Possum days gone by

Courtesy Keith "Catfish" Sutton

Does anyone know if you can buy a good possum dog nowadays?

When I was a kid I had a dandy, an old black-and-white setter named Rusty. He belonged to my uncle, actually, but when Rusty failed to show an interest in pointing quail, and began exhibiting a knack for tracking and treeing possums, my uncle loaned him to me permanently.

To a twelve-year-old boy, a dog that'll tree possums is just about the finest animal one can have. At least that's the way I saw it. I'd turn Rusty out every afternoon and we'd make our way off to the woods near home. He'd track and tree; I'd shoot. Most times we'd have a one-possum day, occasionally a two-possum day, and very rarely a three-possum day. I sold the pelts to a local fur buyer for one to three dollars each. On a good three-possum day, I earned as much as I did driving tractor ten hours on the farm, so those days always were cause for celebration. Rusty's reward for each possum we got was a nickel can of Vienna sausages.

One day an old man came by and offered me fifty bucks for ol' Rusty. I told him Rusty wasn't really my dog to sell, hoping he'd go away, but my uncle had told him about Rusty's exploits as a possum dog, and had told the man if he wanted to buy the dog, and I was willing to sell, that was just fine with him. I told the man I'd just as soon not.

"Can't say I blame you," he replied. "A good possum dog is getting hard to come by."

Rusty ran off chasing a possum the next fall, and never came back. I never found out what happened to him, and never saw another dog that took after possums the way he did. I don't reckon I ever will. The possum pelts that brought three dollars back in the 1960s and 1970s won't bring a quarter now. And though there were plenty of folks who liked a good meal of roast possum and sweet potatoes back when I was kid, I imagine nowadays most people would eat a box of nails before they'd lay their grinders into a piece of possum meat. Because folks aren't after possums to eat, or for their furs, I don't imagine there's much of a market for possum dogs.

It's funny how times change. For hundreds of years, possums were considered something of a delicacy throughout the South. One early reference was left by John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and painter, who provided insight into the human craving for possum in his Quadrupeds of America, 1846-1854.

"On a bright autumnal day, when the abundant rice crop has been yielded to the sickle, and the maize has just been gathered in, when one or two slight white frosts have tinged the fields and woods with a yellowish hue, ripened the persimmon, and caused the acorns, chestnuts and chinquapins to rattle down from the trees and strewed them over the ground, we hear arrangements entered into for the hunt. The Opossums have been living on the delicacies of the season, and are now in fine order, and some are found excessively fat; a double enjoyment is anticipated, the fun of catching and the pleasure of eating this excellent substitute for roast pig."

Another interesting nineteenth-century account is provided in the October 28, 1886, edition of the Arkansas Gazette, in which "A Gazette Man Describes a Hempstead County Possum Supper."

"Last evening at 8:30 o'clock a goodly company sat down at the hospitable board of the Lazarus House to partake of a sumptuous 'possum supper,' at the invitation of Messrs. R.P. Williams, Louis Sarazin and Wash Hawthorne, three mighty possum Nimrods, who a night or two since slew four of the 'pesky' but toothsome critters. The critters were cooked and the feast prepared under the able direction of Mrs. Molly Blackmore, the proprietress of that favorite hostelry, the Lazarus House, and her cooking won well deserved encomiums from one and all. It was indeed a treat and one scarcely knows to whom to accord the most praise—the Nimrods who captured them, the cook who cooked them or the Great Father who made them."

That possums were considered good table fare is borne out again by Benton, Arkansas, native Patrick Dunnahoo in his book, "Putting the Big Pot in the Little One" (1988). Dunnahoo interviewed a Mrs. Marshall Little who "recalls an unusual Thanksgiving dinner which she attended in the 1920's ... One family which lived near the school, invited the entire student body — all fourteen of them — and the teacher to come to Thanksgiving dinner during the school's noon hour ... Mrs. Little remembers the dinner as a lavish feast of baked possum and sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, turnips and other vegetables, sweet potato and pumpkin pie ..."

Over in Mena, Arkansas, folks were eating possums, too, and making a big deal about it. We have Ernie Deane to thank for this remembrance, published in his Ozarks Country in 1975.

"The only organization I ever heard of whose members were dedicated to the catching, cooking and eating of 'possum wasn't in the Ozarks, but in the Ouachitas farther south. This was the Polk County Possum Club, founded in pre-World War I days at Mena near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.

"Annual feasts held by this club attracted national attention and were attended by captains and kings of industry and politics, as well as ordinary hill folks. For weeks before the banquet, hunters caught possums in the wooded hills. But rather than killing them right off they put the critters in cages and fed 'em well on sweet potatoes and persimmons. The banquet itself was noted not only for its main dish, but also for its great spirit of fun and carrying on. To my regret, opportunity never came for me to be there for one of the feasts."

Deane wrapped up the account by posing a question to his readers. "Are possums still caught and eaten in the Ozarks, or can possum meat be bought? I honestly don't know, but I'd like to find out."

Thirty-three years later, I'd like to pose the question again, and ask another: Does anyone know if you can buy a good possum dog nowadays?

It's a shame, but I'm betting you can't.