Articles About Old Family Red Nose Pit Bulls

Story of the Old Family Reds
Written by Richard F. Stratton
* Appeared in the January-February, 1975 issue of Bloodlines Journal.

First, an overview. No one really knows when these dogs first came to this country, but the great breeder William J. Lightner once told me that his grandfather raised them before the Civil War. It is quite possible that they were even here during the Revolutionary War. In any case, it is clear that dogs of this breed came from various parts of Europe, specifically Spain and Sicily. But little is known about these earliest importations, because nothing was written about them. (Books and periodicals containing information about dogs were rare in those days.) Their existence can be inferred from artwork, however. The most famous importations were from Ireland, and were generally made by the Irish themselves after they emigrated to this country. (The bulk of the Irish pit dog importations coincides or closely follows the great Irish migration that resulted from the famous potato famine.) Most of the Irish dogs were small and very closely inbred, but their gameness was proverbial, especially that of the group of strains that was known as the Old Family. The following article I wrote on the Old Family Reds (just one segment of the Old Family bloodlines) is reprinted from Bloodlines Journal.

It has always seemed to me that the good old Pit Bull is a breed that is at once primitive and futuristic. He looks no more out of place in the ancient landscapes of 16th century paintings than he does in the ultra-modern setting. It is beyond my capabilities to imagine an end to him, for every generation seems to supply a nucleus of hard core devotees completely committed to the breed. In any case, you can look into the murky past, and you will find it difficult to discern a beginning place for the breed, and, fortunately, the future seems to threaten no demise either.

Ours is a breed that has a definite mystique. Part of it, no doubt, stems from the fact that it is an old breed and deeply steeped in tradition. Old strains are a particularly fascinating part of this tradition, and the Old Family Red Nose is one of the better-known old strains.

The appearance of the red-nosed dogs always attracts attention, but it takes a little getting used to for some people to consider them truly beautiful. However, no one denies that they radiate "class." Characteristically, a dog of the red-nosed strain has a copper-red nose, red lips, red toe nails, and red or amber eyes. Some think the strain was bred for looks. Others consider any dog that just happens to have a red nose to be pure Old Family Red Nose. It is hoped that the following will dispel such notions.

About the middle of the last century there was a family of pit dogs in Ireland bred and fought chiefly in the counties of Cork and Kerry that were known as the "Old Family." In those days, pedigrees were privately kept and jealously guarded. Purity of the strains was emphasized to the extent that breeders hardly recognized another strain as being the same breed. For that reason all the strains were closely inbred. And whenever you have a closed genetic pool of that type, you are likely to have a slide toward the recessive traits, because the dominants, once discarded, are never recaptured. Since red is recessive to all colors but white, the "Old Family" eventually became the "Old Family Reds." When the dogs began coming to America, many were already beginning to show the red nose.

The "Old Family" dogs found their way to America mainly via immigrants. For example, Jim Corcoran came to this country to fight the world heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, and stayed to become a Boston policeman. He sent for dogs from his parents back in Ireland, and his importations and expertise as a great breeder have earned him a prominent place in American (Pit) Bull Terrier history. Many other Irish immigrants also sent back to their families to request for dogs, and the "Old Family" and related strains became firmly established in the United States.

At this point, there are several factors that are somewhat confusing to a student of the breed. For one thing, the term "family dogs" was used in two ways: It could mean a strain of dogs that was a family unto itself that was kept by a number of unrelated people in Ireland, or it could refer to a strain of dogs that was kept and preserved through the years by a family group. However, the old Family Reds seem to be of the first category. Another point that arises is that with all these importations from Ireland (and there were importations from other countries, too-including Spain), where do we get off calling our breed the American Bull Terrier! Well. ..that's a point! The breed does not really belong to anyone country or even anyone era! However, I don't believe many people are in favor of changing the name of the breed even though it is not strictly an American breed. For that matter, it is not really a Bull Terrier, either! But the name American (Pit) Bull Terrier has become part of that tradition we were talking about, and I think most of us prefer to keep it as a formal name for the breed.

Back to the Old Family Reds. The first big splash made by the red noses was back around 1900 when the great breeder William J. Lightner, utilizing Old Family Red bloodlines, came up with some red-nosed dogs that really made a name for themselves. Now Lightner once told me that he did not breed for that red-nosed coloration. In fact, he did not even like it and he only put up with it because the individual dogs were of such high quality. Eventually Lightner gave up the red-nosed strain when he moved from Louisiana to Colorado, where he came up with a new strain that consisted of small dark-colored dogs with black noses. He had given up on the other strain because they were running too big for his taste and because he didn't like the red noses.

