The late Ralph McGill (1898-1969) is one of my favorite newspaper writers of yesteryear because of his history focus on the South. The Vanderbilt graduate was winner of the “Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing” while working for the Atlanta Constitution, authoring several books, including one humorously titled, “The Fleas Come With the Dog.”
In 1928, the former WWI Marine received a formal written invitation to attend Alf Taylor's 80th birthday foxhunt celebration in the Happy Valley community of Carter County, Tennessee.
According to one of Ralph's editorials, titled “Foxhounds and Politics,” from a 1963 Toledo Blade newspaper, he told of being offered two foxhounds from a man whose job was transferring him from a spacious farm in the country to a cramped apartment in a large city.
“I had to say no to him,” said Ralph, “although I yearned to have them. But a city is no place for trained hounds where they will be lying around the house all day and looking up hopefully and accusingly when you come home each night.
“There is something about a hound. His footprint has been alongside man's as they came over the rim of the new world into recorded history. He and the fox were a part of the ritual of the Druids (a priestly class among the Celtic peoples of Gaul, Britain, Ireland, and possibly elsewhere during the Iron Age). There has been a ritual of hunting of the fox ever since.”
That special day, the Chattanooga native saw the greatest display of foxhounds ever assembled anywhere. Alf was a mighty hunter and in his day had been a great blower of fox horns, being able to launch a blast back into the deep hollows and valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Alf Taylor and His Favorite Hunting Canine, Old Limber
Alf had campaigned for governor of Tennessee in 1920. By his side was often his favorite hound that he usually had near him when he gave speeches. His four-legged companion, which he affectionately named “Old Limber,” became a symbol of his political campaign.
Early in the morning of Alf's birthday on a great high ridge in the Smokies, the fox hunters of East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and Virginia, assembled with their hound dogs. The aroma of meat was cooking over barbecue pits, along with a stew of squirrels and gat hens with dumplings being prepared in a large iron pot. More than 400 foxhounds were assembled there that morning.
“Loose them, gentlemen,” said Alf as the guest of honor. The eager hounds, minus the aging limber who stayed with his master, went spilling down and along the slopes.” Included was a mixture of black, white, tan and liver-spotted dogs that consisted of Walkers, Julies, Red Bones and Trigs. McGill described it as a sight to behold. The former governor sat close to other old hunters who talked about their dogs from many years of hunting.
McGill spent occasional nights at the Taylor house, sitting there on the wide, screened porch and talking politics with Alf who was a Republican. His late brother, Bob, who was more mercurial than Alf and also a fiddler of great renown was a Democrat.
In 1886, the brothers opposed each other in a friendly election for the governorship of Tennessee. Their mother sent them off together in a buggy after pinning a white rose on Bob and a red rose on Alf. The race was called “The War of the Roses,” named after the old English wars that occurred between York and Lancaster.
Bob reveled in practical jokes. Once, while Bob and Alf were staying as guests at the mountainous home of an old Republican and his wife, the crafty Bob, usually a late sleeper, awakened before dawn, dressed, slipped into the barn, milked the cows, fed the animals and had coffee brewed by the time the hosts arose from their slumber.
“Don't wake my brother,” he told them. “He likes to have his breakfast in bed. I'll carry it to him as soon as he awakes.” The farmer chewed that bitter cud for a few painful minutes and finally spoke: “Breakfast in bed?,” he said. “I never thought I would vote for a Democrat, but I'll be danged if I could ever vote for a man who eats in bed.”
Bob won the election with a close vote. Alf would become governor in 1920 for one term. Ralph noted that visions of the 1928 foxhunt still reverberated in his heart: Alf's laughter, campaign speeches and images of Old Limber resting at his master's feet while a cast of 400 canines eagerly performed on the grandiose, magnificent stage of the Great Smoky Mountains.