By John Jackson
As seen in the Jan/Feb 2018 Issue of Bear Hunting Magazine!
In June 1980, I found myself in the scales room of the Franklin Stone Company. There, I stepped back in time and listened, heart and soul, to tales of Plott dogs from long ago trailing, fighting, treeing and baying bears. I entered into this distant past through the stories the individual whom I had come to interview- storied, old-time, mountain bear and hog hunter, H.T. Crockett. It was there I became acquainted with a dog I had never known or seen in action. He had long been dead, tucked away somewhere in the red clay of Macon County, North Carolina. He was Crockett’s Leo, an astounding, multi-talented hunting dog if there ever was. Shaking a tree limb was his owner’s command to hunt squirrels. Showing him a hog track saying, “So-eee hog” constituted an order to go for pork. Simply pointing to bear sign and sic’ing him meant, “Old Boy, go get ‘im.”
There were other attributes Leo demonstrated as well. When releasing him among several head of boar unpenned to feed on standing corn, Leo proved as talented as any herding dog. In fact, Crockett was certain his Plott could count hogs. Leo would mill among them in their lot, and then suddenly bolt out the gate. In a few moments, a missing shoat would squeal, spring from hiding, and make for the enclosure with Leo close behind.
Canine intelligence par excellence, wouldn’t one say? Most certainly this was a proven mark of several old-time strains of mountain Plotts. Leo was a prime example. They were smart critters who unfortunately disappeared long ago in the annals of bear dog history.
Crockett freely admitted that Leo was among his best, but not the very best he ever kenneled, however. A Plott named Red held that distinction. But Leo was among his better dogs and certainly the most unique. Long before registration, Leo and others like him were iron-willed hunting dogs of Southern Appalachia whose main claim to fame existed in the number of bear hides tacked to the smokehouse wall. Old Leo was a good one and a legendary bear dog for sure.
Leo was owned and hunted by Howe Taylor Crockett, Sr., a man with three last names, as one admirer was to say. Born in Stoney Point, Tennessee, his father was Stuart R. Crockett, a Presbyterian minister and former World War I Army chaplain. At an early age, Crockett moved with his mother and siblings to Black Mountain, North Carolina, possibly while his father was in service. Later, the family moved to Waynesville, North Carolina where Crockett as a young adult became acquainted with the Plott bear hunting family. A final move found him at Franklin, North Carolina where his father established an orphanage for boys.
It was during his short stay at Black Mountain that Crockett became enamored with things of the wild. He met and was befriended by an elderly mountaineer - a hunter, name unknown- who taught him how to hunt, trap, fish, camp, collect herbs, dig ginseng, peel tree bark, sleep in leaf piles, and other necessary skills of the outdoors. Together they roamed the high peaks of the Black Range. It was an education for Crockett, ensuring a lifelong attraction to and love for Mother Nature. He was remarkably intelligent and could have followed practically any career he desired, but he never could fully extract himself for the tall trees, clear streams, rhododendron hells, high mountain balds, and deep hollows of lower Appalachia. And, he and the greatest respect for the branchwater mountaineers who called this place home- a respect for their lifestyle, their folkways, and more and yes, their hunting skills. They were his heroes, and he thought as much of their dogs as he did them.
I felt like a modern-day Moses when I first met him. Surely, I must remove my shoes for I was treading on holy ground. I have never known another individual who knew more about bear hunting, Plott dogs, and Plott history. And, I have never met another individual who loved hunting more than Taylor Crockett, like many mountain bear hunters, he has his share of good dogs, but Leo undoubtedly was one of a kind.
The complete story of Leo goes back even before his birth. Crockett was hunting heavily; World War II had begun, and he must surely have realized that his time in uniform was rapidly approaching. At every opportunity, he released his Plott dogs on bear and hogs, and they were accumulating a most enviable record. Two in particular, largely of the Ferguson and Cable bloodlines, has participated in fifty-four hog kills alone. These, joined by a Martin strain bitch (already heavy with pup) and an eight month-old Evans Plott, accompanied him one fall day as hunted the Cowee Mountains not far from his Macon County home. On that particular hunt, hog sign was abundant. Rubbings indicated there were numerous hogs in the vicinity, and tusk marks high on the sides of trees showed there had been a massive boar with them.
Crockett was alone with his four Plotts. They hunted all day and found nothing fresh. He did notice, however, his young Evans pup making every effort to find a warm track. He was twigging huckleberry bushes and licking hog tracks, often sticking his nose in successive footprint in an effort to recover some vestige of scent.
Though certainly impressed with the young dog’s efforts, Crockett came to the conclusion that there was nothing to run that day. He left his young Plott to himself and started climbing a steep ridge on his way back to his truck. I remember vividly his recounting of the story: “I thought to myself, “Well if that’s all he can do, he’ll come on.” It was getting dark, and I needed to get back before nightfall.”
