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.