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Tag: florence

Paying respects at the Coon Dog Cemetery

 
Ace stepped lightly between the tombstones, paused to sniff a clump of artificial flowers, then moved on – past Flop, Train, Daisy, Black Ranger and Bear. He paused at the final resting places of Patches and Preacher and Bean Blossom Bomma, then sauntered by Smoky, Squeek and Easy Going Sam, whose rusting collar is looped over the cross marking his grave.

We were alone at the Coon Dog Cemetery in Cherokee, Alabama – except for the 215 dogs buried beneath us — on a hot and drizzly Friday, silent except for the chirps of birds and the whining hum of mosquitos sizing up my ears.

I’d long wanted to visit the Coon Dog Cemetery. We’ve featured it on this website before. But those were long distance, second hand dispatches. Being there, especially when no one else is, is another story.

Between the bursts of color provided by the fake flowers on almost every grave; the eclectic mix of memorials, ranging from engraved stone, to etched metal to carved wooden crosses, and the homey epitaphs and monikers, the cemetery is at once haunting and inspiring – a Southern icon, and a reminder of the powerful, difficult to relinquish, connection between dog and owner.

Especially when that dog and owner were hunting buddies.

Located in a grassy meadow in the wilderness of Freedom Hills, the cemetery permits only coon dogs – 215 of which are buried there, according to Susann Hamlin, executive director of the Colbert County Tourism & Convention Bureau, which now maintains the property.

The cemetery got its start when Key Underwood chose the spot – not far from where coon hunters gathered to share stories – to bury his faithful coon dog Troop. On a dreary Labor Day in 1937, Troop was wrapped in a cotton sack and buried three feet down. Underwood marked the grave with a rock from an old chimney. He used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel Troop’s name and date.

After that, other hunters started doing the same – first those from Alabama and Mississippi, later from all around the country.

 
We found it after driving 15 miles down a winding road through the gently rolling hills of northwest Alabama, and for an hour had it all to ourselves. Then another car pulled up, driven by Hamlin, who was escorting a photographer working on a project about Alabama for the National Archives.

Hamlin said about three dogs a year are buried at the cemetery nowadays – a reflection of the declining popularity of the sport, in which the dogs track raccoons and chase them up trees before the hunters … well, you know the rest.

How much pride those hunters took in their dogs still lingers though, in tall tales, folklore and, most of all, at the cemetery, where heartfelt tributes are hammered, carved and burned into grave markers:

“He wasn’t the best, but he was the best I ever had.”

“He was good as the best and better than the rest.”

“He was a joy to hunt with.”

Every year on Labor Day, a festival is held at the cemetery, hosted by the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunters Association. The cemetery is spruced up and decorated, and the event features bluegrass music, food and a liar’s contest.

For more information, visit Coondogcemetery.com and Colbertcountytourism.org. Caps and T-shirts can be purchased online, and proceeds help support the cemetery.

Better yet, check it out in person. Admission is free, but the mosquitos do take up donations. I added about a dozen more bites to my ongoing collection – a small price to pay for such a big, colorful and moving sampling of southern culture.


To read all of Dog’s Country, click here.

Big mane on campus

 
Lots of sports teams call themselves Lions, but the University of North Alabama boasts the only live lion mascots in the country — two of them.

I dropped by to see them– Leo III and Una — Friday. Ace, because I didn’t want to start a roaring contest, especially after our gas station run in with the big yellow dog, stayed in the air conditioned car with my son, who, living in Florence, had seen the lions many times before.

While I was all ready to lambaste the university for keeping captive lions in this way too hot and humid (for my taste) state, I quickly saw that Leo and Una have it better than many Alabamans.

Now 7 years old,  they reside  in the climate-controlled, 12,764-square-foot George H. Carroll Lion Habitat, which was built with a waterfall, babbling streams, two observatories, private dens with skylights, beamed ceilings and a shaded area provided by a thatched roof. The habitat cost $1.3 million. Feeding and caring for the lions cost $35,000 annually, all of which, like the habitat’s construction, is covered by charitable contributions. The habitat also boasts what it describes as the “largest kitty litter box in this part of the state.”

UNA‘s live lion mascot tradition began in 1974, when then-President Dr. Robert Guillot acquired a 12-pound lion cub, Leo I, from a Knoxville zoo.

Leo I lived 14 years, becoming a locally beloved mascot, and the outpouring of support after his death led to Leo II being brought to UNA in July 1988. Leo II, who Sports Illustrated once named the second best college mascot in the country, died in 2000. 

Leo III and Una, born on November 18, 2002, were the first residents of the new habitat, which opened that year.

You can also see them via a university lioncam.

Tomorrow: Coon Dog Cemetery

To read all of Dog’s Country, click here.

Alabamer Glamour: The ultimate makeover

When you get off the Interstate Highway system, the country becomes a far more interesting place.

We finally did that today, for the first time on this trip, leaving behind all the monotonously lookalike exits to get a taste of yet-to-be homogenized America, where some character still exists.

Our drive across Alabama from Huntsville to Florence on Highway 72 — less than two hours — took us through Decatur, where we noticed this establishment on the side of the road.

I didn’t have time to drop in – I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of makeover, anyway  – because I had to get to Florence, get checked in and get myself gussied up for my son’s high school graduation tonight.

Ace won’t be attending that function. He’s more than content, I’m sure, to stay in the air conditioned room, even if it means he’ll be by himself.

The Knights Inn in Florence allows dogs, with a an extra $10 fee, but has a weight limit of 20 pounds, which wasn’t pointed out — neither the fee nor the limit — on the website where I made the reservation.

“What kind of dog do you have?” the desk clerk asked.

“A big mutt,” I answered.

“We have a limit of 20 pounds,” she said.

“Okay,” I said, “then he’s 19 and a half pounds.”

I’m not sure how I will handle it if I get confronted about my 130-pound dog — nearly seven times the limit:

Maybe, “He’s grown a lot since I checked in.”

Or, “He’s actually very small, he just has a lot of hair.”

Or perhaps, “Praise the Lord! He was a Chihuahua yesterday. It’s a miracle!”

For all of “Dog’s Country” – the adventures of Ace and me as we spend a month or more traveling around the country – click the picture to the left.