Now and Then – The American Cooner Magazine
Steve Fielder retired from a 33 year career in which he directed coonhound programs at the sport’s three largest registries, AKC, PKC and UKC. Steve, accompanied by his Plott dog, Hoss, writes from his cabin in the mountains of Western North Carolina and the beaches of southern Florida.
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His father, farmer and local politician Alonzo P. and his mother Nancy no doubt raised Guy Beeman the way thousands of boys were raised in the early years of twentieth-century America, on the family farm. History does not attribute famous deeds to Guy and his name would otherwise go unnoticed to this writer but for two things. He wrote a story that was published in 1924 in a compilation of coon hunting stories previously published in the then popular Hunter-Trader-Trapper magazine and he lived in Newberg Township in Cass County, Michigan. Whether or not his family approved of this coon hunting ways is not known. He was 39 years of age when he wrote his story and was by all considerations, his own man. His father was a prominent figure in local politics having served as treasurer for his township and for Cass County, as a director on the school board for eighteen years and as the commander of the Jones, Michigan chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). Because his published story of a coon hunt with a pair of grade coonhounds named Fanny and Jack took place in a location familiar to me, Guy Beeman became the catalyst for the historical journey I invite you take with me this month that will give us a glimpse of coon hunting nearly one hundred years ago.
I hunted raccoons in Cass County and neighboring Van Buren County, Michigan from January of 1983 until the first week of November, 2004, a period of nearly twenty-two years. Most of my hunting was done in Van Buren, County, southwest of the City of Kalamazoo and just northeast of Jones where Guy Beeman lived. I moved my family to the area to assume the job of field operations manager for the United Kennel Club. This was thirty-two years ago. The terrain is typical upper Midwest farm country with grain crops, wetlands and plenty of hardwood timber. The years I hunted there were the best of my coon hunting life.
No doubt things have changed in this sport significantly over those thirty-two years and even more so over the 100-year span from Beeman’s story until today. Foremost would be the rapid change in technology that is now inseparably interwoven into the sport. When I moved to the area I was yet to experience the use of an electronic locating device. No one else had one for that matter. My hound locator was a hollowed out cow horn worn across my upper body via a leather strap. My hounds were trained to answer the horn and to come in when they heard the mournful sound. My light source was a 4-volt Wheat wet cell mining light purchased at a flea market in the southern West Virginia and my boots were nine-eyelet imported rubber boots purchased at the local K Mart for five dollars a pair. I bought my first pair of hip boots, heavy green rubber affairs with molded white soles and bearing the Coon Hunter brand at the tops after my first attempt to negotiate those Michigan swamps in the ankle-high imports I wore back home. But that’s enough about me. Let your imagination free wheel back to the spring of 1918, just eight months before the close of World War I, as the raccoon season in Michigan is coming to a close.
Before we take a look at the components of Guy’s story for the purpose of comparison to the time of our own experiences, can we collectively agree that storytelling is a lost art to coon hunters of today? Stories such as that of Guy Beeman have given way to play-by-play accounts of one or two-hour scorecard contests and that’s not surprising for indeed that’s what the sport of coon hunting has become. The sister publication to American Cooner, Full Cry was once ripe with the renderings of O.L. Beckham, Obe Cory and myriad other writers that could twist a coon hunting yarn like a ranch hand’s lariat and leave the reader begging for just one more turn of the page. I’m showing my age here but I’ll admit when the competition fire was burning hot within my chest, I shunned the literary side of the magazines in favor of stud ads and winner’s shots. Now that the fire has been contained, I covet those old stories like an expectant mother craves a dill pickle.
