By Clay Newcomb
The screen door creaked as I pushed it open and lifted my hand in a nuanced wave. “Hi Mr. Eldridge, my name is Clay Newcomb,” I said. My eyes locked with the bright blue, vibrant eyes of man who spent his life in the mountains. As I faced his front door, a cattle pasture was directly behind me, and about eight miles beyond the pasture was a broad vista of big Appalachian Mountains. This is where Eldridge bear hunted his whole life – in East Tennessee. He never asked for national notoriety, nor did he plan on ever getting any. I’d invited myself over at the direction of longtime bear hunter, Tracy Jones of Greenville, Tennessee. Tracy told me that Eldridge was one of the last “old time mountain bear hunters” in the region, and that he’d be worth visiting.
Bear hunters in the Appalachian Mountains hunt for themselves, their dogs and for the joy of sharing their hunts with good friends. And not to say that local notoriety isn’t shed on men with reputations of “being tough in the mountains.” There was a time when bear hunters were known as men of renown in their communities, and in some regions they still are today. And I think it would be a stretch to say that these bear hunters don’t like that, but it’s not why they do it. Or it’s at least not why Mr. Eldridge hunted. I like these kinds of places and people.
Eldridge was born in 1934 into a dairy farming family. His father was a farmer, sheriff and coonhunter named Lovejoy Cutchall. “I remember as a little boy him taking me hunting, I was scared to death when he climbed a tree and put a possum in a sack,” he said. His father was a houndsman, but they didn’t have many bear. Eldridge didn’t start bear hunting until the late 1950s when he got his first true bear dogs. “I started bear hunting when I was 21 years old. My daddy-in-law lived in Cassi and they had two Walker dogs. He told me, ‘If you want two bear dogs you better get them off of Junior,’ that’s my brother-in-law. I give him $35 for both of them and they was bear dogs.” If you aren’t familiar with the lingo, when a man like Eldridge says they’re “bear dogs,” it means they were topnotch hounds. He went on, “They were fox dogs and Walker’s crossed.” When I asked what kind of dogs people used he said, “If they would run it, they’d use’em. I didn’t care if it was a fiest if it’d run a bear.”
Devotion to a particular breed seems to go about half and half in the hound community. Some are attached to a particular type of dog, maybe because of notable characteristics of the breed or simply the nostalgia of that being the first kind they owned. In some people, breed devotion runs deep. Others don’t care at all and just want a dog that will run and tree a bear. Eldridge is the latter. However, he usually hunted Walkers. Eldridge grinned when he spoke about Barry Tarlton, who is Tracy Jones’ grandfather, he said, “Barry, he was particular. I’d get tickled at him. He didn’t want to put it in his truck if it was white.” Barry raised Plott hounds, which are dark colored, and he was talking about white Walker dogs. “He’d say, “don’t get that old white hair on my dogs.” I’d aggravate him to death, but that’s part of bear hunting. Fun. If you can’t have fun you’re better off at home,” Eldridge said. These are wise words.
Eldridge became a dairy farmer like his father, and as an entrepreneur he was his own boss, which allotted him a lot of time for hunting. “Hunting was my sport,” he said. “I like to hear them dogs run. I still do. I don’t care if I ever kill another one. I’ve killed fifty-something bear.” He went on to describe a colorful out-of-state hunt where he didn’t have a gun. The dogs bayed a bear on the ground and in effort to end the situation, he had to take swift, creative action, “I knocked it out with one of them old green liquor bottles.” It worked. The bear went down like he’d flipped a switch, however, it didn’t stay down. Eldridge continued, “I put a rope on it to drag it out and the bear come back to. I got a pole and he didn’t get up no more. I knocked it out.”
Eldridge grew up in a time period long before the pleasantries of modern GPS collars and other technologies. I asked him how he used to find a bear track, he replied, “Get a dog and hit that trail leading that dog. You’d run on a track directly. Sometimes you wouldn’t.”
Tracy asked, “What did you do after you found the track?”
