By DAVID RAINER
The funeral was obviously worthy of a dignitary, although this wasn’t your typical bigwig. This observance was in the name of White Hills The Merchant, a grand champion coon dog known as “Merch.”
Merch died in the prime of his coon-hunting life of a “twisted stomach,” according to his owner, Raynor Frost of Coudersport, Penn.
However, it bothered Frost a great deal that his champion Treeing Walker was entombed in that frozen ground of Pennsylvania and decided the only honor befitting Merch was burial in the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, located in Colbert County south of Cherokee and Tuscumbia.
The cemetery came into existence in 1937 when Underwood laid his beloved coonhound, Troop, to rest. Word spread among the coon-hunting faithful and the cemetery has more than 185 coon dogs in the ground in the Freedom Hills, which first became known for the premium moonshine distilled by one H.E. Files. When the revenuers finally caught up with Files, he went to the penitentiary and his wife sold ol’ Troop to Underwood for $75. Old age finally got Troop at the age of 15.
“When I buried Troop I had no intention of establishing a coon dog cemetery,” the late Underwood said many years ago. “I merely wanted to do something special for a special coon dog.”
Of course, this cemetery is not open to just any dog or coon dog, for that matter. There are three tests that must be passed before a dog is eligible to be buried there – the owner must claim their pet is an authentic coon dog; a witness must declare the deceased is a coon dog; and a member of a local coonhunters’ association must be allowed to view the coonhound and declare it as such.
“We have stipulations on this thing,” said William O. Bolton, the secretary/treasure of the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunters Association, and caretaker of the Coon Dog Cemetery. “A dog can"t run no deer, possum – nothing like that. He's got to be a straight coon dog, and he's got to be full hound. Couldn't be a mixed up breed dog, a house dog.”
Frost made sure Merch would pass muster by getting seven signatures avowing to the dog’s coon-hunting prowess, including James Merchant, who owns the kennel that raised five-time world champion Merchant’s Bounty, Merch’s sire.
“When he was about six weeks old I could see it in his eyes – I’m a coon dog, just let me get big enough to show you,” Frost said. “By the time he was eight weeks old, I took the whole litter to a creek and walked across where it was shallow and came back down to where it was deep. I walked across with my hip boots on and called the whole litter across. Only one dog came out of all those pups – Merch.
“When he was about three-and-a-half months old, we showed him a coon in a cage. He went at that cage like he’d been doing it years, trying to attack that coon. …I picked him up and carried him away. When I put him back down, he went right back to that cage. When he was four months old I had him out with his grandmother, and she treed a coon on the other side of the creek. The bank was about four feet off the water and it was deep right there. I decided I wasn’t going off there and get completely soaked. I could see the coon from there. Merch bailed right off there and went completely underwater. He looked at me and then went to his grandmother. I knocked that coon down to him and from then on he was a coon dog. At six months old I was hunting him alone. I had a lot of fun with him over the years. He loved me, and I loved him.”
L.O. Bishop, who served as emcee of the event, said he is amazed that the cemetery and its reputation could grow to such an extent.
“Of course, that is the most unique about it, that 71 years ago Mr. Underwood brought ol’ Troop out here and buried him,” said Bishop, who served the crowd some of his famous pork barbecue, which was another reason to make the journey into dem dar hills. “It evolved, and it wasn’t planned. It would have been a joke then if it had been planned. It just shows what interests people, plus the novelty of it, plus the fact that coon dogs mean a lot to a lot of people. Different things start different people’s tractors. It means a lot to their lives. It’s a lot better than Valium, I know that.
“There were a lot of people out here helping us bury this coon dogs, and this fellow found us all the way from Pennsylvania.”
Of course, seasoned coon hunters like Bishop always have a story or 300 to tell, and he couldn’t help but relate what happened at one funeral at the coon dog cemetery.
“As you saw, we had coon dogs for pall bearers,” Bishop said with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. “We had a funeral going on here a while back and they were going to the grave with the casket and a rabbit ran through. They dropped that casket and took off. It took us two days to get them back and finish the service.”
To reach the coon dog cemetery, travel 7 miles west of Tuscumbia on U.S. Highway 72, turn left on Alabama Highway 247 and go about 12 miles. Turn right at the Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area and follow the signs.
PHOTOS: Top - Raynor Frost leads the burial procession, pulling the cart with “Merch” ahead of a group of honorary pall bearer coon dogs at the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard in northwest Alabama.
Middle - L.O. Bishop, a local farmer and longtime supporter of the cemetery, offers the crowd a bit of the Coon Dog Graveyard’s history, mixed with a great deal of coon-hunting humor.
Bottom - A monument to treeing coon dogs is erected in the middle of the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard in the Freedom Hills of Colbert County.