The Southern Trifecta …
AMERICAN COONER – Coon hunters up and down the eastern seaboard and across the Midwest know there are three important dates without which no new year is off to a proper start. Those dates are the first weekend after New Year’s, the last weekend in January and the last weekend in February. On those dates the UKC’s big three wintertime coonhound events that I choose to call the Southern Trifecta take place in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Albany, Georgia and Salisbury, North Carolina respectively.
With an entry of approximately 2000 coonhounds and crowds running into five digits collectively, the Southern Trifecta consisting of the Grand American, the UKC Winter Classic and Southeastern Treeing Walker Days, sets the tone for the New Year in terms of expected event attendance and in the willingness of coon hunters to accept the latest and greatest renderings from manufacturers servicing our sport. The heart of each event is a manufacturer’s trade show in which hundreds of new products and renovations of existing ones are dangled before the eyes of the hunters, many of which come to the event expressly for that purpose. Ironically, coming right on the heels of the Christmas holidays, vendors continue to report record sales at each of the big three events year upon year.
The three events comprising the Southern Trifecta have amassed an astounding 111 years of major coonhound competition collectively. In order to keep the hunters coming back year after year the events are obviously doing something right. On their side of course are their locations and the usually mild weather in the South at the time the events are held; weather that usually consists of snow and ice for those living above the Mason-Dixon and across the nation’s midsection. Many of coon hunting history’s most-recognized super stars earned their five minutes of fame at one of these events.
The Grand American Presented By American Cooner
Since 1965, one year before the very first NFL Super Bowl, the first weekend after New Year’s has been the traditional date for the Grand American presented by American Cooner coon hunt in Orangeburg. The year 2012 was the event’s 47th year! I attended the second Grand American when I was a college student in Lakeland, Florida in 1967, traveling through South Carolina from my home in West Virginia. It didn’t take the hunt with the “Grand” title long to catch on with coon hunters in the East and I vividly recall the lengthy convoys of pickups leaving the fairgrounds at dusk for such ominous-sounding destinations as “Hell Hole Swamp” among others, in just the event’s second year. In sheer numbers of attendees, the Grand American has no peer. Grand American crowds are huge and, according to an estimate by the Orangeburg Chamber of Commerce, they total 25 to 30 thousand each year. Harry Ott, Orangeburg businessman and Public Relations Director for the Grand American, says the numbers of vehicles parked in the expansive fairgrounds and along Magnolia Street bordering the property, exceed the previous totals, year after year.
Originally, the Grand American featured an ACHA hunt on Friday night and a UKC hunt on Saturday. When Fred Miller purchased the UKC registry in 1973, he insisted that the hunt be UKC-licensed both nights. The demand was rejected by the Grand American board and the UKC license was dropped. After the purchase of the ACHA registry by the American Kennel Club in 1988, the Grand American featured AKClicensed events from 1989 until 2005 when the association voted to move the license back to the UKC. The 47th Annual Event entered 683 dogs in the two-night event. The Grand American Association’s president is my longtime friend David McKee who served with me on the AKC Coonhound Events Management Team. David also serves as president of the South Carolina Coon Hunters Association. The Grand American obviously benefits from David’s leadership and the efforts of his staff as evidenced by its continued growth.
The Grand American was not without problems over the years as the reputation of the event left much to be desired in the minds of those making the long trip south just after the holidays. The leadership of the Grand American realized their plight and set about to clean house and the result has been impressive. Instead of awarding the Grand American championship to the dog with the highest score, a format in which the top four double cast winners are hunted in a late-round championship cast on Saturday night was devised and has done much to reestablish the integrity of the event. And the level of awards to the winners took a leap forward with the addition of event sponsors that provide a nice array of cash and prizes for the top four winners each year.
Just three years away, the Grand American Association is already planning a huge celebration for the event’s 50th anniversary in 2015. A special banquet is planned with past winners as guests and should be an affair any coon hunter and his or her family will enjoy. Let’s hope we all make it.
The first winner of the Grand American was the immortal House’s Chief, a Treeing Walker owned by Joe House of Clinton, Kentucky.
