‘Something special for a special coon dog’

Published 7:48 pm Monday, November 3, 2008

More than 200 people came from near and far for the journey way back into the Freedom Hills of northwest Alabama. And the dress was just as diverse – from tuxedos to camouflage and hip boots, from colorful casual clothes to the full black attire – replete with Sunday-go-to-meeting black hats – of a group of “mourners.”

The funeral was obviously worthy of a dignitary, though 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.”

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.

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.

For more information, visit www.coondogcemetery.com or the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau at www.colbertcountytourism.org (phone: 800-344-0783).