As the old saying goes, "A dog is a man’s best friend." And in the case of coonhounds that phrase couldn’t be truer. A good coondog not only serves as a best friend, but also as a hunter, a faithful guide and guardian through the deep, dark woods during a late night hunt.
So it’s no wonder when Troop passed away, his owner, Key Underwood, chose to have a proper burial for his faithful friend and longtime hunting companion. Just as a service would be held for a person, Troop was laid to rest beneath the shade of a tree, in a grassy meadow set back in the woods of the Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area in Northwest Alabama on September 4, 1937.
Several friends joined Under-wood to say good-bye to Troop at one of his favorite spots to hunt known as "Sugar Creek." The spot where Troop was buried had long-time been a place for many coon-hunters and dogs to gather and camp before and after a hunt. Hunters swapped stories and strategies about previous hunts as well as upcoming hunts. It was a popular place; one the half-bird-song and half-redbone coonhound, Troop, loved more than any other spot he hunted with Underwood.
Later, Underwood took a large rock from an old chimney and with a hammer and a chisel he carved the name Troop, his birth date and death date. He completed the headstone by engraving a simple cross above the name.
The burial of Troop marked the beginning of the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard located just outside the town of Cherokee off Alabama Highway 247. Since that day in 1937, more than 185 dogs from all across the country have been laid to rest there on the peaceful piece of property nestled deep in the hills of Colbert County.
Each year, nearly 7,000 people come from all over the United States to visit the remote location of the cemetery to pay respects to the beloved coonhounds and browse the many different headstones. Owners often return to the graveyard and place flowers on the monument of their deceased hound, but many visitors have no sentimental connection. They want to see just what a coondog cemetery is all about. A recreated version of the cemetery was even featured in the hit-movie from 2002, "Sweet Home Alabama."
A tin sign nailed to a tree near the cemetery’s entrance off a winding gravel road declares "Only cemetery of its kind in the world, only COON HOUNDS are allowed to be buried."
Large granite statues of dogs barking up a tree sit on both sides of the driveway leading up to the small field of headstones decorated with dog collars and artificial flowers.
In the field, each headstone placed at the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard is unique, varying in size and shape. The headstones are made from different materials from wood to rock; some are homemade while some are professionally done just as any monument found in an ordinary cemetery would be. Ranger, Rock, Crowder, Old Red, Preacher, Patches, Daisy, Tex, Old Tip, Lulu Belle, Hank and Smokey are just a few of the dogs buried there.
The inscription on each stone is just as unique as the monument itself. Each stone is representative of the bond between the owner and the dog. One reads "ability and class all in one." Others read "our once in a lifetime coonhound," "a joy to hunt with," "will be hard to replace." Then the simple "my best friend" is engraved on a neighboring stone. Some of the most touching words adorn the headstone of the coonhound Track. The tribute to the hound is made of a simple piece of tin with the words "he wasn’t the best, but he was the best I ever had."
Several stones include the owners’ name and breed of the hound, black and tan, blue tick, and redbone are among the most popular. Etched in many of the stones are the name, registered name and UKC (United Kennel Club) registration number. Others stones list the hound’s accomplishments: Night Champ, World Champion, UKC Triple Nite Champion and more.
Some even list the cause-of-death along with a personal testimony of the hounds’ hunting ability. "Blue Kate was struck by a car while running a raccoon," the imprinted tin said on top of a large stone. "In six years of ownership treed more than 200."
To qualify for burial in the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, dogs must meet three requirements. First, the owner must claim their pet as an authentic coondog. A witness must then also declare the deceased dog was indeed a real coonhound. And for the final requirement, a member of the local coonhunter’s association must view the dog and declare it an authentic coonhound as well.
Each Labor Day, a celebration is held at the cemetery to mark the founding of the remarkable place. People come from all around to clean and decorate the coonhound’s graves.
They also have live music, dancing and the popular liar’s contest, where participants see who can tell the biggest tale.
The Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard and the Labor Day celebration are just a couple of proofs coonhounds are truly special to their owners. The hounds are sincerely loved by the hunters who walk hundreds of miles through the dark woods alongside them on many, many late-night coon hunts.
Mary-Glen Smith is an AFC intern.