The UKC Winter Classic
The summer of 1986 found me working as Director of Coonhound Events for United Kennel Club. With the twenty-year success of the ACHA-licensed Grand American looming large as a major competitor to my efforts to promote UKC events in the south, I suggested to UKC president Fred Miller that we develop an event in the Deep South to compete with the Grand American. Fred agreed and that summer he and I boarded nine airplanes in two days, looking for just the right location. We looked at venues in South Carolina and Georgia including the fairgrounds in Sumter, South Carolina and in Macon, Georgia. We looked at the rodeo arena in Unadilla, Georgia that had hosted the ACHA World Hunt and at the huge agricultural complex along Interstate 75 in Perry, Georgia. Working with coon hunter and Air Force captain John Falcon who lived in Georgia at the time, he suggested we contact the Chamber of Commerce in Albany, Georgia where we were introduced to Becky Salemi. We got into Becky’s car and she began to tell us about the South Daugherty Community Center south of town. We left the airport and headed south and turned left at a beautiful southern-styled home that had belonged to Hall of Fame golfer Bobby Jones. The drive took us through majestic pecan groves and past elegant plantation entrances and when Becky turned left again, showing Fred for the first time the beautiful treelined driveway leading up to the Community Center, he said, “This is it!” The location typified the theme I had envisioned for the event, “A Classic Coon Hunt in the Old South.” The moss-draped live oak trees and the antebellum columns of the clubhouse had that classic Gone-With-The- Wind feel. Fred and I walked over every inch of the grounds, measuring for parking, for vendor stalls and for the tent we would need to host the bench show. It was perfect and in January of 1987 we held the very first UKC Winter Classic.
The crowds came and they grew over the following two years to the point that we needed to move the event. Wishing to stay in Albany, we contacted the Exchange Club of Albany and Becky arranged a meeting with Exchange Club member Larry Griffin and later with Albany State Farm insurance agent Gene Crow who would chair the coon hunt committee before his untimely death to cancer. The Exchange Club is a service club with its focus on abused children and as I met the members, one by one, I felt a very deep appreciation for those guys and learned firsthand the meaning of real southern hospitality.
It was a genuine pleasure to work with the Exchange Club for several years and early in the relationship things began to improve for those of us charged with managing the event. Late one evening in the dog barn as Master of Hounds Max Summerlin of Oakboro, North Carolina, who served the event in each of the years I was there, and I were calling the casts, I made an acquaintance that would impact not only the future success of the Winter Classic but also my later efforts at AKC. I met Jimmy Phillips.
No other individual had a bigger impact on the Winter Classic’s success than Jimmy. Jimmy was working for the local power company, a career that would last more than thirty years, at the time and knew personally many landowners of the amazing plantations around Albany. Jimmy is a coon hunter and when he learned that we were struggling to come up with enough guides for the event, he stepped up and offered to work with the locals in providing guides on the plantations. Becky Salemi had done some work in that area but it was Jimmy that literally got ‘r done when it came to providing guides. Together with local coon hunting friends, Jimmy was instrumental in forming the Deep South Classic Coon Hunters, the club that serves as the host of the Winter Classic to this day. Jimmy’s amazing people skills paid off in spades in the building of the Winter Classic. I worked with Jimmy at the UKC and when I put together the Events Management Team at AKC he was an easy choice to become one of the key players.
There’s no doubt the decision by UKC to license the Grand American has taken the edge off the growth of the UKC Winter Classic but the old girl is still in pretty good shape after 25 years and will continue to provide a grand event for folks in the Deep South and for the snow birds that travel to Georgia’s sunny climes on the last weekend in January. Purina has chosen the Winter Classic as the stage to present its prestigious annual Nite Hunt and Bench Show awards following the bench show on Saturday. I have attended each of the Winter Classics and certainly look forward to my annual pleasure hunting trip to visit Johnny and Lequita Brinkley in Florida each year that culminates in a visit to the Albany event.
