Ace stepped lightly between the tombstones, paused to sniff a clump of artificial flowers, then moved on – past Flop, Train, Daisy, Black Ranger and Bear. He paused at the final resting places of Patches and Preacher and Bean Blossom Bomma, then sauntered by Smoky, Squeek and Easy Going Sam, whose rusting collar is looped over the cross marking his grave.
We were alone at the Coon Dog Cemetery in Cherokee, Alabama – except for the 215 dogs buried beneath us — on a hot and drizzly Friday, silent except for the chirps of birds and the whining hum of mosquitos sizing up my ears.
I’d long wanted to visit the Coon Dog Cemetery. We’ve featured it on this website before. But those were long distance, second hand dispatches. Being there, especially when no one else is, is another story.
Between the bursts of color provided by the fake flowers on almost every grave; the eclectic mix of memorials, ranging from engraved stone, to etched metal to carved wooden crosses, and the homey epitaphs and monikers, the cemetery is at once haunting and inspiring – a Southern icon, and a reminder of the powerful, difficult to relinquish, connection between dog and owner.
Especially when that dog and owner were hunting buddies.
Located in a grassy meadow in the wilderness of Freedom Hills, the cemetery permits only coon dogs – 215 of which are buried there, according to Susann Hamlin, executive director of the Colbert County Tourism & Convention Bureau, which now maintains the property.
The cemetery got its start when Key Underwood chose the spot – not far from where coon hunters gathered to share stories – to bury his faithful coon dog Troop. On a dreary Labor Day in 1937, Troop was wrapped in a cotton sack and buried three feet down. Underwood marked the grave with a rock from an old chimney. He used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel Troop’s name and date.
After that, other hunters started doing the same – first those from Alabama and Mississippi, later from all around the country.
We found it after driving 15 miles down a winding road through the gently rolling hills of northwest Alabama, and for an hour had it all to ourselves. Then another car pulled up, driven by Hamlin, who was escorting a photographer working on a project about Alabama for the National Archives.
Hamlin said about three dogs a year are buried at the cemetery nowadays – a reflection of the declining popularity of the sport, in which the dogs track raccoons and chase them up trees before the hunters … well, you know the rest.
How much pride those hunters took in their dogs still lingers though, in tall tales, folklore and, most of all, at the cemetery, where heartfelt tributes are hammered, carved and burned into grave markers:
“He wasn’t the best, but he was the best I ever had.”
“He was good as the best and better than the rest.”
“He was a joy to hunt with.”
Every year on Labor Day, a festival is held at the cemetery, hosted by the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunters Association. The cemetery is spruced up and decorated, and the event features bluegrass music, food and a liar’s contest.
Better yet, check it out in person. Admission is free, but the mosquitos do take up donations. I added about a dozen more bites to my ongoing collection – a small price to pay for such a big, colorful and moving sampling of southern culture.
To read all of Dog’s Country, click here.