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Grand American Bench Show

The Saturday morning bench show, including one for children, is a Grand American favorite. It gets underway at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Orangeburg County Fairgrounds. The treeing contests are scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

No one can really say when it all began in earnest, but coon hunting has been a staple of families since the pioneer days.

Raccoons have long been hunted for their valuable fur and tasty meet. A large part of Indian diet was raccoon, especially when big game was lacking, and barbecued raccoon was a special dish served during festive occasions in the rural farmlands and plantations in the past.

The first coon dogs were foxhounds brought from Europe to chase red foxes for sport in the Americas. These dogs proved inadequate for game that could climb into trees like bears, cougars and raccoons. These foxhounds were crossed with other varieties such as bloodhounds to give them better noses. Some, like the black mouth cur, became the plot cur, now considered a special breed by the AKC and renamed the Plott hound.

Other dog breeds that have come into their own for raccoon hunting include the Black and Tan, the Bluetick, American English, Redbone and the Treeing Walker. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but don’t tell their owners that.

Before World War II, competition among coon hunters was limited to field trials. Dogs competed in water races, treeing contests and drag races. In the distant past of the 1800s, the raccoon skins often served as a way to make a living. I have a close friend whose grandfather paid for their farm in the 1920s by hunting and trapping raccoons.

After the beginning of the 20th century, this commerce became very popular due to the popularity of “automobile coats” made of raccoon hides. Wearing a coon coat was considered a status symbol among college students.

In the 1946 season, about a million animals were taken. In 1962 about 2 million and in 1976 about 5 million pelts were taken. During the 1980s, the bag dropped to about 4 million and raccoon skin prices dropped to the point that only .9 million hides were taken for sale per year in the ‘90s.

With the decrease in hunting, the coon populations skyrocketed to the point that the little animals have become a nuisance. As a result, coon-hunting competitions have become very popular and are a multimillion-dollar industry.

Due to the popularity of the sport, there are many associations. The American Coon Hunters Association was formed in the ‘40s. It sanctions the longest-running “World Hunt” or The ACHA World Championship. Soon after the consolidation of the ACHA, the Grand American Coon Hunt came to be.

This year’s edition will be the 52nd. It all began in the 1960s when a few local hunters wanted to form a competition for Southern hunters that mirrored the competitions in other parts of the country.

Orangeburg was picked because of its central location. The event has grown to the point that 30,000 people visit the event yearly and it is now called the “Super Bowl” of coon hunting. It has been a blessing for our community and an economic boom for the local economy.

The event opens its doors at the Orangeburg County Fairgrounds the first full weekend in January. The United Kennel Club, American Cooner magazine and local clubs sponsor the Grand American. Admission is free and the event is family oriented, featuring a weekend of vending, dogs and puppies sales, and dog shows and competition.

340 dogs hunt each night with four dogs to a cast. Dogs that win their cast Friday and Saturday night will qualify for a cumulative points total. The cumulative points total is determined by the dog’s ability to strike, track and tree a raccoon. The raccoons are not shot or molested in any way and left in the tree. The four dogs with the highest totals will hunt a second time Saturday night to determine a Grand American winner.

This event has become a mainstay for the Orangeburg area economy and is a big boost for local businesses -- along with South Carolina State University football. I can only suggest that those who haven’t taken in the event before do so this year. Please welcome these folks to our town when you see them out spending in our restaurants and hotels.

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Dr. John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.

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