Much to his amazement when about halfway up the ridge, he heard the Evans pup bayed. The three other dogs raced down the mountainside to join their pack mate. Crockett ran as well; he was in excellent physical condition, having played football at McCallie School and Weaver College. The Evans Plott had a huge boar by the ear, and the hog was trouncing him up and down like beating a large bass drum. By the time he was within shooting range, the hog had already cut down the three adult dogs and was vigorously working the youngest. Crockett knelt on one knee and shot, hearing the bullet strike the hog- “ca-plunk.”
Racing to make up the distance, he saw the large boar jerk away from the young Plott and make straight for him. In steadying himself to get a good shot, he unfortunately tripped backwards over a small stump. Climbing to all fours, he was looking straight into the eyes of a mad Russian boar! It was not a pleasant predicament to be in; the hog was definitely angry and was foaming blood at the mouth. He was lung shot. Still clutching his rifle, Crockett raised it with one hand and shot at point blank range as the maddened hog peered down at him. It was truly a close call, but the young dog’s performance convinced him beyond all doubt that he needed to investigate the Evans strain more fully.
World War I forestalled immediate plans, however. Drafted into service, he saw action in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He was awarded the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, serving as a machine gunner in Gen. George S. Patton’s Seventh Army.
Returning from service, he determined to take up where he had left off. The Ferguson Boss and Tige bred dogs he had left in the care of others were killed by big game or were lost, so he turned his attention more steadfastly to the Evans strain. Incidentally, the young Plott that had so impressed him previously had been shot by an irate neighbor. Crockett learned of this while in service, saw red, and resolved upon returning home to give the culprit a sound beating- that is until he learned, after confronting him, that the accused had lost a son in the war. Walking away, his anger had melted like an ice cube on a sidewalk in the hottest August weather.
But, there were other Evans dogs to be had perhaps, and, in fact, Crockett set about finding and preserving the oldest Plott strains he might locate. The old-time Plotts were quickly disappearing, fast becoming a thing of the past. Several of the purer strains were already gone, and many of the older types had been outcrossed with other breeds. On one hunt, for example, Gola Ferguson, long acclaimed as the Plott Hound Apostle, advised Crockett, saying, “You better take a good look at that dog. He’s probably the fullest Plott you’ll ever see.”
He was disillusioned, however, to learn that the Evans Plotts were largely gone. A rabies epidemic had raged through the region, and many fine dogs had been destroyed. Crockett did locate some close breeding owned by Paul’s Cheeks, a great-grandson of the family’s patriarch. Cheeks befriended Crockett and gave him three littermate pups, one of whom was Leo. The trio was largely Evans-bred with a touch of Cable breeding interspersed. Leo, the male of the three, became Crockett’s main bear dog and pack leader.
Leo’s ancestry goes all the way back to the Plott family’s Haywood County doorstep- those credited with founding the breed we know today. Thomas Clingman Phillips, patriarch of the Clay County, North Carolina Evans, Cheeks, and Phillips families, moved from Caney Fork in Jackson County in the 1870s to Downing Creek in Clay County. Crockett often interposed the names Evans or Phillips in describing these Plotts; the Evans’, Phillips, and Cheeks were part and parcel of a larger family.
Clay County was a wilderness then, and Phillips carried everything he could transport in a single covered wagon. His livestock was driven or followed which included cattle and horses, pigs and poultry, and yes, Plott bear dogs. The trip took three days, and even in recent times, members of the family continued to recount where the Phillips entourage camped each night. Phillips’ Plotts were highly prized, obtained from family members back in Haywood- the Evans’, Rhineharts, Wilsons, and Edwards’, all of whom could trace their dogs back to the Plotts.
Old Man Tom Phillips was mighty particular about his Plotts and vouched that the family “couldn’t have made it” without his dogs. Downing Creek and the adjoining Tusquitee region were virtual frontiers, the haunts of bears, mountain lions, wolves, and assorted smaller game, all of which might play havoc with a family’s herds and flocks. So great pains were undertaken to preserve their dogs’ purity and intensity.
As proof of this, Phillips never outcrossed to another strain or breed. He always rode horseback to Haywood to breed his bitches to Plott studs. He continued these pilgrimages until he was old and feeble. Then he inbred. Over time, litters became smaller, and the family’s dogs became high strung and angrily disposed. Finally, in the mid-to-late 1920’s, apparently after Phillips’ passing, the family made the first outcross to a spotted dog hailing from Licklog, Georgia. This was a development contrary to long-standing practice, and ensured that the dog in question would long be affectionately remembered as “Old Dillard.”
Crockett was cutting timber when Cheeks presented him with the three pups; and in taking them to camp with him, they were afforded the luxury of running loose, exploring the countryside, and undergoing the inquisitive stage that characterizes practically all young hounds. When a stray squirrel dog arrived in camp, things changed radically. The foursome came to treeing squirrels left and right, permitting their hunting instincts to fully blossom. The pups were getting a free, first-class education.