At this point in our story we come upon a comical, but highly-respected, figure in the personage of Dan McCoy. I have heard old-time dog men from all over the country talk about this man. Apparently, he was an itinerant fry cook and not much of a success in life judged by normal standards, but he didn't care about that. What he did care about were Pit Bulldogs, and he had a wealth of knowledge about the breed. His uncanny ability to make breedings that "clicked" made him a respected breeding consultant and a most welcome guest at any dog man's house-even if he had just dropped off a freight train!

Always with his ear to the ground regarding anything that involved APBT's, McCoy got wind of the fact that an old Frenchman in Louisiana by the name of Bourgeous had preserved the old Lightner red-nosed strain. So he and Bob Hemphill went to that area, and with the aid of Gaboon Trahan of Lafayette, they secured what was left of the dogs. McCoy took his share to the Panhandle of Texas and placed them with his associates L. C. Owens, Arthur Harvey and Buck Moon. He then played a principal role in directing the breedings that were made by these fanciers. And from this enclave came such celebrated dogs as Harvey's Red Devil and Owens (Ferguson's) Centipede. Hemphill eventually kept only dogs of the red-nosed strain. According to Hemphill, it was McCoy who first started using the term "Old Family Red Nose" for the strain.

Another breeder who was almost synonymous with the red-nosed strain was Bob Wallace. However, Bob's basic bloodline was not pure Old Family Red Nose. But in the late 40's he was looking for the red-nosed strain in order to make an "outcross." (Bob was a scrupulously careful breeder who planned his breedings years in advance.) Unfortunately, he found that the strain was nearly gone, most of it having been ruined by careless breedings. He managed to obtain seven pure red-noses of high quality whose pedigrees he could authenticate. The strain was subsequently saved for posterity and in the 1950's became the fashionable strain in Pit Bull circles. In fact, it was Bob Wallace himself who wrote an article in 1953 called "There Is No Magic in Red Noses" in which he tried to put a damper on the overly enthusiastic claims being made by some of the admirers of the strain. No more fervent admirer of the Old Family Reds ever lived than Wallace, but he obviously felt that the strain could stand on its own merits.

Many stains have been crossed with the Old Family Reds at some time in their existence. Consequently, nearly any strain will occasionally throw a red-nosed pup. To many fanciers, these red-nosed individuals are Old Family Red Noses even though the great preponderance of their blood is that of other strains. Sometimes such individuals will fail to measure up and thereby reflect undeserved discredit on the rcd-nosed strain. However, as Wallace said, the red noses should not be considered invincible either. They produce their share of bad ones as well as good ones-just as all strains do.

As a strain, the Old Family Red Nose has several things going for it. First, it is renowned for its gameness. Second, some of the most reputable breeders in all Pit Bull history have contributed to the preservation and development of the strain. People like Lightner, McClintock. Menefee and Wallace, to mention just a few. Finally, as McNolty said in his 30-30 Journal (1967) "Regardless of one's historical perspective, these old amber-eyed, red-nosed, red-toe-nailed, red-coated dogs represent some of the most significant pit bull history and tradition that stands on four legs today."

Touched by Fire ,by Richard F. Stratton

Richard F. - Articles>Touched by Fire by Richard F. Stratton

It has often been claimed that geniuses, whether scientific, mathematical, or musical, were touched by a divine fire that made them special, but it also could be a curse because it seemed that geniuses were more likely to be plagued by madness than those of us of normal intelligence. Actually, there is a certain controversy regarding the latter supposition. It may just be that the mental illness of an otherwise normal person goes more unnoticed than that of someone who is famous because of genius capabilities.

But I am taking the phrase to refer to the Old Family Red Nose dogs. The red color of the nose and eyes is seemingly touched by a fire, albeit not divine. Similarly, there is much controversy about the grand old red nosed dogs. And like geniuses, the Old Family dogs have been considered by many dog men, including this one, to be something truly special.

One of the areas of misunderstanding is that many fanciers think that any Pit Bull which shows the red nose is a member of the Old Family Red Nose strain. Such is not the case, as many strains of dogs will occasionally throw a red-nosed pup or two. The term Old Family Red Nose refers to a particular family of dogs that was especially successful during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. They came from the old Lightner strain of the early part of the century. In fact, they were often called Lightner dogs, rather than the term that began to be used in the early 40s.

