By Jill J Easton
A roaring bonfire, men in blue bib overalls and plaid sit around it listening to the primitive music of half a dozen baying coonhounds. They recognize each dog’s unique voice like an old friend joining them around the blaze. There is no sound finer to a coon hunter’s ears, unless it is the frenzy of a pack of coonhounds when they finally tree a raccoon.
A great coonhound is a treasure that is recollected and fabled long after the dog’s hunting life. For those few great ones, and some not so great, there is a special place where they can be visited and remembered, which is the Key Underwood Coon Dog Cemetery near Tuscumbia, Alabama.
Late of an afternoon, men with excited dogs kenneled in their trucks still sit under the pavilion at the cemetery and wait for dark and time to turn out the hounds. They swap lies that are as old as fire and man’s partnership with dogs. Each of the ghost dogs rise in spirit to join the hunt.
Coonhound owners come from all over the country to bury their dogs and remember a hound that was exceptional at chasing and treeing coons. When one of the superdogs is buried, it is often more emotional than a human funeral. Women show up in antique black mourning, grown men that don’t own tears bawl and there is often a touching eulogy that talks about the dog’s special voice, scenting ability and great hunts. An assortment of parading, baying coonhounds also add to the commotion, it’s a rip-snorting sendoff.
To qualify for burial, three requirements must be met: The owner must claim their dog is an authentic coon dog, a witness must declare the deceased is a coon dog. A member of the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, Inc. must be allowed to view the coonhound and declare it as a coonhound, according to the website.
“We have stipulations on this thing,” according to the late O’Neal Bolton, former caretaker of the Coon Dog Graveyard. “A dog can’t run no deer, possum–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. It is a place of greatness, the Key.”
A dog named Troop
The cemetery started with a cold-nosed tracking hound in 1937. Key Underwood wanted to do something special for his all-time favorite hound and leader of the pack for more than 15 years, a dog named Troop. Troop’s favorite hunting place was a rolling hardwood area called Freedom Hills. Underwood decided to bury the dog in the location where so many legendary hunts had started.
Troop was half redbone coonhound and half birdsong, and hunters throughout the region knew him as the best. Troop could follow cold coon tracks until they grew fresh, and he never left the trail until he had treed the coon.
Troop was buried in a cotton-picking sack three feet down in the rocky ground. The grave is marked with a chimney rock that Underwood carved with a hammer and screwdriver. The stone is still there today and has Troop’s name and the Labor Day 1937 date in rough letters.
Today, hundreds of other genuine coonhounds have joined the dog on his favorite hillside. Owners bring dogs from all the backwoods locations where coon hunting still thrives. On the website there is even a video of the funeral for Merch, a coonhound that was carried from Pennsylvania to be buried alongside the other great coonhounds.
Some graves are marked with home-scrawled sheet metal plaques, others have names and dates scratched in chunks of wood and some are marble and granite tombstones like more normal graveyards. More than 185 coonhounds like UKC Grand Champion Hafton’s Blue Flash and Hunter’s Famous Amos, Ralston Purina’s Dog of the Year in 1984, are buried near less grand dogs with names like Trael, Skid, Flop and Loud Ale. All of these dogs did their jobs with fire and passion that set them above the rest of their pack, and all these hounds had a special place in their owners’ hearts.
“When I buried Troop, I had no intention of establishing a coon dog cemetery,” explained Underwood. “I merely wanted to do something special for a special coon dog.”
When Jim and I visited the cemetery, we were looking for Uncle Ernest’s dog, Adolph’s Mountain Rock. We finally found the grave, marked by a faded board. After looking through the names and epitaphs of other coonhounds, we sat under the pavilion, looked out over the hillside and pictured hound music drifting across the hills. The Key Underwood Coonhound Cemetery is a great place to spend a spring afternoon and it’s grand that the old tradition of honoring coonhounds lives on.
Each Labor Day, the Friends of the Coondog Cemetery host a celebration at the cemetery. Entertainment includes music, dancing, food and a liar’s contest. Time: 10:00 a.m. – 4 p.m. Official Coon Dog T-shirts, Cemetery Pins, and Camouflage Caps available to purchase.
Coon Dog Cemetery Location
You can find the Coon Dog Cemetery 7 miles west of Tuscumbia on U.S. Hwy 72. Turn left on Alabama Hwy 247, and travel approximately 12 miles. Then turn right on Coondog Cemetery Rd. and follow the signs. For more information and directions, contact The Friends of the Coon Dog Cemetery, Inc.:
Contact Lee Hatton 256-412-2149 or Franky Hatton 256-324-1122 for additional information.
The cemetery pictures are courtesy of the Colbert County Convention and Visitors Bureau.