The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Grandpa Joe's Cold Trail Hounds

By Gary Brown © 1987

Issue: July, 1987

Not many people can come down to Texas and beat these locals at telling tall tales, but my Grandpa Joe did it right after the war. Not only did he spin a classic yarn, but he sold the local prison warden two black and tan Rockingham County, Virginia, bloodhounds that sired the line of what is now the K–9 Corps of the state prison system.

Grandpa Joe was born in Rockingham County in 1891 and I don't think he ever left the mountains until World War II. A widower, he moved to Freeport, Texas in 1942 to be with my mother while my father was stationed in Laredo. His wooden leg kept him from military service, but he worked as a civilian security guard at the Dow Chemical plant until the war ended.

By then his health was failing and he never returned to Virginia. He died in 1947, but he never stopped being a mountain man even here in the flat, almost treeless Brazoria County on the Texas Gulf Coast.

When he left Virginia in 1942, he packed all of his belongings in a single suitcase, crated his two "bloods," and moved to Texas by train. Bloodhounds weren't used too much down here since you could see for miles most anywhere, but Grandpa kept his dogs because they reminded him of home.

By the end of the war, his health was bad and he would sit with the old–timers outside the Velasco Grocery and Ice House in the afternoons with his two hounds at his side and swapping stories with the locals.

Not surprisingly, the stories would get more exotic with each telling. Although I was too young to remember that period, I know that some of those stories are still around: an armadillo that could point quail or the chicken found stuffed in a Pepsi bottle after the last hurricane.

Like I said, bloodhounds weren't real common down here because of the terrain. Brazoria County has a large state prison farm, however, and one day the warden stopped by the ice house and joined the group sitting out front.

Now, the warden had a reputation for telling some real whoppers himself, but this day he was serious. He wanted to develop a group of really good bloodhounds to track escapees and field convicts, he told Grandpa, and he might be interested in buying the two black and tans. He leaned back and asked Grandpa just how good of trackers his two bloodhounds were.

Grandpa thought awhile before he spoke. "There are two types of bloodhounds," he finally said, "and they're either 'hot trail' or 'cold trail' dogs."

According to the version of the story I've always heard, the warden just remained quiet while Grandpa continued.

"A 'hot trail' hound follows a fresh scent," he told the warden, "sometimes even after a good rain."

"And your dogs?" the warden asked, glancing at the two black and tans lying beside Grandpa's stool.

"Warden," Grandpa told him, "these two hounds are what we in Virginia call 'cold trail' dogs. You can't teach it to 'em, they have to be born with it. They can follow a trail that's weeks, even months, old sometimes. I've seen these two follow a trail when you had to shovel three feet of snow to find the footprints."

"You think these two could track a convict on the run?" the warden asked.

"You'd have to go to the Blue Ridge Mountains to find another dog to match them," Grandpa told him, "and then you'd have to look hard."

Now, being a sporting man himself, the warden was really enjoying Grandpa's story. "How 'bout you showing me what these two can do down here in Texas?"

Grandpa, I've been told, just kinda leaned back and thought awhile. "How 'cold' of a trail you talking about, Warden?" he asked.

"Coldest trail they can find," the warden answered. "Have 'em show me what a Virginia hound can do."

Well, Grandpa couldn't pass up a challenge like that, so he got up from the stool, stretched, and invited the warden to walk over to his house nearby. About four or five of the old–timers also got up and followed.

When they got there, Grandpa went around and ran some tap water in an old washtub. After the hounds had had a good drink, he clapped his hands together three times and said, "Squirrel, squirrel, go!"

Well, it seems the two dogs began running in circles sniffing the ground. All of a sudden, the male let out a yelp and took off walking down an old path through the knee–deep grass behind the house.

As Grandpa and the others followed, the warden asked, "Aren't they supposed to be howling and running after the trail?"

"Nah," Grandpa replied, "a 'cold trail' hound knows the trail's weeks, maybe months old and there's no use running."

According to the story, they followed the dogs for about a quarter mile through the scrub brush and saltgrass until they came to a single, old Live Oak tree standing alone in the field.

The male hound walked to within about ten feet of the tree and sat down. The female caught up and sat down beside him. After a few seconds they both coiled back on their rear haunches and jumped about three feet into the air and then ran to the tree and started pawing at a hole around the roots.

When Grandpa and the warden got to the tree, Grandpa Joe knelt down and reached into the hole. When he pulled his hand out and stood up, he was holding the remains of a squirrel's skeleton. "That 'cold' enough for you?" he asked the warden.

From what I've been told, the warden knew he had been had. Out of curiosity, though, he asked Grandpa, "But why'd they jump in the air back there?"

"Well, Warden," Grandpa answered, "twenty years ago there used to be a fence there."

I understand the warden just threw his hands in the air and offered Grandpa $200 for the pair of hounds. Grandpa knew he was going to die soon and wanted a good home for his hounds so he offered to give them to the warden, not wanting any money for them. Since the dogs would become state property, however, they settled on $2 to make the transaction legal.

Grandpa Joe died about two months later and the black and tans sired the beginning of what is now the bloodhound stock of the Texas prison system.

Now, I'm not swearing this story is true. There are some that say Grandpa had trained the dogs to do what they did. But I do know the state prison farm is still located in Brazoria County and when you drive down old state road 521 during the summer you can see the convicts working in the cotton and rice fields while being watched by horse–mounted officers and a pack of black and tans.

According to some of the old–timers, the hounds are direct descendants of the Rockingham County stock Grandpa brought down here in '42. You can't find better tracking dogs anywhere in Texas, it's been said. Their only fault is that sometimes they jump in the air for no apparent reason. But I ain't swearing that's true either.