Franky Hatton is schooling me on the ins and outs of raccoon hunting. We met in early spring at the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, better known as the Coon Dog Cemetery. Hatton is one of its caretakers, as well as a board member of the Friends of the Coon Dog Cemetery and coon-hunting enthusiast.
Over the course of the afternoon, he will tell me all about headlamps, snake pants, tracking devices, squaller calls, the six different types of coon dogs, siring and lineage, and the process of how they come up with all these funny names. He’ll also tell me why this place in Colbert County in northwest Alabama is so special that it has attracted visitors from across the country and as far away as Sheffield, England.
“It’s the only cemetery of its kind in the world,” he said.
The Coon Dog Cemetery was started when local hunter Key Underwood decided to bury his favorite coon dog, Troop, here on Sept 4, 1937. His friends followed suit when their dogs passed on. The land initially was owned by the state of Alabama but in the 1970s, a local hunting club convinced the state to donate the land to them.
Hyperbole aside, this truly is an “only in Alabama” experience. Remember in the movie “Sweet Home Alabama” when Melanie (Reese Witherspoon) goes to a coon dog cemetery to visit Bear, her old dog who died while she had run off to New York City to become fashion designer? Well, this is that cemetery. Sort of. The cemetery in the movie was a replica, and while that one was located in the middle of a town, this one is not.
In fact, it’s about a 30-minute drive from the nearest town – Cherokee, if you’re coming off the Natchez Trace Highway, or Tuscumbia if you’re coming from the Shoals. It’s located down a long, desolate road on the top of a mountain, making the ride either really beautiful or kind of scary, depending on how you feel about being in the middle of nowhere with no cellphone service.
“It’s just real peaceful,” said Hatton. “Everyone who comes in here is just amazed at how quiet it is and peaceful, and the scenery is just great.”
There are now over 300 dogs buried on the site. Each dog has to meet a list of criteria to be able to be buried here: proper paperwork, being vouched for as a coon dog by a witness, and being viewed and declared a coon dog by a member of the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard Inc.
Grave markers, bearing names like Flop, Gypsy, Flash, Crooked Oak Tootsie and Bling Blossom Bud, are made from a variety of materials – wood, stone, metal. Some are hand-carved or painted, others are professionally engraved polished stone slabs like the kind you see at cemeteries for people. Each grave is adorned with a small American flag and pops of brightly colored silk flowers. You can’t see it from the ground, but Hatton says there’s a dirt path forming a perimeter around the graves and in the spring, small flowers pop up. From above, they’re in the shape of a cross. No one is sure how they got there.
This weekend marks the 80th anniversary of Troop’s burial, which started the cemetery. Members, families and visitors will celebrate, as they do every Labor Day Weekend, with bluegrass and gospel music, barbecue plates, a “liar’s contest,” and more. It’s estimated that about 1,500 people attended last year.
“For most of the year, the cemetery is filled with peaceful sounds of nature,” said Janice Williams, president of the Friends of the Coon Dog Cemetery Inc. “However, on Labor Day, the quiet is broken.”
If you go:
The Coon Dog Cemetery Labor Day Celebration
4945 Coon Dog Cemetery Road in Cherokee, Alabama
Monday, Sept. 4
10 a.m. – 4 p.m.