BOYD: Coons Dogs – A Special Breed
By Luke Boyd, Columnist
Key Underwood really didn’t intend to start anything on that dreary Labor Day back in 1937 – but he did.
All he knew was that his faithful coon dog, Troop, had died and he needed to find him a suitable resting-place. Since they had spent many nights together for 15 years in the forests of northwest Alabama chasing after elusive coons, Underwood reasoned that Troop would be happier in death where he had been the happiest in life. So he went to the clearing in the big woods where coon hunters from miles around often pitched camp, built fires, planned hunts, chewed tobacco, and told tall tales about coon hunting and their dogs. He wrapped Troop in a cotton-picking sack and buried him three-feet down.
From a nearby crumbling chimney, he selected a rock and on it with a hammer and screwdriver, chiseled out Troop’s name and the date.
No, Key Underwood did not intend to start anything. But Troop was well known throughout the coon hunting community and other hunters considered it an honor to bury their hounds near him – and so they did. Thus, the Coon Dog Cemetery was born.
It now has more than 175 graves and bills itself as the only one of its kind in the world. That’s probably a true claim since it’s never been challenged. It is now incorporated as “The Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard” and is run by a board of directors.
This burial ground is as exclusive as some of Williamson County’s gated communities. Application must be made and the dog must be pure hound – no mix with any other breeds. He/she must have only run coons. Those who have chased after deer, fox, rabbit, or other wild things are not acceptable. The owner must attest to this and there must be at least one supporting witness.
Initially, the process was not so formal. It was more on the honor system. There was (and still is) no fence so anyone could just walk in and dig a grave. But coon hunters of the area knew each others’ dogs so few problems arose. However, as word spread, hunters from other areas began to bring their dogs.
And then the unthinkable happened.
A lady from a neighboring community buried her little lap dog there. A local coon hunter said, “We made her go up there and dig that dog up – but we helped.” A more formal burying process resulted.
Since I have authored several books with “Coon Dogs” in the title, I wanted to visit this exclusive cemetery. In May 2013 Honey and I took a side trip off the Natchez Trace on Highway 72 toward Tuscumbia, Ala. The cemetery is located about 20 miles southwest of Tuscumbia in the middle of a wildlife refuge. A narrow, rough blacktop road runs by it but it is remote even today. One can only imagine its remoteness in 1937.
It is not a manicured place. The ground is rough and uneven. There are weeds, tall grasses, and fallen limbs and the red Alabama soil is exposed in many places.
Somehow this seems appropriate since it was this kind of terrain over which these dogs hunted in life. On one side all the undergrowth has been scraped away making room for additional graves.
A visitor cannot help but note the variety and evolution of the grave markers. In the original section around Troop’s grave, many are just local rock with no markings. One is a simple fireplace brick. Then, there are larger stones with primitive carvings and toward the newer graves, polished granite professionally done not unlike those found in any human cemetery. And then there are headstones made of sheet metal and wood. This lack of any standardization is a reflection of the fierce independent spirit of coon hunters.
A large percentage of the graves are decorated – mostly with plastic flowers. Some have the dog’s collar and tags attached to the marker. There are little raccoon statues on several. One had one of those little mesh, stocking-shaped Christmas bags filled with candy hanging on the headstone. Many headstones sported coins. The most recent grave we saw was only a few weeks old, April 2013.
The names on the stones run the gamut. Some are short and to the point: Ranger, Blaze, Lucky, Ruff, Daisy, Blueflash. Others are longer and more descriptive: Doctor Doom, Night Champ, High Pocket, Crooked Oak Tootsie, Beanblossom Bud. A few contain descriptions: “Bragg: The Best East of the Miss. R.,” “Spot: A Joy to Hunt,” “Strait (sic) Talk’n Tex: Ability and Class in One.”
There are two tin-sided outhouses which are not particularly inviting. They were filled with wasps and had no paper. There is a covered pavilion with picnic tables and a visitors’ registry. It contains a lot of names.
Each Labor Day there is a celebration at the cemetery featuring music, dancing, food and a liar’s contest. Official coon dog t-shirts, pins, and camouflage caps may be purchased.
One coon hunter relates that his dog died while competing in a competition hunt in another state. He had the dog frozen, got permission, drove most of the night, and buried him in the cemetery by the headlights of his truck. Yes, it’s an honor to bury your coon dog there.
Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at email@example.com.
Posted on: 6/14/2013