It was my privilege to know William J. Lightner and his wife, Mary, back in the 40s and 50s. I just wish I had known what questions to ask them. At that time, they lived in Colorado Springs, but this was at the tail end of a career in dogs that started way back in the 19th century. Lightner’s father, grandfather, and his uncles had been raising a strain of dogs they had kept pure since before the Civil War. Mary Lightner was also a fan of the dogs, and she kept the pedigrees straight and handled the correspondence. Although the Lightner's were wonderful people and quite helpful to me, I was not aware of what high regard their dogs were held until I had been in the military and gotten to know a lot of the dog men across the country. Notables such as Bob Wallace, Bob Hemphill, Bert Clouse, and Leo Kinard, to mention just a few, were quite impressed that I knew Bill Lightner.

All of these people knew more than I did about the history of his dogs. They knew, for example, that there was a separate strain of dogs that Lightner had early in the century (having obtained them from his relatives), and these were very much sought after. Then there was what these dog men called the "latter day Lightner dogs." Even the most astute student wasn’t sure where the later strain came from, but they felt that it was testament to Lightner’s genius at breeding dogs that he could create yet another great strain. I asked Lightner about the first strain when I got back, and he said that he had gotten rid of them because he didn’t like the color of the red nose. He also liked small dogs, and as far as he was concerned, the red-nosed dogs were running too large. Lightner was a giant of a man himself, and I had always been surprised by the big men, including Bert Clouse and Ham Morris, who liked their pit dogs on the small size. As a matter of fact, Lightner had been a renowned prizefighter in his time, and he had been good friends with some of the great old-time boxers, such as Jim Corbett (famous for beating John L. Sullivan).

I wish I had quizzed Lightner about the later dogs, but I surmised that they had been a blend of his old strain with some other quality line, and the rumor was that it consisted primarily of Colby dogs. But we are concerned with the early dogs here, as that was what produced the Old Family Red Nose strain.

While the Lightner family had never sold dogs, they sold off a few before the first World War, as the dog matching had subsided considerably in the area of Colorado in which they were living at that time. Al Dickinson of El Paso and Joe Peace were able to get some of these dogs, and they treasured them highly and kept the line going. These were primarily the large dogs that tended to show the red nose. When Joe Peace and Al Dickinson were both drafted during the World War, Red Howell took their dogs, and some of them went to Bourgeous in Louisiana. The men who used Lightner dogs to the extent that the Old Family Red Nose line became famous were Arthur Harvey and L. C. Owens of Amarillo, Texas. The breedings of these famous dog men produced many great dogs, including Hemphill’s Golddust and Hemphill’s Broke Jaw. A candidate for the best pit bitch of the century was Lightner’s Speed. In 1926, she was bred to Allen’s Fighting Tige to produce Harvey’s Red Devil. Red Devil was the sire of Centipede and Golddust. Centipede was generally considered the greatest dog of his time. And he was 54 pounds pit weight, quite large even for today’s dogs. With Lightner’s predilection for small dogs, I can imagine the look on his face at raising these large dogs! The interesting thing here is that it was a very inbred strain that was producing such large dogs. In fact, it was probably inbreeding which produced the red nose and red eyes. These are recessive traits, and they are more likely to come to the surface in a program of heavy inbreeding.

Other dogs that helped make the red dogs famous were Ham Morris’s Pinkie, Howell’s Banjo, and William’s Cyclone. Since there were so many good dogs coming from this line, they were quite naturally bred along family lines, and this tended to perpetuated the red nose, the red eyes, and the red toe nails that so distinguished this strain.

As you can imagine, dog men were not so sure how to take these most unusual-looking pit dogs. They were, after all, accustomed to small dogs of brindle and various other colorations. Some dog men, such as McClintock, Williams, Hemphill, and Wallace, came to specialize in this line. When dog men saw an entire kennel of such dogs, it was only natural to conclude that the dogs had been bred for appearance, but that was not the case. It was simply a matter of fact that a lot of great pit dogs of similar breeding had displayed the coloration. Since the colors were recessive to the more common colors, they were uniformly reproduced in all the progeny when these dogs were bred together.

Besides color, the red dogs showed other traits. In the pit, they were considered great ring generals, pacing themselves very well. They were smart dogs, and they used their intelligence in the pit. They were not really well known for a hard bite, but they could beat the dogs that had that trait. With their defensive prowess, they gave the hardbiting dogs nothing to bite but air. They wore them down and then went in for the kill. Great endurance was also a trait of these dogs, but they were most renowned for their incredible gameness. Another trait they were know for was that they could be crossed with nearly any line and produce bone-crushing pit dogs. Because of this very trait, not many dog men elected to breed them pure.