Leo graduated from squirrels to lead raccoons to hogs to bears. Actually, Crockett didn’t want his prize dog to “fool” with raccoons all that much. Why tree a raccoon when one might run and tree a bear? Leo was to be a big game dog, and that was what mattered.
He was tremendously gritty, as many Plotts were in that day and time. In fact, Leo was too aggressive, and Crockett had to deal with him sternly on occasion. When it came to bear hunting, Leo would “wade right in” to the fray of a bayed-up bruin and even exhibited, while young, the undesirable trait of biting off a caught hog’s ears. It took Crockett some time to finally break him of this. In his prime, he could whip any dog twice his size- Plotts carried grudges, Crockett was to explain- and any long-haired or shaggy canine was a prime target.
One mustn’t assume that Leo and his littermates were just plain skillet lickers- crossed-up dogs with no indication whatsoever of breeding purity. Although inbred, they sprang from some of the finest hunting stock available. Dan and Dina II were their sire and dam. These two sprang from Churn and Trim. Churn was out of Watch and Dinah I, and Trim was out of Clint and Pat.
Leo figured predominantly on the hunting stage in the late 50s and early 60s. The later decade witnessed a phenomenal increase in the Plott’s popularity, largely due to the interest of coon hunters who were participating in organized wild coon hunts and registration agencies and coon clubs, which were hosting them. Accompanying this was an equally fervent interest in single registration efforts.
Crockett, at that time, was not interested in registering his dogs, maintaining that registration papers never treed a bear! However, others were. A fine specimen like Leo needed too be added to the breed’s studbook. Frank Townley of Covington, Georgia, and early proponent of the breed and mover in Plott circles, visited Crockett, convinced him of the wisdom of having Leo registered and did a lot of “legwork in securing the dog's registration. His efforts culminated in a sworn affidavit attesting to Leo’s purity as a Plott hound, sworn to and signed by Paul's Cheeks, which led to his registration by the United Kennel Club.
Townley went even further, interviewing Ray Evans of the extended Phillips family and ascertaining characteristics and attributes, which identified the strain. Dogs appearing in Leo’s three generation pedigree were described in such terms as “good on coon and bear, day or night,” “extra good tree dog,” “good from strike to the tree, in company or alone,” and “good on coon, bear and hog.”
For most anyone, Leo would have been the dog of a lifetime. Plotts of his caliber didn’t coma long all that frequently. Crockett was certainly aware of his talents and used him extensively in his breeding program.
Littermates Crockett’s Boss and Crockett’s Rusty, Leo X June, are classic examples.
Boss was a “one man wrecking crew!” Extremely aggressive if not suicidal, he tried in every way to catch and hold a bear- determined not to let go. It is remarkable that he lived as long as he did, reaching the ripe old age of eleven. His fighting style, however, eventually led to his death. After his last bear bay, he survived but later died at Crockett’s residence apparently from internal injuries.
Rusty, a beautiful fawn buckskin, employed a baying style exactly the opposite. He was constantly dashing in and out, escaping the bear’s aggressive moves but quickly returning to nip and “pull hair.” Crockett affectionately wrote on the back of one of Rusty’s old photographs: “Taylor Crockett and his Plott bear dog, Rusty- a master strike dog on bear and boar, 1960.”
Crockett’s Sye or Kidd’s Sue- sometimes Old Susie- was out of Leo and a female named Bue (that’s correct, Bue). Interestingly, Bue was from Arwood’s Big Ruff and Crockett’s Queen. Ruff came from Arwood’s Rascal who went back to a remarkable tree dog affectionately called “The Poker Jones Dog.” Queen was a cable-bred dog. The Cables, originally from lower Swain County, NC, frequently tried, with limited success, to make coon dogs from bear dogs, especially at an advanced age. Once while visiting the Cables, Crockett saw Queen sunning comfortably in the front yard. Jesse Cable, the family patriarch, was heard to remark, “I don’t know what we’re going to do with that old bitch, she treed another bear last night!”
Sue was bred to her sire, Leo, by Isaiah Kidd. Kidd, from Sink’s Grove, West Virginia, was both a bear hunter and a coon hunter. The resultant litter was remarkable in that when released with their mother for a cornfield coon race, they split treed with each of two groups of pups treeing their own raccoon.
Crockett’s Greyboy was a truly fascinating, gray brindle Plott down from Boss and Crockett’s Sue. Greyboy would have Leo as both a maternal and paternal grandsire. Once while on a hunt, Greyboy was cut down and lay wounded in a rough terrain overnight. The next day, Sue his dam, led Crockett to him. Running fifty or seventy-five feet ahead and then returning to Crockett’s side, she led her master to an injured Greyboy.
Looking back, evidence of Leo’s apparent ability to positively stamp his offspring and descendants can be found in many of the pedigrees of Crockett’s early dogs. As a legendary bear dog, he exerted a profound influence upon the Crockett bloodline, and for all intents and purposes, was the fountainhead of the Crockett strain. When I obtained my first Crockett dogs February 13, 1983, sure enough Old Leo was found in the distant columns of their registration papers.