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Remembering Marie Cotton – Spring Valley Rhodesian Ridgebacks

Photo by: Christina Wistrom

Born on March 17, 1936, in Sussex County, NJ, to Henry F. Francisco and Marie E. Francisco (née Buth), Marie was of Dutch heritage and the daughter of dairy farmers and cattle brokers. She grew up in Andover, walking the corn fields in summer and sledding down the steep hill on Smith Street in winter. Marie graduated from Ithaca College in upstate New York, studying business and music.

Marie took to hospitality in her first career as owner and operator of Lenape Lodge in Andover. It was there she developed her celebrated cooking skills, talents for mixology, and gifts for storytelling. By the late 1960s, she had become a buyer for a prominent clothing store. This would often take her to New York City, giving her a taste of cosmopolitan elegance and style. She also began to dabble in real estate.

As a child, she’d been acquainted with the Spring Valley Farm and dreamed that she might one day own it. Marie bought the property in 1972. Shortly thereafter, she met Charles “Chuck” McWhirter, who came aboard to help manage her new farm, and they eventually became life partners.

Together, they enlarged the original farmstead into a thriving horse breeding enterprise specializing in Appaloosas. Along with Marie’s daughter, Christine, they built both indoor and outdoor facilities for horseback riding lessons and competition training and later acquired more acreage for extensive riding trails. Marie and Chuck would become notable figures in horse circles, traveling worldwide for shows and events.

Marie’s greater passion was “for the dogs.” She’d grown up around her father’s English Setters, but after college, she gravitated toward hounds. First came a Basset Hound, then her first Rhodesian Ridgeback (known as the African Lion Hound), named Ben, whom she called her “soul mate.”

In 1979, Marie bred her first Ridgeback litter by a ring champion, and her Spring Valley reputation was launched. Her kennel’s subsequent influence was renowned as she bred more than 200 champion dogs (four of which won Best of Breed at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club.) The achievements of Marie and Spring Valley Rhodesian Ridgebacks, from the dogs she personally bred to the generations of dogs from her line, are too numerous to note, with many finishing quickly and moving on to brilliant careers. Her work culminated in 2017 when Marie was named the AKC Hound Breeder of the Year.

Marie’s artistic eye for symmetry would have made her a premier judge in conformation dog shows. Instead, she devoted herself to the whelping box, stamping her legacy on Ridgebacks for generations to come. Spring Valley’s pedigree became the “Gold Standard,” synonymous with elegant movement, a muscular body, and a well-balanced head.

In 1992, Marie was on a road trip with her friend, Joyce, and they decided to spend the night at Caloosa Cove near Islamorada. Around the corner, they discovered a woman walking a Ridgeback on Sunset Drive, a sign. At the end of the street, they saw a home for sale with two lion statues perched on the front, another sign. Joyce wrote down the phone number. Marie asked her if she would buy the house. Joyce answered, “No. You are,” and so Marie and Chuck started their snowbird life.

Marie was an outgoing personality who would charm any who came into contact with her. Often, she would “own” the room just with her presence. After cancer treatment, Marie once strode into the dining room at the ritzy Cheeca Lodge. Her hair had fallen out, and her head glistened like a fresh shoeshine. She wore a long yellow paisley print dress and a pair of large gold hoop earrings. The restaurant went quiet. She looked like a fashion icon with a smile from ear to ear. Bold, confident, uninhibited – this was Marie.

In private moments, she could be irreverent, stubborn, and fond of her own rules, sometimes ignoring sound advice when it didn’t suit her. Marie cheated death more times than a cat, overcoming Guillain-Barré in the 70s, an aggressive bout of cancer in the 90s, and meeting other health concerns as they arose.

A born hostess, her parties were talked about for years. The many was always the better to Marie. At cocktail hour and in honor of one of her famed Ridgebacks, Marie would pour an Absolut, and her stories began…all the happier if you weren’t hungry before 9:00. Relationships were forged at her table, and all would wonder at the gourmet feast she would whip up from the remnants in the refrigerator or the pantry. In her home, the table was always formally set because when Marie broke bread, it was a ceremony.

Marie became known as “Mother” to those in her life, both for her mentoring and opening her home. Some would stay for weeks or months and become family. Others were drafted to help in the whelping box. When apart, Marie made up the distance by phoning those she loved and looked out for, often talking for hours on end. They will remember and cherish those calls and last words.

Marie is survived by her partner, Chuck McWhirter; her brothers, Frank John Francisco II and Henry William Francisco; her daughter Christine Land and son Robert McWhirter; and her three grandchildren, Zachary Land, Katelyn McWhirter, and Jacob McWhirter. According to Marie’s wishes, her Spring Valley Rhodesian Ridgeback legacy will continue with Elisabeth Szymanski.

The celebration of her life will be scheduled at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Rhodesian Ridgeback Rescue at ridgebackrescue.org.

Short URL: http://caninechronicle.com/?p=291373

Posted by on Jul 2 2024. Filed under Featured, World News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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