Man’s Love for His Dog Created a Cemetery for Coon Dogs Only
By Jackie Sheckler Finch
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Key Underwood and his canine buddy Troop had romped through these woods near Cherokee in Northwest Alabama. They spent many happy days and nights doing what they loved.
After hunting together for more than 15 years, Troop died on the day before Labor Day in 1937. Underwood figured that his longtime buddy deserved a proper memorial.
“Key decided that it was only fitting that his close friend should spend eternity where he had been most happy,” says Luther Owen (L.O.) Bishop. “Key wrapped Troop in a cotton sack dug a hole three feet under, and gave him a fitting funeral.”
Making a Memorial for Troop
Choosing a rock from a nearby old chimney, Underwood used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel out Troop’s name and date. The stone was erected over the grave as a special marker for what many considered to be one of the best coon hunting dogs in the area.
Half redbone coonhound and half birdsong, Troop was an expert at finding his prey. He was “cold-nosed,” meaning he could follow cold raccoon tracks until they grew fresh. It was said that Troop never left the trail until he had treed the coon.
That loving burial might have been the end of it.
“But it didn’t end with Troop,” Bishop says. “That’s how it all started.”
Creation of Coon Dog Graveyard
Standing in the country graveyard, 88-year-old Bishop (“Everyone calls me L.O. – the first two letters of ‘Love’ cause most everything I do has to do with loving people”) shares the tale of the unusual place.
Several years after Troop’s burial, Underwood’s brother lost one of his beloved coon dogs and decided to lay his dog to rest near Troop. Then the two brothers figured they needed to protect the spot known as Sugar Creek.
Leasing the site from a lumber company that owned the land at the time, the brothers named the spot the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard. Little did they know the tradition they were starting almost nine decades ago.
“Now the Coon Dog Cemetery has more than 300 coon dogs buried here,” says Bishop, local farmer, barbecue expert and cemetery supporter. “It’s the only cemetery of its kind in the world. It’s for coon dogs only.”
Burial Requires Meeting Three Requirements
Although a pedigree or special breed is not required for qualification, the dog must have been a hunting dog and must have hunted raccoons exclusively. In order to be buried here, a coonhound must meet three requirements:
- The owner must claim their pet is an authentic coon dog.
- A witness must declare the deceased as a coon dog.
- A member of the local coon hunters’ organization must be allowed to view the coon dog and declare it as such.
Folks come from around the world to visit the unusual cemetery, Bishop says. Visitors check with the local Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau for a brochure and directions to the cemetery. The graveyard is open every day from dawn to dusk.
Personal Memorials Mark Graves
A granite monument marks the entrance to the graveyard. The eye-catching memorial shows two dogs barking up a tree. Made of wood, granite, metal and natural stone, grave markers range from simple homemade ones to more elaborate professionally engraved stones such as those found at human cemeteries.
The stones feature names of the much-missed dogs – Hatton’s Blue Flash, High Pocket, Patches, Preacher, Night Ranger, Bean Blossom Bomma, Smoky, Daisy, Black Ranger, Bear, Easy Going Sam, Bragg, Gypsy, Old Tip, Doc, Old Roy and more.
Many of the stones have rusting dog collars looped over them and heartfelt sentiments such as “The best east of the Mississippi,” “Ability and class in one,” “As good as the best,” “A joy to hunt,” “He wasn’t the best but he was the best I ever had,” and simple message – “My best friend.”
Fresh flowers and artificial ones often decorate graves. Some of the stones bear the breed of the dog and the owner’s name and awards won. Hunter’s Famous Amos, a hound that was named Ralston Purina’s Dog of the Year is 1984, is buried here as well as several World Champion coon dogs. The cemetery averages about three burials a year.
The custom of Placing Coins on Graves
On many headstones or placed on graves are hundreds of pennies. “It’s an old custom, dating back hundreds of years,” Bishop says.
The custom of leaving a coin for the dead to pay the ferryman to take them into the next world goes back to Greek mythology. Charon, the ferryman of Hades, is said to require one coin in payment. Any spirit that could not pay the fee was left to wander the shores of the River Styx between this world and the next.
In modern times, the meaning has shifted. Coins, stones or other items left on graves symbolize that the visitor is leaving a token of remembrance. While flowers and other temporary objects may fade and die, stones and souls and love endure.
Labor Day Celebration at the Cemetery
When Labor Day rolls around, the Friends of the Coon Dog Cemetery hold a celebration at the cemetery. After cleaning and decorating the graves, the group and guests enjoy music, a barbecue and a liar’s contest at the public gathering. Many of the tall tales stretch the truth about the supreme hunting expedition or the most amazing coon dog exploits.
“One time,” Bishop begins, smiling as he recounts his tale, “we held a funeral for a coon dog with some ‘pawbearers’ carrying the casket. A rabbit ran through and the dogs carrying the casket dropped it and took off after that rabbit. Took us two days to track down those dogs and finish the funeral.”
Listen for Ghost of Old Troop
Another tale might not seem quite so far-fetched. Legend says that on the night of Labor Day, if you listen closely, you can hear the ghost of old Troop running through the woods and howling as he hunts beneath the moon.
“These dogs were a big part of their owners’ lives,” Bishop concludes. “The dog was like a best friend to them and these graves are meant to honor that. It’s for the love of a dog.”
For more information: Contact Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau at (256) 383-0783, www.colbertcountytourism.org. The author’s trip to Northern Alabama was hosted but the opinions are all her own.
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