Curs and 'coons

The legend: Robert Kemmer | Photo gallery

For most people, a barking dog prompts an angry call to animal control.

But to 80 people in a wide circle around an oak tree in the Tennessee mountains, it's reason to celebrate.

"Fifty-eight," yelled one of the three judges. "That's 58 barks!"

The yappy dog named South Fork Bear earned the title of champion at the much-anticipated treeing contest by barking 58 times in 30 seconds, one of four events at the annual Kemmer Stock Breeders Association meeting.

The caged raccoon hung from a limb 18 feet off the ground. And when these medium-sized, tenacious hunting dogs got a whiff, they went ballistic, running at the tree and shooting up, scratching the trunk and belting out sharp, desperate barks.

Everyone clapped and howled. Everyone except the anxious coon at the end of its rope, that is.

Westminster it's not, although there is a dog bench show among the squirrel and coon hunts and the raucous coon-barking contests. But that doesn't matter to this congregation of dedicated mountain cur breeders, who live for these regionally famous dogs, which they say are the bravest, strongest, most loyal pups on God's green Earth.

A breed apart

"You can't find a better dog than these," said Wintford Miracle, who has been breeding these dogs for more than 20 years. Like most of the folks here, he is a longtime member of the Kemmer Stock Breeders Association. "They'll be on the trail for 15 minutes before a hound ever picks it up," he said.

"Cur" means crossbreed in the lexicon of the American Kennel Club — and crossbreeds cannot be AKC registered, said an AKC representative.

However, the United Kennel Club recognized the mountain cur back in 1957, and Tennessee breeder Robert Kemmer's stock was registered in 1991.

The Kemmer association registers dogs or litters with white paper — more than 75 percent Kemmer stock for $10 per litter. Green-paper dogs are less than 75 Kemmer stock.

Regardless of their paper, they all share a common origin.

Mountain curs go back to European hunting dogs brought to Tennessee by settlers in the 19th century, so the story goes.

They were originally part of a breed called the "original mountain curs," which has its own association in nearby Jamestown, Tenn.

But since the 1970s, Kemmer of Crossville, Tenn., has developed a new super-breed of curs, devotees might say. The Kemmer stock claims to show an insatiable desire to please their owners, boasts a super-cold nose and uses their excellent winding ability, that is, they can pick up a distant trail quickly.

"I can tell you this about the curs," said Craig Chandler who came from Dodson, La., for the event. "I've never see one backtrack. Never."

He spat out some tobacco juice.

"I started hunting with hounds, but you spend more time hunting for the dog than you do the 'coons," he said.

Chandler drove up with his wife Angie, who coddled three rowdy, curious, 10-week-old Kemmer-stock curs in kennels in the bed of the family's truck.

That's the way most of the families arrived here from Louisiana, Kentucky and as far away as Indiana: A pickup truck with a stack of plastic, wood or metal kennels in the back.

Local color

Most of the hundred or so people here are from the "high country" of southeastern Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau.

Kids learn "football, hunting and church," said Jason Bickford, known around here as "Big 'Un." "And we take one as serious as the other."

His pickup has a bumper sticker that says POSSUM HUNTER.

The location is a concrete block building, home of the Bledsoe County Coon Hunters Club. This time of year it has as many spiders as it does people at any one time. Folks wander in and out to hear the University of Tennessee Volunteers football game on the radio or to get a bowl of pinto beans from the kitchen part of the big room. An old wood-burning stove in the center of the cavernous, dusty room waits for the coming winter.

Everyone seems at home here. They are extremely friendly and curious about any strangers, although most are people of few words.

John Gilbert drove from Indiana to be here.

"You meet great guys here," said Gilbert of Batesville, Ind. "They are boar hunters, bear hunters and coon hunters. Good people."

Gilbert made plans to come back to Bledsoe County to go boar hunting with Bickford and his dogs. He had also driven teenager Chad Hanna, of Greensburg, Ind., to the September event, as well as helping Hanna train the boy's pups for hunting.

"I'm trying to keep the sport alive for the next generation," said Gilbert, who belongs to a Christian fellowship group called Coon Hunters For Christ. Gilbert owns six dogs: three Kemmer stock curs, two feists and a walker.

