Remembering the coon hunters

Published 11:06 am Wednesday, December 21, 2011

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

It’s winter. Some men show up at our farm in a pickup truck. Their voices are strange and of an unknown inflection.

They’ve come from the mountains of Virginia, Tazewell and Buchanan counties, and the towns of Tazewell and Richlands. I do not yet know where those places are. The limit of my mental horizon to the west is Courtland.

How they found their way to our farm is a mystery.

The men have somehow learned that my brother hunts coons in the woods around our farm and keeps coon dogs. The men have brought a couple of their dogs as well, and they’ve made arrangements to go hunting on our farm. We are pleased to have visitors; not many come our way, especially from a distance.

They bring stories. They’re coal miners and bring descriptions of mountains and barren forests.

Hunting has almost eliminated the natural supply of raccoons in their woods, and they have come to capture some wild animals, with the idea of restocking their woods.

Along with stories, they bring carbide lamps, a stock in trade for miners and completely new and magical to me.

The lamp has two compartments, top and bottom; water goes in the top and some lumps of carbide go into the bottom. A lever on top controls the rate at which water drips into the bottom. Water and carbide chemically combine and give off a flammable gas that is vented through a nozzle in front of a reflector. At the bottom of the reflector is a flint, cigarette lighter like mechanism that sparks and ignites the gas as it exits the small nozzle.

The light is bright and the lamp burns with a hissing sound.

The men have two sizes of these amazing contraptions. They will use them for light when they trek through the woods, following the dogs.

After dark, we (I’ve done enough begging) set off to a small branch that drains the fields close by our house. They set loose the dogs and we all stand around listening. There’s a lot of standing around and listening in coon hunting.

The atmosphere is quiet, conversation is hushed, while the dogs search for the familiar smell. An occasional yelp is heard in the distance, and one of the men remarks, “That’s old ____.” Others agree and we get back to standing and listening.

There is a moon tonight. It’s surprising what you can see with just moon and starlight. The carbide lamps are dark while we stand. Conservation of fuel, I guess. I like it when they are lighted. The men have a supply of carbide and will use water from streams to refuel if necessary.

It’s not long before a longer, more frequent yelp, then many yelps is heard and the men comment that old “____” has found a trail. We move off through the woods in the direction of the barking, stopping periodically to listen for distant announcements. It doesn’t take long. Old “____” has treed something. Our pace quickens; briars tear at my legs and arms, but the pace doesn’t slow.

We find the dogs barking wildly at a tree base.

Nothing is immediately visible in the branches high above our heads. The dogs are insistent that something is up there. A few minutes later, two small beads of reflected light show out on a small limb. The dogs are gathered and held at bay until the quarry can be knocked out of its perch. Then one dog will be let loose to hold the animal until the men can put it into a burlap bag. Everyone is keen to not harm the game.

I stand in awe. I’ve never seen a raccoon captured alive.

One of the men quickly shinnies up the tree and with a small stick works the scared raccoon loose from its hold. It falls to the ground and is immediately set upon by the chosen dog. Other men quickly crowd around, and with gloves and sheer will, manage to get the coon into the bag. Big sound of happiness and relief from all assembled. I’m still awestruck by the spectacle.

All the dogs are gathered and we return to our house. Sleep is not elusive. All that standing around and listening is tiring.

The men stay in the neighborhood for several days and hunt every night at different locations, caging what they catch for restocking the mountains. They eat with us several times and when they leave for their homes, they leave their magical carbide lanterns with us as gifts.

Six miles high, I look down at the mountains of Tazewell and Buchanan counties, and I am once again in the woods, standing and listening for the bay of the hounds on a cold, moonlit night. I am home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at