DULUTH -- On a warm afternoon last week, Duluth Retriever Club president Kim Keelor looked out over the ponds and uplands that make her group's training and field-trial grounds as good as any in the Midwest, and offered a reason why the 63-year-old organization has been so successful.

"We've got two fat guys from the [Iron] Range who cook the food,'' she said, laughing.

In fact, the Duluth Retriever Club does have two big guys -- Joe Tieberg and Kevin Lott -- who don chef's hats for retriever field trials, hunt tests and social gatherings. Their fare is Italian, and by acclamation, exceptional and robust.

But the success of this club, which was founded in 1945 by four men who "thrived on hard work and took pride in getting things done on time,'' according to club lore, has depended on much more.

Not least are energetic volunteers, a public-minded spirit and -- most recently -- a willingness to take on big challenges.

This last has more to do with raising money than teaching Labradors to fetch.

"Our budget for buying the land adjoining our club was $200,000,'' said Tom Fait, a club member who was hanging around last week, waiting to train his Labradors.

Fait was referring to property the club has been using for many years, but would have been sold to developers if the retriever group hadn't signed a purchase deal, which it did, recently.

So far, about half the $200,000 has been raised by the club, with hopes that a continuing fund drive will supply the rest.

"If the property had been sold, the new owners would have put homes on it, and once they did that, we felt our time at this club would have been limited,'' Keelor said. "We needed to buy the property to keep the club going.''

Doubtless, Joe Herring, Art Clure, Art Von Sr. and Dr. Lionel Duff -- the men who started the Duluth Retriever Club -- would have been eternally grateful had they heard of the club's continuing ambitions under Keelor's presidency.

Ditto Joe Deloia, the legendary trainer -- still living in Duluth -- whose name is synonymous with retrievers.

An experienced trainer, Deloia was convinced by two of the club's founders in the 1940s to move from St. Paul to Duluth to become the group's first director of training.

Deloia's arrival was greeted by an energy and excitement that remain yet today wherever sporting-dog owners gather with their charges. This is perhaps particularly true of retriever owners, who understand firsthand the importance of hunting over trained dogs.

To them, hunting without a retriever can mean returning home without ducks and geese, because even downed birds can sometimes be lost among tall reeds, along distant shores or in frothy waves just beyond the decoys.

Keelor understood this when she bought her first -- and so far, only -- Labrador nine years ago.

"It was through the club that I learned to train my black Lab, Bruin,'' she said.

A broad-based mission

The Duluth Retriever Club is no run-of the-mill dog outfit, a fact obvious in its broad-based mission.

The club is, fundamentally, an organization that intends to help sportsmen and women further conservation by hunting over trained retrievers. Beyond that, it offers a youth waterfowl-hunting training day each year and regular meetings that feature veterinarians, conservation officers and others as speakers.

The club also is committed to helping novice handlers learn how to train their dogs.

"We offer classes in 'training the trainer,' and everyone is welcome,'' said Fait, who started out as a kid owning beagles before buying Labradors and learning to train them.

Eventually, he became the first Duluth Retriever Club member in about 30 years to title one of his dogs as Field Champion (FC) and Amateur Field Champion (AFC).

Keelor said the club's history of service to dog owners and to the city of Duluth dates to its founding. From the outset its training sessions were open to the public, first at the old Howard & Sell Oldsmobile dealership on Superior Street, later in a city park.

The club held its first American Kennel Club-sanctioned field trial Aug. 12, 1945. By then, its membership had climbed to 100.

The club moved to its present location on Lester River Road in the early 1960s. Ponds were dug on the property that still today tests the mettle of the best retrievers and handlers. Land adjoining the club grounds was leased from members Bob and Pat Brown, and in the mid-1990s, the new D.C. Mike Clark clubhouse was built on the well-kept grounds.

Small wonder retriever owners and trainers from around the country regularly show up at the club, particularly in summer, when brisk winds off Lake Superior keep both handlers and dogs cool.

It was pleasant weather that attracted Arizona resident Jean Wu to the Duluth Retriever Club. Her pickup bed toted all the accoutrements of retriever training, including dog crates, one of which held a chocolate Lab that when freed fairly sprinted to the ground, looking for a chance to retrieve.

"It's so much cooler up here than at home,'' she said.

Wu enjoyed her time in Duluth so much she joined the club, becoming one of its approximately 150 dues-paying members, a number that has been increasing in recent years.

"We were the first retriever club in the nation to be granted a 501-c3 designation by the IRS,'' Keelor said, proud of her organization's broad-based mission of conservation and education.

Many good things have occurred since Keelor -- the group's first female leader -- took over the reins about four years ago, Fait said.

"For example, within six months, she demanded we purchase wine glasses made of actual glass, rather than plastic,'' he joked.

"It was about time,'' Keelor said.

More seriously, Keelor and Fait say the club's decision to buy the adjoining property and extend its holdings to 80 acres was perhaps the most monumental in its history.

Club members are holding raffles and sponsoring other fundraisers to retire the remaining $100,000 debt. They're also appealing to individuals and foundations, noting that contributions, because of the club's 501-c3 status, are tax-deductible.

"Land everywhere is being bought up,'' Fait said. "If we hadn't purchased the property we did and kept it open for dogs, dog owners and the public, where could they go?''

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com