to the commencement of the trek, would pass away during Leland’s time in Pennsylvania and he and Ruth buried him there. Somewhere in all this, Leland would also come to lose his photogenic fur outer garments during his Pennsylvania travels in the spring of 1940. Leland would return to New York afterwards and sell the remaining dog team to the Explorer’s Club for $100 apiece and then he would also leave Ruth behind so that he could return to Canada to enlist in the war effort. The relationship was strong enough, however, to survive that and he would later return to hook up again with Ruth and bring her with him back to Canada, where they would ultimately marry and settle down together on the west coast.
Article about Leland’s lost fur garments in rural Pennsylvania as published
in The Paterson, New Jersey Morning Call on March 4, 1940.
It appears Hector Despins tried a similar approach as the fair ended. A newspaper article from the summer of 1941 shows that he is still in the American northeast doing promotional appearances and outwardly homesick whilst “hoping to wed some nice, wealthy American girl”. Hector would eventually return to Canada and would work driving bulldozers building the Alaska Highway in the early 1940s before returning to northern Manitoba and settling down in Thompson.
An article appearing in The Pas Herald
March 13, 1975.
This webpage told the tale of Leland Abbott and his trek to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York by dog team and with his good buddy.
For the continuation of Leland’s life story after the trip as he returned to Canada to serve in WWII and beyond, then it is recommended that you now go back to that now using the weblink below.
Once there, scroll down to the photo of the embroidered patch of The Pas and a dog sled team and then you can pick up the storyline again in chronological sequence at that point: