Coon Huntin’ in the Promised Land

After the last shovel of dirt was patted in place, I sat down and let my mind drift back through the years. I thought of the old K.C. Baking Powder can, and the first time I saw my pups in the box at the depot. I thought of the fifty dollars, the nickels and dimes, and the fishermen and blackberry patches.

I looked at his grave and, with tears in my eyes, I voiced these words: “You were worth it, old friend, and a thousand times over.”
— From Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Birney Imes

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Almost a quarter-century before Rawls wrote his much-loved children’s book about a boy and his two faithful Redbone coon dogs, a man named Key Underwood of Tuscumbia, Ala., returned to a favorite camp spot, a grassy clearing in the western shoals of north Alabama where many a coon hunt had commenced. There, on Sept. 4, 1937, he slipped the body of his favorite hound, Troop, into a cotton pick sack, dug a hole and marked the grave with a rock he had taken from the chimney of the ruins of an old nearby house. Using a hammer and a screwdriver, he fashioned a crude inscription on the stone, listing the dog’s name and the year of his death.

In that simple act, Underwood created what is, as far as anybody can tell, the only cemetery in the world devoted exclusively to coon dogs, the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard.

The graveyard is located about 17 miles northeast of Red Bay, Ala., off Alabama Highway 247, near the end of a narrow, winding five-mile road that leads to the Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area.

The graveyard is open year-round, seven days a week, from sunup to sundown. Visitors will typically find it a quiet place. The exception is each Labor Day, when hundreds gather to celebrate the anniversary of the graveyard’s first occupant and all the subsequent hounds whose remains have been consecrated here. The most recent celebration featured music from Southern Strangers, one of the area’s top bluegrass bands, plate barbecue lunches, a “liar’s contest,” buck dancing and, of course, stories of coon dogs and hunts dating back to Underwood’s days.

As is the case with most human cemeteries on Memorial Day, each hound’s gravestone is adorned with flowers on Labor Day. Two monuments have been erected, one a large granite sculpture depicting two coon dogs, their forelegs pawing at the bark of a large granite tree, baying at an unseen coon they have treed. Another monument, a wooden sculpture erected for the Labor Day celebration, depicts a hound trying to get up a stepladder leaning against a live tree, a coon sitting tantalizing beyond the hound’s reach.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

The grave markers range from simple to primitive. Some graves are marked by a chunk of stone or brick, crude wooden crosses or pieces of scrap metal. Many of the graves of more recent vintage are adorned with finely crafted and illustrated granite markers common to human cemeteries. In 2011 a hound named Bo from Illinois was brought down to the cemetery with full funeral procession and an estimated crowd of 400 mourners in attendance. Prior to the 2013 event, the most recent interment, Blueleadblazer, was committed to the ground of hallowed hounds on March 19, 2013, brought here from his home near Buffalo, N.Y., by his owner, David Leederman, the dog’s leash and collar wrapped around the granite grave marker.

For all of its simplicity, the graveyard does feature a bit of elitism.

It is reserved for coon dogs only. To be permitted for burial, precise criteria must be met. First, the dog’s owner must claim the dog is an authentic coon dog. There are several recognized breeds, including Black-and-Tan, Redbone, Bluetick, Plott and Tree Walker — the latter being the most popular breed among hunters. The dog’s authenticity has to be confirmed by a witness and verified through an examination of the remains by a member of the local coon hunter’s association.

”We have stipulations on this thing,” said Larry Sanderson, vice president of the coon dog graveyard’s board of directors. “A dog can’t run no deer, opossum — nothing like that. He’s got to be a straight coon dog, and he’s got to be full hound. Couldn’t be a mixed-up breed dog, a house dog.”

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Many of the older graves are unmarked. The graveyard board of directors maintains a grave registry with names and information of 120 of the coon dogs, but many more — estimates of just how many hounds are buried there range from 175 to 300 — are lost to history. At the Labor Day celebration each year, organizers ask visitors to provide information about any of the unmarked graves, but with each passing year the prospects of identifying the dogs fade.

The memories do not fade, though. Each Labor Day brings back coon hunters who have ties that go back as far as Underwood, and stories of hunting with Underwood are retold by old men, who, as children, went on hunts with him. The Labor Day event seems to bind and preserve memories of coon dogs and hunts spanning the decades.

