By John N. Felsher
When one of Key Underwood’s closest friends died of old age, the man decided to give his constant hunting companion of nearly 15 years a proper send-off.
On Labor Day, Sept. 4, 1937, Key grabbed a shovel and headed out to the woods in Colbert County of northwestern Alabama where the two spent so much time together. He selected a spot in a small grassy meadow in a thick forest near his hunting camp where fellow enthusiasts gathered for years to exchange yarns and enjoy each other’s companionship.
“Key used to hunt this area,” recalls Virgil Miles, who hunted raccoons with Underwood for years. “I started hunting with Key in about 1955. He hunted up until the 1970s. He had some good redbone dogs. We had a lot of good hunts together. Key was a gentleman and a good Christian. I never heard him say a bad word.”
Atop a hill overlooking Sugar Creek, Key dug a hole. He wrapped his friend in a cotton sack and buried him. After putting his friend in his resting place, Underwood rolled a stone he pulled from a chimney marking the ruins of an old log house dating back to the 1800s and rolled it over the spot where his faithful companion would remain in eternal honored repose. With a hammer and a screwdriver, the grieving hunter carved a simple inscription: “Troop 4-1-22 9-4-37.”
Troop, a mixed redbone, became well known at the time as one of the best coon dogs in the region. Soon, other hunters laid their coon dogs to rest near Troop, consecrating the ground to honor the furry companions who followed their masters many a night in hot and humid or freezing wet weather through the wilds of northern Alabama. Thus, Underwood unintentionally began the only hollowed memorial sanctuary set aside specifically to pay tribute to dearly departed coon dogs like Troop.
“When Key buried Troop here, others also wanted to bury their dogs in the same area,” explains Miles, who put two of his own dogs to rest in the cemetery. “Coon hunting is an old tradition in this area. The cemetery became well known all over the area. People took a lot of pride in trying to raise a good coon dog. The guys I hunted with were true sportsmen. They always honored their dogs.”
Years later, Underwood remarked, “When I buried Troop, I had no intention of establishing a coon dog cemetery. I merely wanted to do something special for a special coon dog.”
Today, the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, more commonly known as the coon dog cemetery, honors more than 300 such faithful companions like Troop from all across the nation. Open and free to the public, the only coon dog cemetery in the world sits at the end of a country road on the 31,734-acre Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area near Cherokee where Troop and Underwood chased those rascally ringtails for 15 years. A granite obelisk near the cemetery entrance depicts a treed coon and two dogs jumping up a tree trunk to honor all the animals who rest here and the tradition they embodied.
“Coon hunting has been a sport in Alabama for more than a century,” says Susann Hamlin, the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau director. “People hunted raccoons for sport and for meat. They sold the pelts to make a living, particularly during the Great Depression. It wasn’t even Underwood’s property. It belonged to the state, but so many people asked him for permission to bury their dogs that Underwood came up with some rules.”
Not any dog can be so honored in this hallowed ground. Visitors won’t find any poodles, cocker spaniels or even such other hunting breeds as beagles, Labrador retrievers or deerhounds. Nothing against those other breeds, but this sacred parcel of wilderness remains set aside strictly for bona fide coon dogs.
Before anyone can bury a dog in the cemetery, the owner must submit three letters of reference to the tourism bureau. First, the owner must certify that the dog is an authentic coonhound of a recognized breed associated with the sport and prove that the dog treed raccoons. A witness must back up the claim, which is then certified through a local coon hunting association before the dog can be buried in the cemetery.
“Coon dogs are specially bred for coon hunting,” Miles says. “They can be one of four breeds, black and tan, blue tick, redbone or walker. With the breeding comes training. Some dogs are easier to train than others. They inherit the genes from their ancestors. Dogs also learn by hunting. I always liked to hunt with someone who had a better dog than me because a dog can learn from another good dog.”
If approved for burial in the sacred ground, officials mark out a spot for the owner to bury the dog. Owners may erect monuments or not. Many owners order very elaborate professionally carved headstones of granite or natural stone to honor their departed companions. Others create homemade wooden crosses or simply chisel the dog’s name on a rock and place it atop the grave.
“We have dogs from many states, including many champion dogs, buried in the cemetery, but each one is a recognized coon dog,” Hamlin says. “We average about six to seven dogs buried in the cemetery each year. Periodically, we hold a public funeral for a special dog. People have requested to be buried here, but it’s not approved for human interment. Some people have poured cremated human remains out in the cemetery. Some people become more attached to their dogs than to other people.”
Some people leave photographs, dog collars, special toys, leashes, dishes or other personal mementos next to the headstones in remembrance of their pets. Some markers carry personal messages such as “A joy to hunt,” or “He wasn’t the best, but he was the best I ever had.”
“The epitaphs on the headstones all tell personal stories,” Hamlin says. “They are put up by the dog owners. Some are really fancy and some very simple, but they all mean something to the dog owners. People go to the cemetery for various reasons. Dog lovers visit it. Hunters visit it. Some people just like to see unusual places. Some people have flown here just to see the coon dog cemetery. Although people visit the cemetery from all over, it’s not a tourist attraction. It’s a place of reverence – just the way Mr. Underwood wanted it!”
Hamlin and company periodically cut the grass and pull up weeds in the cemetery to keep it looking nice and respectful. Her group also removes old, weather-beaten flowers and redecorates the graves with new flowers about once a year.
For more information and directions to the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, contact the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau at 1-800-344-0783 or 256-383-0783, or visit www.colbertcountytourism.org or http://www.coondogcemetery.com.