Let’s permit our imaginations to take over for a moment. I can see Guy and his friend Bert walking out to the barn after supper and evening chores were done to pull the oiled canvas tarp off the Model T Ford Guy bought new for $360, the advertised price, two years earlier. The Model T was introduced in March of 1908 at a price of $850 which was increased to $950 by 1910. The price Guy paid, less than half the original figure was made possible by a reduction in production costs due to the moving assembly line that Henry Ford introduced at the Highland Park, Michigan Ford plant five years earlier in 1913. Coon hunters in Guy’s day normally walked to the woods because they hunted on either family lands or those of their adjacent neighbors. But the coon hunters may have been among the limited numbers of people living in America that had the luxury of driving to their hunts, largely in Tin Lizzies as the Model T Ford automobile was called in those days. The book, Cooning With Cooners, in which Guy’s story appears, has several accounts of coon hunts taken in Model T’s. The Model T was the all-round multipurpose vehicle because it could easily transverse rutted farm lanes, climb hills, and assume the role of ATV and tractor. Some farmers removed a tire, attached a belt to the hub and used the wheel as a power take off to run saw mills and other forms of rudimentary machinery. However they traveled, they were lucky to be healthy enough to go hunting in the midst of the national pandemic of influenza that was sweeping the nation in that day.
After removing the tarp, starting the Model T could be an interesting affair. First, a preliminary check of oil and water levels was accomplished. A mixture of 30 to 40 percent wood alcohol was added to the radiator to prevent freezing in Michigan’s cold winters. Before he used the hand crank located in the front of the car below the radiator to start the engine, Guy would have climbed into the driver’s seat and made sure the emergency brake/neutral lever on the floor to the left of the steering wheel was all the way back and the rear brakes were set. He didn’t want the car to run over him when he turned the crank to start the engine. He would have made sure the spark adjust lever to the left below the steering wheel was moved to the “retard spark” position and he would have moved the throttle lever, found below and to the right of the steering wheel, to approximately ¼ of the way down.Up is neutral and all the way down is as fast as the car will go. He checked the Magneto/Off/Battery switch on the dash panel to see that it was in the “off” position. Stepping to the front of the Model T, Guy pulled the wire ring that served as the hand choke, found at the lower left corner of the radiator, all the way out. With the battery/magneto switch still in the “off” position, he turned the crank a couple of turns until he reached a point just past compression. He then turned the switch to the “battery” setting and the coils began to buzz. Sometimes the engine would start without further cranking but this time, due to cold weather, an additional single, careful turn was necessary. He cupped his fingers and thumb of his right hand to one side of the handle, being careful not to grip the handle for fear the handle would kick back and break a finger or thumb. He ratcheted the handle to the down position and pulled sharply up to compression and the 177-cubic inch four cylinder engine sprang to life. We’ll assume Guy had cobbled together some form of a dog box out of vegetable crate slats although in all the photos I’ve seen of Model T’s on coon hunts, I’ve never seen one with a dog box. He and Bert would have then loaded Fanny, Jack and Queen for the coming hunt. He mentioned a dog named Ed at the beginning of his story but nothing more was revealed about this dog as the story progressed. Michigan weather in March can be iffy at best but Guy and Bert came upon a bit of luck in that they had a dark, damp night for their hunt.
Illumination for the night’s hunt would have come from a kerosene lantern. Likely the lantern they used was manufactured by Dietz in either New York City or most likely, in Syracuse, New York. It may have been of the Little Wizard design that was introduced three years earlier in January of 1914 or perhaps the D-Lite model introduced in 1912, five years before the hunt. The Dietz motto was “A Maximum of Light with a Minimum of Care.” The lantern would have produced approximately 200 hours of 9-candlepower-bright walking light on a gallon of K1 kerosene. Kerosene at the time of the hunt was running about 15.2 cents per gallon. A gallon of kerosene would have provided nearly seventeen dusk-to-dawn nights of hunting at a cost of less than a penny a night.
Perhaps the gun they carried to dispatch coons from the numerous hardwoods of the area was an old .22 caliber Winchester fall block-actioned “Winder Musket” nicknamed for its founder, Col. C.B. Winder and manufactured by Winchester after buying the patent and manufacturing rights from John Browning in 1883, thirty-five years before our story. The rifle would have been chambered for either .22 short or .22 Long Rifle and would have weighed a hefty eight and a half pounds. Or if they were lucky, they may have had the upscale Remington Model 12 pump repeater, introduced in 1908. Coon were very scarce in that day and a hunt in which two coon were caught, even though it took all night to do so, was a very good hunt indeed.
