The idea of this post started with a guest conversation, that evolved and took many turns and twists. It started with me asking”do you hunt” and then “I guess ducks are pretty popular to hunt down your way”, and he said “I do, and yes, and even Harry Truman use to come to our area and duck hunt”. After he reflected on his childhood and ALL the varieties of things hunted, it got me thinking back a few years, and thus, this episode.
First, if you are an animal rights person, move on, this story is not for you. I don’t hunt, but I will say, there are some critters I do not like, and raccoons are one of them. They are destructive, make messes one does not want to clean up, and difficult to get rid of. There is a reason they wear the mask. I know, Ellie Mae Clampett (the late Donna Douglas was a guest of ours) had a pet raccoon in her Beverly Hillbillies show, and then, I might have taken to them until I grew wiser.
Ellie Mae and her Raccoon (Beverly Hillbillies)
I told our guest that Rogersville was once billed as “The Coon Capital of the World“! While growing up in nearby Springfield, and unaware of this distinction, Dixie haling from Rogersville was well aware of it, and started telling me tales of this sport. By the way, don’t look for Coon Hunting in this year’s Olympics. Into our marriage, I learned more, and witnessed and heard things many would not. First, “Coon Hunting”. Very different than bird or deer hunting and fishing, the coon hunter uses a well trained dog (or hound) to seek out and tree the raccoon, and this occurs at night, being these critters are nocturnal (thus the mask).
Now, this can occur across a wide area of the county, in our case Webster County, and a variety of properties. Couple examples. One night, we heard the yelping of the dogs, nearby, and continued until we heard a knock on the door. There stood our neighbor, informing us, and asking permission to fetch his dog, and the coon if possible. We knew him, and had no issue. Another time, we were attending a nearby “Barn Dance”, a weekly affair now gone. At one point, a couple fellows came in with headlamps, visiting the crowd, catching a dance with one of the ladies. I asked “what are these utility workers doing here?”. I was told, they were coon hunters and their dogs came by so they dropped in for a bit. Soon, they left to go off and find their dogs.
A cousin of Dixie’s later told me one angle he took and enjoyed about the hunt. He had been before, and the part he liked was “nothing beats a clear cold night, all the stars out filling the sky, you holding a hot drink with a little added to take the cold snap off, and hearing those dogs off in the distant yelping and running.” Finally, a more modern mention of coon hunting (and the eating of) was included in the late Anthony Bordain’s No Reservations television show when he came to the Ozarks and filmed his experiences. That’s worth a watch.
So, let’s get back to the Coon Capital of the World. Raccoon hunting has been around for decades. Here in Webster County, the patriarch of Coon Hunting (no offense to other patriarchs) in Webster County would have to be the late Hubert Swearengin. Hubert told me once he thought he had hunted on just about every piece of property in the county, and knew most those folks! Each year, he would hang the 150 to 300 coon skins he took each year on the side of a building next to his home on the old Highway 60 that ran through Rogersville. Story told again and again of the local Rogersville Ford dealer John Underwood attending a Ford meeting in New York in 1959, and when asked where he was from, he answered, and another dealer said “that’s the town where the coon skins cover a building every year?. Underwood building on everyone around the country knowing Rogersville for this display of coonskins thought something could be capitalized on it.
Unknown coon hunters, their dogs, and hides (Internet)
So four coon hunters including Swearengin started planning, conceiving the idea of a coon hunters association, an annual coon hunt, dog show, and throw into this a coon dinner! The International Raccoon Hunters Association of Rogersville was formed, and memberships were sold for $1. The first year (1959), they signed up 2000 members. The city threw in support and the annual coon festival was born. The money made was used to purchase 10 acres for a city park, arena, concession building, etc. Hubert Swearengin was the first President, Robert Smith – Vice President, E. Stewart 2nd Vice President, Secretary Hubert’s wife Pearl, and Treasurer Bill Breedlove (Banker). A Festival King and Queen were crowned, and hunters from all over the U.S. and some foreign countries in attendance. It was claimed to be the biggest such event in the world!
A local foundry owner Tom Byers even created signs placed at the city limits stating “Welcome to Rogersville – Coon Capital of the World“. From 2000 in 1959, the Festival grew to 7000 by 1971, when it ceased. I asked Hubert “why did it stop?”. He said it just grew too big for the city to handle. In 2008, Dixie setup a visit by our son to visit Hubert’s little museum, his former Barber Shop, for a tour. While small after we crowded in, it certainly was packed with photos, flyers, newspaper articles, and other memories of those fun filled years of a unique event.
Our son asks Hubert Swearengin about a particular photo on one past Coon Festival in 2008.
Hubert passed away, and the archive material passed on, no longer on display. We haven’t heard the howling of a coon dog since that one night. Have to wonder if this remains a county tradition, or has died out. However, the legacy and history remains with many of us.
Introduction photo above shows Rogersville coon hunters (l to r) – Robert Smith, Spencer Miller, Hubert Swearengin, and Bob Woods with their prized coon dogs.