Hanna came to Tennessee with two Kemmer stock curs. At the event he bought his third: A cur pup, named Snoopy. Apparently, the sport will be alive in Indiana into the foreseeable future.

A squirrel hunt

Early in the morning on the day of the breeders association's annual meeting at the coon club, about two dozen men and a few teen boys drew lots and broke into five teams consisting of a hunter or two plus a guide.

"Who is the guide here?" I asked the team of Rev. Roger Burgess of Crossville, and Aaron Bayless, 13, a local kid from Pikeville.

"Me, I reckon," said Aaron, a boy who knows the woods like most kids know the cheats to video games.

The dogs were Burgess' brindle J.J., a black brindle that had a pit-bull look but was much slimmer. The dog was friendly, but when he hunted, he was all business.

"I look for a good 'stay-put' dog," said Burgess. "One that would tree a squirrel and would be there for hours if you left and came back."

Bayless' dog was Miracle's Julie, a young, yellow-coated Kemmer, bred by Wintford Miracle of Kentucky. Both dogs were less than a year old.

The reverend and the boy walked into a rolling hardwood forest dominated by hickories and oaks. The dogs worked the areas, nose to the leaves, sticks, stumps and dirt, then circled about 100 yards around the standing hunters.

At one point J.J. broke the silence of the forest with a sharp squirrelly bark. Burgess and Bayless stopped, then headed toward the direction of the bark.

"It's amazing what we do to hear a dog bark," said Burgess as he pushed aside vines and ducked under a tangle of them. "We'll walk for miles through briars and mosquitoes for that sound."

But JJ had moved on.

"Probably a cold trail," said Burgess, slowly in a Tennessee mountain accent. "Maybe there were some squirrels here last night."

Burgess marked down the bark on a scorecard just in case other groups came up short on their hunts. You never know.

Hearing your dog bark and seeing it tree a squirrel would be 100 points. If another dog in the group treed a second squirrel, that handler would earn 75 points. The third time, 75 points.

If one dog picks up a trail, the hunter yells "Handle your dogs" to the other hunters. The others clip their dogs to their leads and hold them back.

Then the hunter yells, "Find the squirrel!" to his dog. The dog has five minutes to find it and tree it.

No shots are fired.

As it turns out, one bark was all the team would have to show for the three hours of squirreling. But it was enough for second place among five teams.

There just weren't many bushy tails to be had.

The whole mountain forest looked squirrely: big den oaks with as many as eight squirrel holes in the trunk; gnawed hickory husks and blowdowns that would make perfect squirrel hardwood-to-hardwood highways without touching the ground.

They blamed the full moon the night before, saying the lack of rain could be the culprit. Mostly folks said it was too early in the season and the squirrels move better when the leaves are off the trees.

Maybe the squirrels just knew better than to emerge from their dens today — they should have told the coon before it was caged.

Meanwhile, Burgess let J.J. work anyway.

We waited and listened.

The reverend turned a hickory nut around in his fingers. He looked up at the treetops and down again.

"Are you a Christian?" he asked me.

Burgess said his savior, Jesus, and these cur dogs helped him walk the straight and narrow and step away from cockfighting, gambling and a fast-lane lifestyle. Jesus is with him always, he said, and the dogs are a healthy diversion that rewarded his training and effort.

Like all of the folks back at the shack called the Bledsoe County Coon Hunters Club, Burgess said he has a lot to be thankful for.

Suddenly, J.J. trots alongside his master.

"Here, boy," called Burgess.

The pair walk down a hill toward an opening in the canopy. The sun filters through the wide leaves, lighting their way through the forest.

The Winners

Here are the winners of the four events of the Kemmer Stock Breeders Association membership meeting Sept. 12-14, 2008 at the Bledsoe County Coon Hunters Club in Pikeville, Tenn.

First: Owner Roby Lewis, do Ramey's Little Twister
Second: Jim Stanley, Rusty Hank
Third: Aaron Bayless, Tennessee Mountain Rowdy

First: Troy Dickens, White Loop Dixie
Second: Roger Burgess, Burgess' Brindle JJ
Third: Roby Lewis, Ramey's Little Twister

First: Ira Northrup and Kenny Guider, South Fork Bear

Grand Champion Class: Jason Bickford and Kaleb Flowers, Kemmer's Midnite Starr

The legend: Robert Kemmer | Photo gallery