Gilbert: From Shelburne to Wasilla

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(HOST) What do Shelburne, Vermont and Wasilla, Alaska have in common? Here’s commentator and executive director of the Vermont Humanities
Council Peter Gilbert with the answer.

(GILBERT) Thanks to the Iditarod sled dog race, you may be familiar with the first part of this weird story.

In the winter of 1925, Nome, Alaska was stricken with a diphtheria epidemic. The nearest supply of antitoxin serum was in Anchorage, nearly a thousand miles away.

A relay system of dog teams was arranged, and the precious serum was passed from one dog team to another. It was Leonard Seppalla’s dog team that went the longest distance, led by a Siberian Husky named Togo. He was named after the Japanese Admiral who in 1905 led his navy to an enormous victory in the Russo-Japanese War. Togo was small for his breed – only 48 pounds – about the size of our family dog, also a Siberian Husky, but he had great speed, endurance, and most importantly, intelligence and heart.

Seppalla, Togo, and their team traveled 340 miles round trip, and carried the serum 91 miles, almost double the distance of any other dog team. Theirs was also the most dangerous part of the route, crossing sea ice in Norton Sound at forty below and 65 mile an hour winds, and climbing a 5,000 foot mountain pass, before handing the serum off to the next musher.

Another lead dog, named Balto, became famous as well for doing the final leg and bringing the serum into Nome itself, but most people consider Togo and Seppalla the real heroes. They toured the lower forty-eight, and in 1926, Togo received a gold medal in Madison Square Garden from Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen. The heroic
serum run to Nome is now commemorated each year by the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. This year’s race starts this Saturday, March 7th.
Togo died in 1929 at the ripe old age of 16 in the care of a friend of Seppala’s who lived in Poland Spring, Maine. He was preserved by an expert taxidermist and donated to Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History to be part of a collection of champion dogs that was designed to document changes in different breeds of dogs over time. Yale still has Togo’s skeleton; I’m told that it and the skeletons of other champion dogs are among the most actively studied specimens in the museum’s mammal collection. And it’ll be back on display next month as part of an exhibit related to genetic diversity in canines put on by the museum in recognition of the 150^th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s seminal book, "On the Origin of Species".
Yale deaccessisoned the taxidermied Togo (but not the skeleton)in the 1960s, and a New Hampshire musher named Lorna Demidorff gave him to the Shelburne Museum, where he was displayed for about twenty years harnessed to one of Seppalla’s sleds. In the early 1980s, he was given to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Museum, where you can see him on display today.

And the museum is in – that’s right – Wasilla, Alaska,

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