Raynor Frost knew immediately that the 8-week-old pup had special qualities. The Coudersport, Pa., coon hunter placed the little dog and its littermates on the far side of a creek, and when he called to them, only one pup came, having to swim the 20 feet.
“It was White Hills ‘The Merchant,’ the only male of the bunch, the one I would be keeping,” said Frost, recalling how he came to own the Grand Water Champion, a Treeing Walker hound who, when alive, also held the titles of Grand Champion and Nite Champion.
On a sunny fall day not too long ago, Frost laid his faithful hunting dog to rest in hallowed ground for coon hounds: the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, the only cemetery of its kind in the world, in the Freedom Hills of northwest Alabama.
More than 200 people came to pay their last respects to the legendary Walker. Tears filled the eyes of many as Frost said a few last words about his 7-year-old companion and J.D. Lindsey sang a song about special dogs that were “the answer to a coon hunter’s dream.”
With a group of children standing by the dog’s headstone, the simple wooden casket containing the mortal remains of “The Merch” was lowered into the ground.
Frost knelt to place a small red dog, a gift from a fellow coon hunter, atop the cedar box before the casket was covered with earth.
As the sound of taps echoed through the hills where 200 other coon dogs rest for eternity, the hounds that served as The Merch’s pallbearers bayed mournfully.
The ceremony was solemn and sad, a fitting tribute to one man’s best friend who will always hold a special place in his owner’s heart.
As the crowds filtered away, Frost knelt to pay his final respects to The Merch before returning home to Pennsylvania.
On a dreary Labor Day in 1937, another coon hunter, Key Underwood of Tuscumbia, Ala., knelt in this same copse of woods to say goodbye to his legendary coonhound Troop. The man and dog had hunted these hills together for 15 years. It was only fitting, Underwood decided, that Troop spend eternity there.
Underwood had owned several coon hounds over the years, but Troop was special. This half Redbone, half “Birdsong” was known throughout the region as the best. Troop was “cold nosed,” meaning he could follow cold coon tracks until they grew fresh, and he never left the trail until he had treed the coon.
When Troop died, Underwood wrapped him in a cotton sack, buried him 3 feet down and marked the grave with an old chimney stone on which he had chiseled the dog’s name and the dates the hound was born and died.
Out of this hunter’s devotion to his faithful coonhound was born the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, now a popular and unique tourist attraction.
Those having the time and curiosity can still leave the beaten path and see for themselves this one-of-a-kind burial ground near Tuscumbia in Colbert County, Ala.
After Troop was buried, friends of Underwood asked if they could have the honor of burying their hounds beside his champion dog.
More than 70 years later, the tradition continues. Some 200 coon dogs — an assortment of Walkers, Redbones and Blueticks, but no other types of dogs allowed — rest in the shade of the oaks at a place the coon hunters once called Sugar Creek Camp.
A woman from California once wrote to Underwood wanting to know why he didn’t allow other kinds of dogs to be buried at the coon dog cemetery.
“You must not know much about coon hunters and their dogs, if you think we would contaminate this burial place with poodles and lap dogs,” he responded.
Headstones in the burial ground are crafted from wood, metal and stone. Many are not unlike the markers in a “normal” cemetery, but the names of the deceased are different, and so are the epitaphs.
Listed among the dead are Old Roy, Southern Blue Rocky, Loud, Bean Blossom Bomma, Smoky, Bragg, Patches, Queenie, Preacher, Famous Amos and Blue Kate. And etched along with these names are tributes, such as “A joy to hunt with,” “He wasn’t the best, but he was the best I had,” and “Last one on the wood.”
Some of the best coon dogs that ever lived are buried here, grand champions of every sort, like The Merch.
Others were just good hunting companions, dogs that never participated in a field trial but who were dearly loved by their owners nevertheless. One such dog, owned and loved by his owner, John Starns of Knobel, Ark., was Doc. On his tombstone is engraved, “When the hunt was in doubt, Doctor Doom was still out.”
The Merch now lies beside the hundreds of other cherished canines laid to rest in this sentimental shrine for coon dogs, a place that visitor Orville McNutt described in this tribute:
If there is a coon dog heaven
That’s where they will be found
They will chase the coon
In that happy hunting ground.