To this very day, the red nose dogs remain quite controversial. For one thing, they are nearly always popular with neophytes, as they don’t look like the "mongrels with the mumps" that pit dogs have been so often called. The red nose and concomitant coloration marks them as something special in anyone’s eyes. But that is not necessarily a good thing, for dog peddlers tend to breed dogs with this coloration that have no claim to even being related to the true Old Family Red Nose dogs. Of course, all papers can be faked, but a dog of this line should trace back to Harvey’s Red Devil and Lightner’s Vick some place.

I can talk about the Old Family Red Nose dogs with some authority, as I knew so many of the people associated with them. But I can also do so objectively, for my present lot of dogs doesn’t have a red nose among them. Nevertheless, the blood of those dogs runs in their veins. Wallace’s Bad Red is back there. Most of my dogs are down from Grand Champion Hope, who was sired by the immortal Tombstone. Most of the dogs that I have had turn out well for me were down from Tombstone. So that means I have gotten away from the original OFRN dogs, right? Well, not exactly. You see, Tombstone was mostly OFRN breeding, top and bottom. The immortal Black Widow, for example, was three quarters OFRN, even though she herself was black in coloration. And she was Tombstone’s paternal grand dam, while his mother was very heavy red nose.

Tombstone’s influence has been mighty all across the country, and this is all the more remarkable when it is considered how few times he was bred as compared to so many other vaunted sires. Recently some fine dog men who were natives of Mexico brought a descendent of Tombstone’s for me to see. I was thunderstruck when they got the dog out of the van. Before my eyes was an absolute reincarnation of the Old Family Red Nose dogs I had seen back in Wallace’s place (and those of other dog men, too) back in the 50s. The dog was Champion Boiler, a three-time winner, and when I saw video tapes of his matches, I was all the more enchanted. His style was exactly that of the old dogs. Take them where they want to go, but keep the mouth from doing any damage. Wear them down, all the while laying on damage, a bit at a time. And Boiler had exactly the same intelligence and attitude of the old dogs. The visit was so striking for me that it inspired this article.

I am frequently asked about the OFRN dogs. A lot of people want a pure dog of that strain. Well, the original strain was an amalgamation of several lines, including Colby (from Tige’s sire, among other sources), so I often am overly literal by saying that I don’t know of any pure lines left. But the fact is that these dogs are still around. There are still breeders that specialize in them. The challenge is to find the ones which are quality bred.

Bob Wallace used to refer to the red nose as a "badge of courage," and he mentioned friends that referred to them as "traffic stoppers." I’m like Lightner in that I didn’t like the looks of them when I first saw them, but some of Bob’s enthusiasm rubbed off on me. There really is something special about the line. I’m not trying to say they are the best, but they are as good as the best. Sometimes it seems as though they truly were touched by a big of magical fire.

Ferguson's Centipede
  It is perhaps impossible for modern dog people to realize the great reputation that Ferguson's Centipede enjoyed in the late 30s and early 40s. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that there was never any doubt that he was the best pit dog in the country at that time. Also, more than any other dog, he helped launch the popularity of the Old Family Red Nose strain, although he was more often referred to at the time as a "Lightner dog." At the beginning of his career, Centipede may not have been a unanimous choice for best dog in the country, as his ability was so great that it was not known if he was game. But his final match was against George Saddler's Black Boy, and it went two hours and twenty-two minutes without a turn by either dog, with Centipede finally prevailing.

It was the third contest which convinced everyone of what a great dog Centipede was. Saddler was known to scout his opponent in a big money match like the one with Centipede, and he brought a dog that he thought could beat him. The fact was that both dogs had a reputation as bone-crushing pit warriors. I have an original flyer that advertised the fight, much as a modern prize fight, with Centipede being touted as the "Cream of Oklahoma" and Black Boy as the "Pride of the Delta."

Centipede was whelped about 1933 in the kennels of L. C. Owens in Texas. He was the result of Dan McCoy's having discovered that there was still some of the old Lightner blood down in Louisiana. McCoy and Bob Hemphill made the journey down to that part of the country and bought several dogs. Hemphill kept his close to the vest, but Dan McCoy was always on the move and couldn't keep dogs, so he left his with trusted friends, including Arthur Harvey and L. C. Owens in Amarillo, Texas. Owen's Mickey was bred to the renowned Harvey's Red Devil to produce the litter which contained Centipede.

When I met Bill Lightner in Colorado Springs, he and his wife were in their eighties, and they kept a kennel of basically small dogs of various coloration. Lightner and his wife were uncanny in their ability to select good brood stock. They had left the red, red-nosed dogs down in Louisiana because Lightner didn't like the looks of those dogs, and he felt they were coming out too big. Centipede would be an example of that, as his pit weight was 54 pounds. To listen to many modern dog men, the old time pit dogs were never that big, but not only were there these two great dogs at that size, but they each had been matched twice before they were matched into each other. Be aware that pit weight in those days was lighter than today, so the dogs were easily sixty-five pounds on the chain.