We’ve come a long way in the nearly one-hundred years since Guy Beeman’s story. We even have remote start buttons for our vehicles.We’ve made progress in many ways but it hasn’t come without considerable price. Hunting territory was virtually unlimited in Guy’s day although coons were much more scarce back then. Raccoon populations, due to the reduction in hunters and available lands on which to hunt have burgeoned since that damp, dark night in 1918. Technology and the American farmer’s industry to produce grain crops at record levels across the heartland produce an unlimited food source for all creatures great and small. While Guy and Bert’s monetary investment in the hunt consisted at most of a three-hundred dollar automobile, a lantern that sold for .35 cents, and a firearm that cost five dollars or less, today’s coon hunter invests what Guy and his partner would consider to be a king’s ransom when compared to the cost of things in their day.
Four-door crew cab pickups easily top $40 grand. The diamond plate dog box costs $800 and the GPS tracking system another seven or eight hundred and on and on. It costs $2.50 or more to move that 4 x 4 pickup fifteen miles down the road. Coonhound puppies cost as much as the Model T Guy drove and commercial dog food costs more for a 40-pound bag than Guy and Bert had wrapped up in their entire hunting outfit, gun, light, boots and all.
Perhaps more than the monetary differences in coon hunting today and in the early twentieth century is the quality of the hunt itself. In other words, I believe Guy Beeman enjoyed coon hunting in ways today’s hunters no longer appreciate or understand. I’ll explain.
In all the accounts of final fours published in coonhound publications do you recall an account of a good race lasting even thirty minutes not to mention an hour or more such as recounted by Guy Beeman? Races of this nature were common years ago. I recall one such race in a 100-acre cornfield along Hoffman Road in St. Joseph County, Michigan in the 1980’s in which the dogs ran the coon into a hole in the cornfield after a non-stop one-hour race. Mark Blount, the originator of the custom-built dog box and my friend Robert Gallentine from West Virginia were my companions on this hunt and we had four coonhounds, two Plotts, a Treeing Walker and an English Coonhound in the race. You could have covered all four hounds with a blanket for the entire race. Why don’t coons run like this today? Has the soft living and abundant food supply created a generation of lazy raccoons? Has living in close proximity to man reduced the fear factor that drove raccoons in Guy’s experience to literally run for their lives while coons today leisurely take the first available tree when hearing a coonhound bark? Are the “bucket” coon passing this behavior on to their offspring?
Furthermore, have the one and two-hour competition hunts produced a one or two-hour hunter? Is that time frame considered the norm now when in Guy’s day, a dusk to dawn walk over torturous terrain was more common than not? Have today’s coon hunters gone soft under the influence of convenience and technology? I believe the answer to both questions is an unequivocal yes. I know that I am not the hunter I used to be. I have an excuse as I edge nearer to my three-score and ten years of life and I know if I’m not doing it I have no right to criticize anyone else. There’s really no crime in taking advantage of the technology and the advances in convenience that we have at our finger tips today. We would be foolish not to do so. But, I can’t help but think that Guy and Bert, riding in a Model T, carrying a kerosene lantern, and hunting from sun to sun, had more fun and that’s really what this sport is supposed to be all about.
I have the old Remington Model 41 bolt action single-shot rifle that my dad and his brothers bought in the 1930’s. I can buy a current model of the Dietz Little Wizard kerosene lantern online for less than thirty dollars and a gallon of kerosene for about $3.50. I may just leave the electronic devices on the shelf and get my buddies together this fall for a retro coon hunt, ala 1918. Maybe we can recreate the magic of hunting in simpler times. Progress can be a wonderful thing or it can change our lives in ways we never expected or may not appreciate. As I ponder our sport, now and then, I believe Guy Beeman just may have had the better idea.
Thanks for reading.
Guy Beeman, “Cooning With Fanny And Jack,” in Cooning With Cooners (The Hunter-Trader-Trapper, Columbus, Ohio, 1924), 95-97.