This is part one of the history of the pet cemetery in Aspen Hill, Maryland, now known as Aspin Hill Memorial Park.
On July 14, 1920, Richard C. Birney and his wife Bertha took possession of what was referred to on the deed as “10 acres more or less on the Seventh Street Pike.” (Seventh Street Pike is now known as Georgia Avenue.) On this tract of farmland, seven miles north of the Washington, D.C. border, the Birneys planned to breed dogs, to board other peoples’ dogs, and to run a pet cemetery.
Both the kennels and the cemetery were christened with the name “Aspin Hill.” The Birneys’ breeding and boarding enterprise became known as “Aspin Hill Kennels.” The cemetery was called “Aspin Hill Cemetery for Pet Animals.” The Birneys got the name from a famous dog kennel in England and not from the surrounding community, which is called “Aspen Hill.” Their decision to name their business in this manner has led to confusion about the proper spelling of the cemetery’s name which persists to this day.
According to an article in a 1922 issue of The Evening Star, “The Aspin Hill Kennel … owned and operated by Mrs. R. C. Birney, is a revelation in the profession of boarding and breeding dogs. The specialty of the kennel is breeding Boston terriers, but in addition there is boarding space for about one hundred dogs, and a cemetery. Each dog in the kennel has a separate house and run, and these open into large exercising paddocks.”
In addition to breeding Boston Terriers, Mr. and Mrs. Birney also raised miniature Schnauzers, Scotties, and other breeds over the years that they ran the kennels. During the 1930s, their dogs were often champions in dog shows.
One of the earliest burials in Aspin Hill Cemetery for Pet Animals occurred just a few months after the Birneys bought their property. It was a horse named Vincent whose remains were brought all the way from Richmond by the daughter of his late owners and a man who was an employee of the family. Uncle John, as he was called, fell to his knees and wept while Vincent’s body was lowered into the ground. The daughter planted violets on his grave from the field where the beloved horse had spent his days.
The following year, Mrs. Selma Snook of Washington, D. C. began burying her poodles at Aspin Hill. In May of 1921, 15-year-old Boots passed away of a kidney ailment. A wake was held in Snook’s home, during which Boots lay in state in a white casket adorned with flowers and wreaths. Later, a procession of two automobiles transported Boots’ remains from Snook’s home to the cemetery where Boots was laid to rest.
Pet cemeteries were not common in the 1920s. Burying a dog with this kind of pomp and ceremony was even more unusual. Boots’ funeral was reported on the front page the local newspaper. When another of Mrs. Snook’s poodles, Buster, died just five months later, the story of her elaborate dog funeral made the papers yet again. Buster, it was reported, had been laid to rest in a lambskin-lined coffin. This time, a photographer was sent to capture images of the entire affair.
The following year was no better for the Snook household. The poodle known as Snowball died in July 1922. Four boys acted as his pallbearers, carrying the white casket out to the Snook plot in Aspin Hill. Snowball’s sister Trixie was so broken-hearted over his death that she succumbed just four days later.
All four of Selma Snook’s poodles were buried side by side, each with their own gray polished granite markers. I found the inscription on Trixie’s gravestone particularly poignant:
Finest Friends I Ever Had Sleeping Side by Side I Love and Miss You All
[See photos of the Snook plot as it looked then, and now.]
Mr. Birney did not view this outpouring of emotion over a pet animal as excessive. He gladly offered his services at what he felt were reasonable prices. In a 1925 interview with The Evening Star, he said, “To me, in this work-a-day, selfish world those stones there tell a beautiful story. Maybe we all aren’t as jazz-crazed and pleasure-mad as some people would have us believe.”
In 1930, while being interviewed by The Washington Post, Mr. Birney said, “We always realized that when a pet dies, its owner is in a quandary where to bury it, especially if he is a city dweller. But we were utterly surprised at the number of animals brought to us during the first year, a number that steadily increases.” By that time, there were more than 1,400 animals buried at the cemetery.
Next article on the history of Aspin Hill:
Aspin Hill Cemetery for Pet Animals, 1930-1960 (part two)
Maryland Historical Trust Addendum Sheet. Survey No. M:27-17, Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery. https://mht.maryland.gov/secure/medusa/PDF/Montgomery/M; 27-17.pdf
Kernodle, George H. “Kennel and Field,” The Evening Star, September 17, 1922. Sports Section, pg. 4.
Kernodle, George H. “Kennel and Field,” The Evening Star, October 22, 1922. Sports Section, pg. 4.
“‘Boots’ is Laid to Rest In Aristocratic Home of Wealthy Bow-Wows,” The Washington Times, May 2, 1922. pg. 1.
“Buster’s Bones in Lambskin Coffin,” The Washington Times, October 9, 1921. pg. 16.
“Touching Epitaphs in Pets’ Cemetery; Funeral for Dogs, Cats, and Other Domestic Animals Often Elaborate,” The Evening Star, March 23, 1925. pg. 4.
“Pet Cemetery Holds Body of Dog Hero,” Baltimore Sun, February 9, 1930, p. MR4.