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James Parnell has been coming to the Grand American Hunt and Show since 1971.

He wouldn’t miss it for the world.

"We just enjoy coming down here to get together with them," Parnell said. "There are a lot of hunters we know through the years from different states that we don't ever get to see."

Parnell is joining thousands of others this weekend for the 54th annual Grand American Coon Hunt. The event is held at the Orangeburg County Fairgrounds.

He says he tries to arrive at the Grand American early in order to set up his tent and his trailer to sell his “Carolina Curs.”

Being early is key, the 72-year-old said.

"You’ve got to get in line to get up here to get a place," he said. "We’ve got a man who stays here when they open up and marks our space. This is where people look for us."

Parnell has been breeding dogs for others for years, but he wanted a dog that would hunt squirrels. He brought two breeds together, and in 1998, the first litter of the Carolina Curs was born.

"They are small dogs," Parnell said. "They make an excellent tree dog."

His friend, Sam Truesdale, has been helping Parnell for the past five decades at the Grand American. Truesdale says nothing can keep him away from what some have called the Super Bowl of hunts.

"I drove from Kershaw down here. One year, the snow was so deep it took us three hours to get here," he said. "My wife said, 'You are not going.’ I said, ‘You better get in the truck because I am going to the Grand American.’"

Truesdale and Parnell did not quite know what to expect in the beginning.

"We could not find a room," Truesdale said. "We slept in a truck all night down here."

He says now they reserve a hotel well in advance.

"We love it," Truesdale said. "I probably will come until I die."

The Grand American Coon Hunt typically draws between 27,000 and 30,000 visitors, 800 dog-owner participants and 100 vendors.

The nationally-known outing features skilled hounds from across the country. It is not unusual to see cars and trucks sporting license tags from New York, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Indiana, New Jersey and Connecticut here the weekend of the hunt.

North Carolina resident Larry Wishon has been coming to the Grand American Hunt and Show for the past 25 years. He has hunted at the Grand American in the past but now mostly enjoys the ambiance and camaraderie.

"It is about the big crowd," Wishon said. "I just come down to see everybody and talk to people."

He says he goes to a number of hunts throughout the country where he gets to meet up with friends he has met from other hunts, including the one in Orangeburg.

"It has changed a lot over the years," Wishon said. "It is one of the biggest hunts there is around as far as crowds and all. It is the first one of the year, you know."

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He said there are more vendors showcasing their wares than there used to be, but there has been one constant about the Grand American.

"It has always been a big hunt over the years," Wishon said. "It is bigger than any world hunt you might want to go to."

Glenn Helterbrand has been attending the Grand American with his wife, May, for the past decade. The Hillsboro, Ohio couple sell Super Star Lights, box pads and a number of other hunting supplies.

"We like the area and we like the people, and it is a good show," Glenn said. "We go everywhere."

May said the people are the main reason they keep coming back to the Grand American.

"The people who coon hunt and deer hunt and hunt with dogs are a different breed of people," she said. "They are kind. They are generous. They watch out for everybody else. They are down to earth."

May also praised the Orangeburg community.

"They are real nice," she said. "They are generous as well."

The couple will go to other hunts across the country.

"From here on out until October, you can go to a hunt every weekend where you hunt with dogs," May said.

This is the 19th year that Rodney Ridenhour of Albemarle, North Carolina, has come to the Orangeburg hunt to sell T-shirts and Grand American memorabilia.

"The most unusual thing I have ever seen at the Grand American... . I was standing there, and this lady was talking to me and something was grabbing my britches leg," Ridenhour said.

"I didn't know what it was, and it was a coon. It was a raccoon. She had that thing on a leash and she led it all over the fairgrounds. Didn't a coon dog even bark at it at a coon hunt,” he said.

Ridenhour said he travels to hunting events like some people travel to NASCAR races.

"This is the Grand American. This is the biggest one. That is why they call it that,” he said.

The Grand American kicked off Thursday afternoon with Coon Fest, featuring food, entertainment and door prizes.

Opening ceremonies begin at 10 a.m. Friday morning in the Bates Building at the fairgrounds.

The Grand American got its start in the 1960s when prominent coon hunters searched for a hunt in a warmer climate because snow prevented much winter hunting in the North.

A panel of national competition hunters was formed, including some hunters from The T&D Region.

One of its members, Jim Mathis of Denmark, met with the newly formed Orangeburg Coon Hunters Association’s president, Lynn Anderson, who agreed to have the initial hunt in Orangeburg.

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Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Follow on Twitter @ZaleskiTD.

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