If you want to learn about a place, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.
We'll kick things off in "the Heart of Dixie": the Yellowhammer State, Alabama.
The Coon Dog Graveyard
Key Underwood and his coon dog, Troop, were legends in northwest Alabama’s Colbert County. Whenever men gathered at a hunting camp just outside the town of Cherokee, the tales of Underwood and Troop running raccoons up trees would keep the crowd entertained for hours. The two hunted together for 15 years, until 1937, when Troop died just before Labor Day. To honor his friend, Underwood wrapped Troop’s body in a cotton sack and buried him beneath a tree at the old campgrounds. He marked the spot with a brick from a nearby chimney and used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel a simple epitaph. Soon after, other coon dog owners began burying their faithful hounds at the same site, unintentionally establishing the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, the only one of its kind in the world.
As the name implies, you won’t find any poodles or pitbulls here. Larry Sanderson, Vice President of the Coon Dog Graveyard, has said, “We have stipulations on this thing. 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.” For a dog to be buried at the site, a dog’s owner must find a witness that will back up his coon dog claim, and the body must also pass inspection by a member of the graveyard’s board to verify its breed. More often than not, when a dog is interred, a large gathering turns out to pay their last respects, even if they never knew the dog or the owner. For the 2011 burial of Bo, a coon dog from southern Illinois, 400 people attended a ceremony that included music, flowers, prayers, and even a flyover by a local pilot.
So far, more than 250 coon dogs have been laid to rest at the cemetery. Some of the graves carry simple wooden or metal markers, while others have ornate tombstones like those you’d find in a more traditional graveyard. In addition, every Labor Day, a festival is held to honor these loyal hounds, complete with live music, a barbecue, and, befitting the tall tales told at the hunting camp, a liar’s contest.
The Boll Weevil Monument
When a city dedicates a monument, it’s usually to honor a worthy member of the community or mark an historic event people would like to remember. But since 1919, Enterprise, Alabama has had a statue dedicated to a six millimeter beetle that nearly brought the local economy to its knees.
The boll weevil is a tiny insect that gets its name from its favorite meal—the silky fibers inside the boll, or seed pod, of the cotton plant. The pest crossed over from Mexico in the late 1800s and began eating its way across the South. In Coffee County, Alabama, cotton production had fallen from an average 15,000 bales to only 5000 bales in the 1915 crop, all due to the creeping weevil invasion. In a desperate attempt to save the region’s economy, two businessmen traveled to North Carolina in 1916 and brought back a load of seed peanuts. After much cajoling, one farmer finally agreed to plant his entire acreage in the new crop. For that year, cotton plummeted to only 1500 bales, but the peanuts were a bumper crop at 8000 bushels. Other farmers jumped on the peanut wagon and, in 1917, Coffee County produced over 1 million bushels of the legume, valued at over $5 million. To this day, Alabama continues to be a major producer of peanuts, with an estimated 150,000 acres planted in 2013.
When the peanut became a bona fide hit in Coffee County, Enterprise, Alabama businessman Roscoe Owen Fleming suggested—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—that the city should erect a monument to the weevil. After all, by convincing farmers to adapt to conditions and try something new, the little bug had, in a roundabout way, saved the town. The joke caught on, though, and Fleming soon ordered a statue from Italy featuring a woman dressed in a flowing gown holding a trophy over her head. Water sprayed from the trophy into a large concrete basin below, and two street lights lit the ornate column upon which she stood, reaching a height of about 13 feet. The $3000 monument (~$40,000 today), mostly paid for by Fleming, was placed in the middle of the street in the city’s business district on December 11, 1919 at a dedication ceremony attended by 5000 people. George Washington Carver, a major proponent for peanuts as an alternative to cotton, was scheduled to speak at the ceremony, but train rails were flooded out and he was unable to attend.
But what’s a boll weevil monument without a boll weevil? Thirty years after its dedication, the fountain was capped with a larger-than-life model of the voracious insect. Naturally, the big bug became a magnet for bored pranksters who have stolen it on more than one occasion, often damaging the rest of the statue in the process. After the weevil disappeared in 1998, taking much of the maiden’s arms with it, the entire statue was moved to a nearby museum for safekeeping. In its place is a resin replica made from a cast that was used to make an exact copy for a Southern history exhibit at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. But vandals beware: The boll weevil monument is now monitored by a security camera 24/7.
Know the story behind an unusual person or place in your state? Maybe a little-known urban legend that others should hear? Is your state home to the largest ball of twine or a creepy abandoned theme park? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!