Southeastern Treeing Walker Days
Consistently in the Top 3 in numbers of entries at UKC licensed events each year is Southeastern Treeing Walker Days held at the Rowan County Fairgrounds in Salisbury, North Carolina on the last weekend in February. Originating in Madison, North Carolina in 1974, the event moved to its present location in 1985 where it has enjoyed phenomenal growth. Entries grew rapidly through the years but it has been within the last ten years or so that the crowds have mushroomed. Like the Grand American, the Southeastern’s trader’s row entices large crowds that are looking for bargains in dogs and hunting supplies. Vendors of every imaginable type of coon hunting gadget and apparel display their wares for the shoulder to shoulder crowds on Friday and Saturday. The parking lots are filled to capacity and a trip through the vendor’s barn at the Rowan County Fairgrounds easily reminds one of being in a crowd at a major league sporting event anywhere in the country.
The Southeastern Treeing Walker Association originated as an effort to provide a voice for the Treeing Walker enthusiast in the southeast aside from the existing Treeing Walker Breeder’s and Fancier’s Association which was primarily anchored in the Midwest. The Carolinas are Walker dog country and the idea soon caught on. Current president Randy Hall looks at the success of the event and attributes it to the association’s goals. “I’m proud that we are the kind of quality event where hunters can bring their families and enjoy the entire Southeastern experience,” Hall says. “It makes me proud when folks tell me they brought their wives and kids with them and experienced our emphasis on the family first hand.”
When I was with the AKC we needed an association to support the Treeing Walker breed as its parent club. I naturally thought of the Southeastern Treeing Walker Association, first and foremost because of its success and also because it is independent of the UKC charter that would prevent its affiliation with another registry. It was a pleasure to work with Randy and the Southeastern board during the years I was with the AKC. Under their leadership the Treeing Walker coonhound was fully recognized by the AKC with full privileges beginning January 1, 2012.
Leadership has been the key to the Southeastern’s success and there is a long line of strong leaders in the event’s history. I recently learned that Dean Testerman of Marion, Virginia, a hunter that I met in my very earliest days attending UKC events in Southwest Virginia, was a charter member of the Southeastern Board and still serves in that capacity today. Earl Flippen of Mt. Airy, North Carolina is the association’s longest serving officer and still sits on the board. This kind of experience and stability on the association board combined with the energy and vision of younger leaders like Randy Hall and others make the Southeastern Treeing Walker Association the success story it is today.
Each successful undertaking is interwoven with the personalities of those that made it possible; the founders, the major players, the visionaries that made the sacrifices to make it happen. One such personality that played a pivotal role in the success of Southeastern Treeing Walker Days was the late Alan Shoe of Kannapolis, North Carolina. In the early days of the Southeastern, Shoe was one of its most competitive and successful players. He won the event three times including the inaugural event in 1974. When Shoe wasn’t winning the top spot, he was making those that had the power to beat him earn every inch. When you drew Shoe and his hound, you knew you had your work cut out for you. That competitiveness spilled over into Shoe’s successful construction business and would play an important part in the Southeastern’s growth with Shoe as one of its most active and vocal board members. Alan Shoe was a personal friend. He and I spent countless hours on the phone, discussing dogs, the events and the future of the sport. His untimely death to cancer in 2001 shocked the coonhound world and left a void in the Southeastern community that will never be filled. In his honor, the association hosts the Alan Shoe Memorial Hunt on Thursday night at Southeastern Treeing Walker Days. The 2012 event will be the seventh annual. Alan would be extremely proud that his son Jeff has stepped into his shoes and serves on the same board that his dad so actively enjoyed.
The first winner of Southeastern Treeing Walker Days was NT CH Tar Heel Roho, a Treeing Walker, owned by Alan Shoe of Kannapolis, North Carolina.
At this writing, two legs of the Southern Trifecta are in the record books. I attended the Grand American and the UKC Winter Classic and will attend Southeastern Treeing Walker Days at the end of the month. Each of the events provide exactly what I’m looking for; a chance to see old friends and to look over the latest gear, to fellowship with coon hunters from the region and across the country, and to simply be part of three of the very best events our sport has to offer. Missing any one of the events in the Southern Trifecta would simply get the New Year off on the wrong foot for me. Anyone that has attended these events as long as I have must surely agree.