Other than size, the only fault with Centipede was that he was a laid back dog and nearly impossible to work. Frustrated, Owens sold him to Earl Tudor. Although something of a genius in working dogs, even Tudor had a problem with Centipede. When he walked the dog, he stayed back at the end of the leash. Puzzled, Tudor stopped and looked at the dog, and the dog lay down! As patient as he was with the dogs, he wasn't sure that he could ever get Centipede in shape. He decided to rely upon natural ability and endurance for his first contest, which Centipede won handily in less than thirty-five minutes.

The next opponent had a bit of a reputation, so Tudor enlisted his friend Red Howell to work the dog. Now Red was a real genius with dogs, a harbinger to the coming of Ham Morris just a few years later, another gem at training animals. Red never used force in training his dogs, but he understood their psychology. He discovered that Centipede was a natural house dog, and he would do anything for attention. Red's girls would dress Centipede up in dresses and put lip stick on him, and the dog thrived on it.

Red and Centipede worked out a deal. If Centipede would run the turn table mill for a specified time, he could go in the house after his rub down. Nothing else would work. Centipede was unexcited by cats, and if Red placed a dog in Centipede's view, his eyes showed fire, but the dog was too smart to not know that the harness was keeping him from getting to the dog, so he didn't run the mill. Somehow Red was able to convey to the dog that he would get a reward for running the mill. The first time he took a few steps on the mill, Red brought him in the house. Very quickly, the dog got the idea. So Centipede spent a good part of his keep in Red's house with his young daughters. Howell told Bob Wallace that Centipede was absolutely the smartest dog he ever saw of any breed. He would bring Red a bottle of beer, opening up the ice box to get it. Red swore that he could have taught him to open those bottles too.

The match between Centipede and Black Boy would qualify as a classic contest. The dogs met in the center like a couple of freight trains, and first Black Boy had the upper hand. In fact, the lead changed a couple of times, with its being anyone's match up until the two-hour mark. At that point, Centipede finally took command for good. Saddler gave it up in 22 more minutes in a desperate attempt to save his dog.

After Centipede beat Black Boy, Tudor couldn't get him matched, as everyone conceded that he was the best. Nothing his weight, or any weight, could beat him. That was the common opinion among dog men. This was evidenced by the fact that Tudor opened him up at catchweight with no takers. Frustrated, Tudor sold the dog to Dave Ferguson.

Now Dave Ferguson was well known and liked as a pit dog aficionado, but he couldn't keep dogs, as he played trumpet in a big name band. He toured the country, and he spent a lot of time in New York and in San Francisco. For that reason, he left the dog with various trusted friends in the dog game. Dave was a good hearted guy, and he always allowed that whoever was keeping the dog could not only breed to him, but stud him out as well. Because of this situation and the dog's great reputation, the dog was bred a lot, and if we trace back our pedigrees far enough, we will find Centipede there some place. We could do a lot worse!

Dave Ferguson was drafted into the army during the second World War, and he received decorations for heroism. None of the dog men were surprised about this, as they had always referred to him as "the little man with the big heart." Unfortunately, Ferguson was shot and killed by a sniper in the last days of the war. There were lots of losses during that war, but that one particularly threw a pall over the pit dog fraternity.

Centipede died in the yard of D. A. McClintock, another genius with animals and a great lover of the Old Family Red Nose strain. By the time McClintock received the dog, he wasn't producing any more, but he took care of him and even gave him time in the house. Like Red Dunham before him, McClintock considered Centipede the smartest dog he had ever seen.

Beyond being smart, Centipede was considered a great dog, the greatest pit dog of his time. When someone of those days referred to "the great one," they didn't have to mention the name. Everyone knew that it was Centipede. 


Old Family Rednose forefather's

    Bob Hemphill

Bob Hemphill in 1967 sent Jake Wilder two pure Hemphill dogs Hemphill Geronimo and Hemphill Red Dixie. Wilder received Red Dixie already pregnant by Geronimo that contained the Hemphill Geronimo II litter. This was the very last litter Hemphill bred before his death in 1967. The offspring from the Geronimo/Red Dixie breeding represent the culmination of Hemphill's 40 years of breeding since he started breeding the Lightner Family in 1927.      

The information above is provided by Old Family Kennels,,,,,,

Jake Wilder with Geronimo 2                                                                                                                        




   Ferguson's Centipede,  "The Great One"



Clouse's Big Boy





 Ch. Wilder's Red Apache