Eldridge said, “Bring some more dogs and turn them all loose. You’d hear a racket then.” It’s a simplistic answer, but the distillation of a complex situation is often more simple than we make it out be. It’s clear to see the Eldridge is at the age where life is distilling down to the essentials. It was a “no fluff” answer. He went on, “GPS is cheating, because we didn’t use to have them. We went on foot.” He grinned and said, “GPS is alright.” He was kidding. “If they can use it to get in front of the bear they can kill it. You can’t beat anybody on their own land.” His insinuation was that he didn’t need a GPS to kill bear in his day – he knew the land. When I asked him about getting lost he said, “I never did worry about getting lost. If you’ll keep it pictured in your mind if you turn’d right or left, you won’t get lost. Come back the way you went. We didn’t even have a map.” It’s just that simple for man who was raised in the mountains.
I asked Eldridge what his favorite part of bear hunting was, and he gave an answer I wasn’t expecting. He said, “Listening to people talk I guess. Just being around my buddies. I miss them. I had a good bunch to hunt with.” He continued, “I wouldn’t take nothing for what I’ve learnt.” He never expounded on this, but his eyes eluded that it wasn’t just about bears and dogs, but people too. This prompted the question about what did you learn about a bear. “Be carful and watch’em. If you get one down, don’t let him up because he will hurt you. I’ve hog-shot them. I don’t know how many I’ve shot like that. If you shoot one and it don’t kill him right away they’ll almost always come toward you.” It was clear that he had a healthy respect for a bear, even though one has never hurt him.
I asked him what advice he’d give a young bear hunter; he said, “Listen. You learn by listening on a lot of stuff. Pay attention to your dogs. Because them dogs can smell that bear and you can’t.” He went on to say, “I’ve had some good dogs. Like that Walker dog, half fox hound named Rock. He’d run to catch it. If I whooped another dog, he’d bite you. He took up for his buddies.” I asked him what he looked for most in a bear dog and he said, “They’ve got to stick with it.” Tracy asked Eldridge if he thought today’s dogs or the “old time” dogs were better, Eldridge said, “The older dogs are better. They were hunted more. We don’t have enough season here. The more you hunt them the better they get.” He believed they used to hunt the dogs more so they were better, but he didn’t expound on breeding or anything else.
“The year before last I got rid of my dogs, but I’ve still got one.” I asked him if he still liked to get out to listen to dogs, “If I can get out, I listen to the dogs still.” In the closing moments of our conversation we asked him about coonhunting. He said, “I coonhunted a lot. I like a coondog. I’d use them same dogs. Them dog’s learns it. A dog is smarter than people think they are. I’ve walked from Viking down to my old home place. My dad would take us over and let us out and we’d coonhunt back. We’d get in just a little before daylight and get up and work the next day.” Tracy told me the coonhunt he described was many rough Appalachian miles. What father would let his kids to something like that today? I hope there are lots. Difficulty and challenge helps make resilient men. Today, many parents spend too much time trying to take the difficulty out of their children’s life, but that’s just my opinion.
In closing Tracy said, “Eldridge was the real deal. He knew what he was doing and he did it. He was raised in the mountains so what other people would consider to be extraordinary, they would have viewed as normal.” He said, “I believe the average person, if they followed a man like Eldridge Cutchall, Layman Rice, or another man I knew by the name of Carson Landers, and other men that I could name who were exceptionally hard goers in the mountains, if they followed for them a day I believe they would come away understanding that these were extraordinary men.” When I asked Tracy why it’s important to remember these old mountain hunters he said, “The only thing that makes life worth living is for some things to be sacred. And I think part of the sacredness of life is honoring your elders.” We had a great visit with Eldridge. Tracy said, “One of the difficult things about being middle aged is the men that you grew up with, and that you respected, some of them have passed away and some of them are near that place, and you’re finally old enough realize what a privilege it was to grow up with those kinds of men. Those kind of men are scarce in our society.” All I’ve got to say that is – long live the mountain bear hunters and the wild places they roam.
Mr. Eldridge died not long after this article was written. He was a legendary man and we are honored to give a hat tip to him.