Mildred Isom Helsley, 88, recalled her father’s favorite coon dog, Red, who was “probably the fourth or fifth” hound to be buried in the graveyard. Her father, Fred Isom, was a hunting companion of Underwood and was known in the coon- hunting community for the “coon-on-a-log” competitions he held on a pond at his home in Bethel, Ala., back in the old days.

“He sure loved that dog,” Helsley said as she sat in a lawn chair in front of the stage as the Southern Strangers were belting out the tune “The Old Hometown.” “I left to go to Washington, D.C., in 1944 and Red was still alive. I think he died in the early ’50s, about the time the Humane Society made daddy stop doing the coon-on-a-log.”

That event consisted of chaining a captured raccoon to a log in the middle of a pond. One by one, the competing hounds swam in a frenzy to the log, trying to grab the coon while the log rolled violently at each of the dog’s lunges at the coon, who would exact a painful toll on the dog with its teeth and claws. Exhausted, often bleeding, the dog would eventually swim back to the banks, having given up the fight. The winner was the dog whose stubborn refusal to abandon the hunt lasted the longest.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

“The Humane Society stopped that because they said it was animal cruelty,” said David Isom, Fred Isom’s grandson and a member of the graveyard board. “But I’m not real sure who they thought it was cruel to, the coon or the dog. The dogs could get pretty torn up, and I don’t suspect it was much better for the coon, either.”

David Isom, 57, is not a coon hunter, although he did accompany his grandfather on one trip when he was a child of 5 or 6.

“I wasn’t really sure if this was a real hunt or if they were pulling my leg, you know, like going on a snipe hunt,” he said, laughing.

Of the hundreds who gather here on Labor Day, almost all of them have some connection to coon dogs and coon hunting. It’s generally a happy gathering, with kids collecting around local coon-hunting legends such as Franky Hatton and Jerry Bolton, who between them have six coon dogs in the graveyard.

But there is also a real sense of mournful remembrances, too, a depth of feeling that is not only carved into stone but in the hearts of the dog owners.

Jeff Martin of Red Bay sits on his haunches, eating a barbecue plate while keeping a watchful eye on his 2-year-old grandson. Martin’s hound, Crowder, was laid to rest here in 1982. Two years ago, Martin lost his son, who was hit and killed by an Alabama State Trooper while walking down a dark Alabama highway one night. Left to raise his grandson, Martin said his coon-hunting days are behind him, at least for now.

While it’s been more than 30 years since he buried Crowder here, he comes back every year, to say goodbye again and remember the best coon dog he ever had.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

“That dog, he was like family,” Martin said in a deep, mournful drawl. “I bought him from my uncle in Fulton (Miss.). I was really looking at another dog he had, but my uncle took this Black-and-Tan with us when we took that dog on a hunt to see what he could do. Well, that Black-and-Tan treed three coons and had another treed before we knew it. We left him out there with that last coon. I went home and got to thinking about it, then I asked my uncle what he wanted for that Back-and-Tan. He didn’t cut me a deal, either. I paid him $700. Then I went back out in the woods and picked him up. He was still out there with that treed coon. It had probably been three hours or more since we had left him out there and he still had that coon treed. He wasn’t quitting. He’d have died before he left it, I figure. I knew right then, he’d be a good coon dog.”

The end came suddenly for Crowder, who was 10 years old. He was sick for only a few days before Martin took him to see the vet, who informed him that Crowder had leukemia.

“He was lively pretty much up until the end,” said Martin, 56. “I knew we had to put him down, but it was awful tough to do it. It was Feb. 19, 1982.

I’ll never forget that. I still miss that ol’ dog.”

Admission to the graveyard is free, but if you visit be sure to bring some change.

Much like the legend of the red fern in Rawls’ book, the coon dog graveyard has its own lore: If you leave a coin on the grave maker of a dog, part of the dog’s spirit — the passion, the determination and, most of all, the devotion — goes with you in return.

I buried Little Ann by the side of Old Dan. I knew that was where she wanted to be. I also buried a part of my life along with my dog.”
— From Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows