Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Doesn’t A Coon Coat Look Good?

by David Parmer

We have no photos related to Orlando coon hunting, but David Parmer chose the three stock photos in this entry to demonstrate how it was: the dog with two raccoons to the left, the skins drying on the side of an out building, below left, and bottom right, the dog posed in front of several drying skins.
At college football games in the 1920s and 1930s, the fashionable look for college kids, men or women, was a long, nearly dragging-the-ground, raccoon coat. The coon coat was fluffy and warm to keep out the cold, with nice big pockets to conceal the flask of illegal booze, and besides that, it really looked good! The coon coat craze lasted for over twenty years and provided a nice cash crop for many Orlando area hunters during the 1920s and 1930s.
It seems hunting has always been a favorite pastime of Orlando men. Nearly every home in the 1920s and 1930s in the Oil Creek valley had a good coon dog, or two, or more. And every fall or winter night, even half-fitting, was a good coon night. The dogs were always raring to go, and there was no shortage of hunters to search for and kill the crafty coon.
Good coon dogs are a treasure to coon hunters. Orlando hunters did not appear to have a favorite coon dog. Some hunters preferred the black and tan, and others preferred the redbone, while others favored the blue tick. Actually, according to Dale Barnett, “Any good squirrel dog can make a good coon dog, and even cow dogs, terriers, or spaniels can chase coon successfully”

There is nothing more exasperating than a poor coon dog. Orlando men have been known to shell out many precious dollars for a “tried and true” coon dog. The allure of a “good coon dog” raised out of state was enticing. Helen Jeffries recalls that her late husband Coleman Jeffries paid over $200 for a coon dog from Oklahoma plus express shipping costs, including the costs when the dog was first sent in error to Kentucky by the freight company. When asked if the dog was a “good coon dog,” Helen replied that it was a “doozy in the absolutely worst way.” She further elaborated that the dog was a fraud and could not follow a scent. After one totally disastrous hunt the dog ended up being found on the “other side of Burnsville.” “It was a total waste of money,” Helen added, and she, by a stinging letter, let the seller of the dog know that “the Devil was waiting on him.”
Please click on each of these three newspaper ads for hunting dogs; one each from Oklahoma, Illinois and Ohio.

After the day’s chores were done and the evening meals were eaten, Orlando farmers became Orlando hunters. As darkness fell, and the coon dogs became edgy, Orlando men and boys became night stalkers of the coon. Coons seemed always to be plentiful. In the winter, coons don a rich thick fur, so winter hunts are the most rewarding to Orlando men when the pelts were exchanged for cash. According to Dale Barnett, coon and mink pelts were the top pelts for fur buyers. In the 1930s, a good female raccoon or mink pelt brought as much as ten to twelve dollars. This was quite a bit of money for a Depression-poor Orlando farmer.

Dale Barnett’s father, Bill Barnett, was a buyer of furs. From his home in Orlando , Bill would buy and pay cash for all sorts of furs. Rabbit, opossum, skunk, weasel, muskrat, fox, mink, or raccoon pelts were all readily marketable. Dale Barnett recalls that his father would store his prized pelts, mink and raccoon, in his house or cellar house so they would be well-secured. Most of the other pelts would be stored in outbuildings. Periodically, especially during the fall and winter, fur buyers would visit Bill Barnett and buy all the furs he had. Two of the area fur buyers Dale Barnett recalls were Clay Thompson of Burnsville and Ira Myers of Weston, formerly of Walkersville. The large national concerns of Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Ward also were eager to buy quality pelts, especially coon and mink, which would be made into luxurious and fashionable coats for sale in their stores and from their catalogs.

