Coon Dogs Find Final Resting Place in Colbert County
It was a beautiful October morning as folks began gathering near the graveyard. It would be a while before the service started at the newly dug grave. The casket was decorated with pretty flowers, chairs were arranged near the casket and guests signed their names in a nearby book.
|Owner Raynor Frost pulls his dog's casket to the grave site.|
Some folks were dressed in their Sunday best while others wore overalls.
What appeared to be a typical Southern funeral was anything but that. This was the funeral for "The Merchant," a Treeing Walker Hound and folks seemed sincere in their respect for him and the dogs previously buried there.
The ceremony began with a welcome offered by L.O. Bishop, a local farmer, businessman and long-time supporter of the Coon Dog Cemetery, which is officially known as the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard.
"This is such a unique place," said Bishop. "I help out when I'm needed."
Two local preachers prayed and recorded songs were played celebrating the sport of coon hunting and the life of the first dog buried there, Troop.
"When I found out about this place and all the dogs buried here, I thought this would be the perfect place for Merch," said his owner Raynor Frost of Coudersport, Pa. "This is a great place."
After Taps was played, Frost pulled the wagon that carried Merch's casket to the burial site.
Pall bearers, both human and canine, accompanied the casket to the grave. Several men helped with the burial.
Not all burials attract such a crowd or warrant such fanfare.
Tallie Johnson of Cherokee recalled the day her family buried Queenie at the Coon Dog Cemetery.
"We came out here and had an all-day picnic," said Johnson. "The whole family was here."
Each Labor Day, people gather at the cemetery for a celebration to honor the dogs that are buried there. The day's events are hosted by the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunters' Association.
And the annual celebration, L.O. Bishop's Hawg House Barbecue sells plates and a covered picnic area makes a nice spot to eat.
Owners decorate their dog's graves with flowers and other memorabilia. Music and buck dancing are part of the day's festivities. T-shirts and other Coon Dog Cemetery souvenirs are sold--the profits help provide for the upkeep of the grounds.
The main event is the Liar's Contest. Dog owners and story-tellers alike share anecdotes.
Bishop said some of the stories are quite complicated and long and obviously fabricated while others are simply fond remembrances of a faithful friend.
Of course, seasoned coon hunters like Bishop always have a story or 300 to tell, and he couldn't help but relate what happened at one funeral at the coon dog cemetery.
"We had coon dogs for pall bearers," Bishop said referring to Merch's funeral. "We had a funeral going on here a while back and they were going to the grave with the casket and a rabbit ran through. They dropped that casket and took off. It took us two days to get them back and finish the service."
Some visitors to the cemetery stop by whenever they feel the need to remember their hunting buddies.
But this somber day in October, was all about Merch, the young coon dog from Coudersport, Pa. who lived to hunt for seven years.
During his short life, Merch was named Grand Water Champion, Grand Champion and Nite Champion.
His owner described his beloved friend as having an "excellent heart."
"He didn't hardly make a mistake," recalled Frost. "He hunted from Maine all the way down to Florida."
Frost said Merch died from a twisted stomach about a year and a half ago and originally was buried in his yard in Pennsylvania. That was before Frost learned of the Coon Dog Cemetery.
Frost heard about the final resting place for the special canines last spring while hunting with a friend in southern Illinois. An Internet search helped him find more details about the spot in Colbert County south of Cherokee and Tuscumbia.
Frost contacted Bishop about bringing Merch to Alabama, and the plan was set in motion.
Frost and his girlfriend, Helen Perkins, brought Merch to the cemetery on their way to their winter home in Florida.
Frost said he doesn't like the cold Pennsylvania winters and couldn't stand the thought of Merch forever resting in the cold ground up North.
"I dug him back up," said Frost, recalling his preparation for the trip down South.
Frost collected seven signatures of witnesses who attested to Merch's being a coon dog, even though he only needed one.
When asked if the large turnout (nearly 200 people) was what he had expected, Frost replied he was amazed.
"Mr. Bishop told me there would be several folks here, but I never expected anything like this," said Frost. "This is surprising."
The Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard began with the burial of one hound--Key Underwood's Troop, who was buried near its favorite hunting grounds on Labor Day, Sept. 4, 1937.
Previous published interviews with Underwood revealed he never intended to start a coon dog cemetery; he just wanted a special place to bury his special dog.
Tales have it that another hunter asked Underwood if he could bury his coon dog near Troop and Underwood obliged. As word traveled, coon hunters began to bring their beloved hounds to the site to be buried.
To date, 185 graves are marked at the cemetery. Locals speculate, though, that other unmarked graves exist.
The cemetery has become somewhat of a local tourist attraction. So many people are interested in visiting the graveyard and receiving information about it that the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau promotes the site along with other points of interest in the county.
Even though the atmosphere surrounding the Coon Dog Cemetery is light-hearted and filled with affection, there are some restrictions.
According to a statement released by Ninon Parker, director of marketing for the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau, certain criteria must be met before a dog is allowed to be buried in the one-of-a-kind resting place:
• The owner must claim their pet is an authentic coon dog.
•A witness must declare the deceased is a coon dog, that it wouldn't get off track and trail deer, opossum or other wildlife besides the raccoon.
• A member of the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunters' Association must view the body and attest it as such.
The cemetery's founder was adamant that only coon dogs would be allowed burial next to his beloved Troop. He was quoted in a 1985 interview as saying
"You must not know much about coon hunters and their dogs, if you think we would contaminate this burial place with poodles and lap dogs."
Persons interested in the Coon Dog Cemetery may contact the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau by calling (800) 344-0783, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the bureau's Web site at colbertcountytourism.org and coondogcemetery.com.
Susie Sims is a
freelance writer from Haleyville