Old Limber: The Foxhound Tale That Once Helped Elect a Governor

Last May, I spoke at the 2005 International Country Music Conference in Nashville where I met Dr. Bob Taylor, a retired history professor at Middle Tennessee State University and a grandson of Alf Taylor, former governor of Tennessee.

In 1886, the Taylor brothers, Bob and Alf, competed against each other in one of the most unusual political campaigns ever to transpire in the state.

 I related to Bob that my great uncle, Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman, a member of a string band known as the Hill Billies, made a unique 78-rpm record in 1926. “Governor Alf Taylor’s Fox Hunt” was recorded in New York on the jointly owned Vocalion and Brunswick labels. The composition depicts a fox chase on Buffalo Mountain with Alf; four sons; his favorite hunting dog, Old Limber; and a friend, Ben Jenkins, with his dog, Old Zeke.

Al Hopkins narrates the pursuit; Charlie fiddles, imitating Uncle Alf, himself a fiddler, and the barking of the two dogs. Throughout the record, Al instructs Uncle Alf (Charlie) to “have a little tune” each time the dogs run out of hearing range. The recording concludes with Old Limber catching a red fox and Old Zeke seizing a rabbit.

Bob later wrote me a letter: “Thank you for introducing me to the remarkable music of your great-uncle Charlie Bowman. “I learn from it that my grandfather, Alf Taylor, and Charlie Bowman are quaintly yoked by ‘Old Limber,’ the storied Tennessee foxhound. Our forbears collaborated in spreading Limber’s little legend.” Dr. Taylor noted that Bob served three times as governor and was a state senator at the time of his death in 1912. Alf won the governorship in 1920 with help from the still lingering appeal of his deceased brother.

The retired educator further commented: “In his first gubernatorial race in 1886, Bob had defeated his brother Alf in what became known as ‘Tennessee’s War of the Roses.’ In 1920, Tennessee Democrats were the majority party, but they were divided on issues, menaced by a national Republican tide and burdened by an unpopular tax that infuriated the farmers.”

Bob explained that Alf and his wife, Jennie, once lived near Buffalo Creek, adjacent to Milligan College in Carter County, maintaining a farm on the Nolichucky River. Bob offered a colorful depiction of his famous grandfather: “He was a farmer, public lecturer, and story-teller of energy and artfulness. His voice was a rich baritone. He was short and stout.  He was also a fiddler and a hilltopper (in his case, an unmounted hunter of foxes).”

Bob then unfolded the Old Limber myth: “As Alf Taylor saw it, his chief obstacle to winning the governorship was his age.  He was seventy-two years old. His stratagem for assailing the age issue was predictable. He would construct a myth. The myth would revolve about Old Limber, an aging Walker hound from his sons’ substantial pack. Old Limber was approximately age six at the time. His name was further accentuated by the Old Limber Quartet (often spelled “Quartette”), comprised of three sons (Nat, Alf, Jr., and Dave) and their friend Bob Wardrep.  The Old Limber myth differed from telling to telling, year to year.  It was studded with superlatives, digressions, and humorous exaggerations. 

“Alf Taylor believed that Limber was ‘the greatest dog that ever lived.’  His sons’ dogs pursued ‘the finest runners on American soil.’ The tall tale would be told from political platforms and before service clubs. It was sometimes coupled with the promotion of Henry Ford’s doomed bidto lease dams and purchase nitrate plants in the Muscle Shoals area, a project Taylor believed would deliver cheap power and fertilizer to Tennesseans.”

Bob alleged that in 1922 a stenographer from a Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, recorded the only complete printed version of the myth: “It was set in or near Carter County, although Old Limber’s hunting territory also touched other East Tennessee counties, especially Washington. When the other dogs ‘heard and recognized the voice of Old Limber it took two men to hold each dog. (Laughter.)’ Old Limber led the pack of thirty-two Walker hounds during the last three hours of the chase, which culminated in Happy Valley (Carter County). Alf indicated that, in the past and in a manner of speaking, he had followed the pack on foot and boasted that he ‘could break down any boy (of his seven surviving sons) I have behind this pack of Walker dogs after a red fox and have done it a hundred times in the Appalachian Mountains.  So get it out of your heads that I am too old to be governor of Tennessee.’ 

 “Alf Taylor was elected governor in 1920, assisted perhaps by the Old Limber myth.  Old Limber’s apparent magic could not be rekindled during the 1922 campaign: a national tide (fueled by a devastating recession) had turned against incumbent Republicans, the tax law had not been changed sufficiently, and Alf Taylor had his own party’s factions to contend against. Furthermore, the opposition press was attacking both the governor and his dog. Austin Peay defeated Alf Taylor soundly. But Limber had inspired a small stirring in the popular arts. J.E. Wallace sculpted a statue of him (and a bust of Alf Taylor) out of Belle Meade Butter Company butter. The statue was exhibited at the Tennessee State Fair in 1921, and its photograph is preserved on a post card.  A painting of Limber hung in the capitol during Alf Taylor’s tenure.”

Bob said that Alf and the Old Limber Quartet went to New York in 1924 and made a record for the Victor label, possibly being an abbreviated version of their campaign routine: “The Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, has an original. On it, the former governor, employing his gift and taste for vivid detail, introduces the Quartet. He declares that the spirituals they would sing (‘Pharaoh’s Army Got Drownded’ and ‘Brother Noah Built an Ark’) were learned from hearing the master of the hounds (probably an African American named Ace Harding) around the foxhunt campfires. He only refers to Limber and does not recount the hunt story.”

Bob credits Charlie Bowman for furthering the foxhound myth: “Apparently, the composing talents of your great-uncle Charlie Bowman, of Washington County, then embellished the Old Limber myth by setting it to fiddle music. It thus appears that music was as much a part of the Old Limber myth as the hounds themselves. Music, Alf Taylor, and Limber himself were given immediacy and durability by the recording devices, which by the mid-1920s were obviously attracting southern performers. When a concrete walk was poured in front of Alf Taylor’s Milligan home, Old Limber’s prints were embedded and enshrined with the inscription: ‘Old Limber’s tracks—age nine years—Nov. 2, 1923.’

“Milligan College subsequently acquired the adjacent Taylor property.  Weather had eroded the walkway inscription and tracks substantially, but an heroic preservation effort–led by Clarinda Jeanes, the college’s first lady, and Clinton Holloway, a Milligan alumnus–saved the home and the part of the walkway containing Old Limber’s tracks, which remain on display.”

I find it especially enthralling when two individuals can bring two separate historical events together and weave them into one. Alf Taylor’s Old Limber myth should be remembered in East Tennessee history as the foxhound that helped elect a governor.