Now, to the hunt. The dogs are straining at the leashes and barking and clawing the ground and more than ready to go. They are loosed from their chains. The pent-up energy of the dogs overwhelms the ability of the hunters to keep up with their four-legged companions. The hunters know this and just follow at a leisurely pace in the same general direction the dogs take. The hunters are keen to listen for the distinctive baying sound indicating a treed coon. The coons though have other ideas.
Bruce Brannon made the folk sculpture to the right and his daughter Joyce Carole Brannon shares it with us. (Bruce Brannon was the husband of Olive Henline, see the June '07 entry The Buzzardtown Tongue Twisters )

The baying of the dogs perk up the ears of the wily, but slow-moving coon. The coon, motivated by the unwelcome sounds of the dogs, commences its often-futile search for an escape. The coon seems to fix the location of the dogs and begins its evasive actions of leading false trails, circular in shape. What dogs lack in wile, they often make up for in endurance and persistence. But, sometimes, not. Charles Bennett of Clover Fork, a frequent hunting companion of Short Riffle, recounts a hunting experience involving many hours and many miles over the hills of Clover Fork and into the “Booger Hole” section of Knawl’s Creek. Charles became concerned that he had passed through the same grape thicket several times before, which, to Charles, meant they were going around in circles. Charles pointed out to Short the lights of a house in the valley below which they had passed each time they passed the same grape vine thicket. Finally, Charles convinced Short where they were and whose house it was and that they were going in circles. The wily coon had lead them into an unfruitful chase. In his analysis of the hunt, Charles concluded that Short “would get lost in his own back yard.” On this hunt, the coon had prevailed, to live again another day.

Coon hunters are of all ages, from youngsters to grandparents. Dale Barnett recalls several coon hunters when he was growing up in Orlando. Among those nimrods of the night were Frank Stutler, Cecil Skinner, Ed McNemar, and Marion Wymer. Two other coon hunters identified by Uncle Zeke in a 1931 column were O. L. Stutler and O. B. Heater who “caught a rousing big coon.” The late Coleman Jeffries, who lived two miles north of Orlando on the Oil Creek road, coon hunted into his late seventies. His loss of hearing, more than loss of physical stamina, was the cause of the end of his coon hunting days. His main hunting companions, Arthur Williams and Short Riffle, were also of senior citizen status. Their favorite hunting grounds were the Clover Fork area and the “ Free State ” area of Three Lick. Everyone is familiar with Clover Fork and knows its range. The “Free State” area may be a term unfamiliar with all but the oldest of Orlando residents. The “ Free State ” was a large tract of land consisting of over 1300 acres, well-watered, and stretched from the Three Lick area to the head of Posey Run. This land was owned, it is said, by an absentee landlord from the Philadelphia area, who paid the taxes on the land, but did little else to develop it. Hunters could range at will on the land, not worrying about “No Hunting” signs, or livestock to worry, hence the name “Free State.” The land was mostly wooded until The Koppers Company purchased most of the timber after World War II and the Leech Company finished up the logging in the 1950s. Huge poplar trees, with the first limbs 75 feet from the ground, and tremendous hickory trees and oaks providing mast covered the “Free State” and provided cover and food for all sorts of wild animals. And, was it ever good coon hunting territory! The old time hunters were familiar with the terrain and the haunts of old “Charlie Coon” in the “Free State” area and hunted successfully there for years.
Pictured are coon hunters: upper right Coleman Jeffries, center left Frank Stutler (b. 1911) and immediately right, Oras L. Stutler (1896-1868).

Some coon hunts end up with unexpected results. Tom Jeffries was hunting one night with his father Coleman Jeffries and Short Riffle on Clover Fork. After a long hunt, the dogs treed and began baying, bringing the hunters to the tall oak where the animal was cornered. The beam of the flashlight revealed that the dogs had not treed a coon but rather a large bobcat which was brought to earth by a long barreled .22 pistol.

A good dog barks, and barks loud. Once a coon realizes that it cannot escape by circling or making false trails it will go to tree. Once treed, the bark of the dog changes and is recognized by the hunter that his dogs had treed the coon. Dogs can’t climb trees to catch the treed coon and the master of the dog is required to administer the coup de grace to the unlucky coon.

After the coon takes its final plunge to the ground the first step toward being a nice fur coat is accomplished. Dale Barnett advised that the coon pelt is generally dried by tacking it to the barn wall. The same procedure is used with mink. Other pelts are often tacked to a stretching board until dry.

During the dark days of the Depression, many Orlando residents, in addition to the pleasure of the hunt, were able to supplement their meager incomes by the sale of furs of coon, mink, and other creatures. It was a true cash crop. And, each time Rudy Vallee, in his long coon coat, with his megaphone, began singing “Winchester Cathedral,” who knows, his nice coon coat might have come from Clover Fork or the “Free State.”

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