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A Resting Place For Hunting Hounds In Alabama

Sep 3, 2012
Originally published on September 3, 2012 6:15 am

Seventy-five years ago, Key Underwood and his raccoon-hunting dog Troop had a connection. Years of training and a deep relationship make human and canine a seamless hunting unit. The two can share a special bond.

So when old Troop died, Underwood buried him on the crest of a hill hidden away in the lush countryside near Cherokee, Ala. It was Underwood's favorite hunting spot. He marked the grave with an old chimney stone he chiseled with a hammer and screwdriver.

That was the start of Coon Dog Cemetery, according to Franky Hatton, who hunts in this area with his Bluetick Coonhound, Cletis.

Today, more than 300 dogs are buried alongside Troop. All of the dogs buried here earned their keep hunting raccoons.

The Thrill Of The Hunt

Raccoon hunting is a night sport. The dogs are put out near a creek bed or corn patch at dusk. The hunters wait and listen. Hatton says he wants to hear a pickup in the pace of the dog's bark.

"When he settles down and goes to chopping steady, that's when you know he's treed," Hatton says. The dog has chased a raccoon up a tree, ready for the hunter to take aim.

Hatton says Cletis has to prove his coon dog cred if he wants to spend eternity with his forebears. All of the dogs interred here were expert hunters who met high standards.

"You have to have three references that have to contact us and have actually witnessed the dog tree a coon by himself," Hatton says. "Not with another dog — all by himself, where he can prove he done it on his own and didn't have any help."

The graves are lined up on the crest of a shady hill. Newer ones are marked with traditional headstones. The older ones are carved from wood or handmade from whatever materials were available: sticks tied together in a cross with a dog collar, or a broiler plate from an old stove.

'Never Seen Anything Like This'

Under a rustic picnic pavilion, a binder serves as a guestbook logging the thousands of visitors a year who stop at the Coon Dog Cemetery. Carol and Bob Pearson of Greenville, Ky., are among the guests.

"We'd never seen anything like this. Never," Carol says.

"It's unusual," Bob adds. "We're rural people anyway, and I used to coon hunt, so it means a lot to me."

The peaceful hillside is also a gathering spot for local hunters. Franky Hatton says he has been coming to Coon Dog Cemetery since he was a toddler listening to the old timers tell their stories.

"The first thing they'll start out with is 'you remember that night?' " Hatton recalls. "And they'll start in. Especially if it was a night they beat you and outdone you, they'll remind you of it."

The Coon Dog Cemetery celebrates its 75th anniversary with bluegrass, barbecue and a liar's contest on Labor Day.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Labor Day, a day to honor the American worker. Sometimes that worker is not actually human, which brings us to an Alabama cemetery this morning, where we travel for the latest installment of our series Dead Stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Yeah, all summer we've been visiting unusual gravesites and cemeteries. And as we prepare to wrap up our series this morning, we pay tribute to man's best friend.

NPR's Debbie Elliott takes us to a remote hillside in north Alabama, where only the finest of coon dogs are laid to rest.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: You think you're surely lost, winding down the lush country roads outside of Cherokee, Alabama, hardly passing another car. And then a hand-painted sign with a red arrow points to the Coon Dog Cemetery.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANTING DOG)

ELLIOTT: Local hunter Franky Hatton is waiting with his Blue Tick hound Cletis.

FRANKY HATTON: I've had the same bloodline pretty much for - ever since I was a little boy. See, all my ancestors was hunters. We've hunted pretty much all our life, which Daddy said he kept us in the woods to keep us out of trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWLING DOG)

ELLIOTT: Raccoon hunting is a night sport. The dogs are put out near a creek bed or a corn patch at dusk, and the hunters wait and listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWLING DOG)

HATTON: When he settles down and goes to chopping steady, that's when you know he's treed.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWLING DOG)

ELLIOTT: Meaning he's chased a raccoon up a tree and is barking up after it - not distracted by a squirrel or armadillo, but zeroed in on a coon. It's a skill that takes years of training and a deep relationship between hunter and coon dog, the kind of relationship that would make you want to bury your companion in a special spot.

HATTON: Key Underwood started this place when he buried Old Troop. And there's Old Troop right there.

ELLIOTT: Troop is legendary in these parts, known to track a coon from cold tracks. He was trained by a whiskey-maker in these hills known to hide the occasional still. Underwood marked his grave with an old chimney stone chiseled with a hammer and screwdriver.

HATTON: You see he's buried September 4, 1937. And this was Key Underwood's favorite spot to hunt. So when Troop passed away, he brought him here and buried him.

ELLIOTT: That was 75 years ago. Now there are more than 300 dogs buried with Troop, including Lulabelle, Preacher, Squeak, Bear, and Dr. Doom - all certified breeds, Hatton says, who have met high standards.

HATTON: You have to have three references that have to contact us and have actually witnessed the dog tree a coon by his self.

ELLIOTT: Not with another dog.

HATTON: Not with another dog, all by his self. Where he can prove he done it on his own and he didn't have any help.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ELLIOTT: The graves are lined up on the crest of a shady hill, the newer ones marked with traditional headstones, the older ones carved from wood or handmade from whatever materials were on hand - sticks tied together at a cross with a dog collar, a broiler plate from an old stove.

Under a rustic picnic pavilion, a binder serves as guestbook, logging the thousands of visitors a year who stop at the Coon Dog Cemetery. Among them are Carol and Bob Pearson of Greenville, Kentucky.

CAROL PEARSON: We'd never seen anything like this. Never.

BOB PEARSON: It's unusual. And we're rural people anyway, and I used to coon hunt, so it means a lot to me.

ELLIOTT: The peaceful hillside is also a gathering spot for local hunters. Franky Hatton says he's been coming here since he was a toddler, listening to the old-timers tell their stories.

HATTON: And the first thing they'll start out with: You remember that night? And then they'll start in. Especially if it was a night they beat you and outdone you. They'll remind you of it.

ELLIOTT: Hatton has two champion dogs buried here, Blue Flash and Flash Junior, grandfather and great-grandfather to his current hound Cletis.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWLING DOG)

ELLIOTT: Will he be buried here?

HATTON: It all depends on how good he does.

ELLIOTT: And what kind of stories Franky Hatton can tell of his nights in the north Alabama woods coon hunting with Cletis.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Well, the Coon Dog Cemetery marks its 75th anniversary today. And you can find an all-day appreciation of all things coon dog, plus music, barbecue and a liar's contest, as well as pictures, at our website, NPR.org.

This could only be MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.