Appalachia is home to a unique breed of dog, one of the few breeds created in America. The Plott Hound. Their story, like many Americans’ began in Europe. Two young brothers by the last name of Plott left what is now Germany in 1750 and immigrated to the United States in hopes of a better life. Their journey was hardly unique, but what set them apart the Plots were some of the few immigrants that brought dogs to the new world. The Plotts and their dogs settled in the English colony of North Carolina. Over several generations, the Plott family refined the canine bloodline they had brought from the old world until they had created whole new special breed of dog. Today, the Plott legacy has spread all over the world, but the Plott family still breeds these dogs. I was lucky enough to interview Bob Plott, a descendent of the Plott brothers, a Plott Hound breeder, as well as an author and historian.
Bob has written a history of the Plott breed – Strike and Stay – The Story of the Plott Hound, A History of Hunting in the Great Smoky Mountains, Legendary Hunters of the Southern Highlands, and Colorful Characters of the Great Smoky Mountains. His fifth book, a look into the stories of respected Plott Hound breeders outside the Plott family, is set to be published in March or April of this year. He is the recipient of the prestigious North Carolina Long Leaf Pine Award, and has been featured on The History Channel show, Only in America. I caught up with Bob and asked him just what makes these dogs so special. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Bob: I think one of the things that makes the Plott Hound most unique, there’s a lot of things that make it unique, but the thing that sets it apart from all other breeds is the unique story of the breed. When you looks at the story of the breed the origins of the breed, it’s really the story of unique Americana, of roots deep in North Carolina soil, and in United States soil. The history of our country and the history of the breed kind of parallel each other in many ways. The other thing that sets the breed apart is the germanic origins of the breed. When my ancestors brought the dogs over here from Germany, the germanic origins also set them apart. Most of your American purebred dogs that you find in the breed registry today, originated in the British Isles. Whereas the Plott Hound, of course, has germanic origins, germanic roots. So those two things really set the breed apart from all others. We all came here from another country, in some form or fashion. Unless we’re a Native American, we came here from another country, whether we were brought here as a slave, or whether we immigrated here from somewhere else. My ancestors immigrated from Germany, but unlike most other immigrants, my ancestors brought dogs with them. And those those dog were later named after them. The Plott Hound was first officially recognized as a breed in 1946 by the UKC. The other thing is that even with this story, the Plott Hound remains relatively obscure. A lot of people tend to be either clueless or very knowledgeable and passionate about the breed. Whereas with most purebred dogs, if you mentions a Collie, or Labrador Retriever, some other breed like that, the image of that particular breed immediately comes to mind even if you’ve never owned one or even petted one. But most of the time when you see a Plott Hound that’s not always the case. I have causal acquaintances, who may just know who I am professionally by my work or something like that, they’ll see me with one of my dogs and say “Oh gosh, Bob. That’s a beautiful dog, what kind of dog is it?” and I’ll say “It’s a Plott Hound,” and they’ll say “Well of course it’s your dog, but what kind of dog is it?” And then I’ll get to explain to them the origins behind it. So I guess there’s two or three things that really set it apart. Even here, it’s the state dog in North Carolina, has been since 1989. It’s taught in the fourth grade public school curriculum. But even in North Carolina people tend to be clueless in a lot of ways. There’s hot beds all across the state, and all over the United States for that matter, where there are more Plott Hounds than in other places, but they’re still relatively obscure.
Luke: Why do you think they’re not as well known as other breeds? Is it a numbers thing? Are there just less of them than other breeds? What do you think?
Bob: Yeah, I think that’s part of it. On one hand, there’s a significant amount of them. They’re all over the world and all over the United States. They’ve been recognized for years, for centuries, as one of the premier big game hunting dogs, if not the premier big game hunting dog in the world. Then again, that’s kind of a niche field. There’s not a ton of people doing big game hunting. A lot of people may do fly fishing, or something like that, but the truth of the matter is that the people actually going out and running after a bear, or a cougar, or a hog, they’re probably a smaller minority than most sporting groups or hunters, I guess. And then the other thing is, the breed gained fame in the South, and there never was the number of Plott Hounds like there were the Walker Dog or a Trigg Hound, or some of the other popular fox breeds.
Luke: Sure. Now, as a member of the Plott family did you grow up around these dogs?
Bob: Yeah. I did. It’s one of those things where, when you’re around it all the time, you really kind of take it for granted. You just kind of feel like everybody’s doing it. I mean, I totally got the importance of it, because it’s drilled in you by the family members from the time you’re virtually born. But, I never in a million years thought that I’d be writing books about them, or doing programs about them. One day, I just kind of realized that there weren’t many of us left in the family. Thankfully other people outside the family have perpetuated the legacy, and so I wanted to make sure that my son, and other family members, as well as just the general public were aware of the great story behind the dog and what that entails.
Luke: So would you say there was a moment that you could point too, where you kind of felt like your eyes were opened to this legacy, and how unique this breed was and your relationship to it? Or was is a slow, over time, realization for you?
Bob: A little bit of both. When I was a kid, I was very fortunate to grow up in the family, and have access to family members, some of whom have gotten worldwide notoriety. Von Plott for example, I mean he’s probably one of the best known members of the Plott family. I got to spend quite bit of time with him when I was a young boy. He died in 1979. It wasn’t just him, Hubb Plott, and of course my uncle who ran the railroad depot in Bryson City, Cecil Plott, was another notable Plott family member and bear hunter. When I was growing up, we looked at these guys like kids today look at LeBron James, or some famous sports star. It was big deal to go to one of these guys’s homes, and sit with them on Sunday afternoon, and just listen to them talk. I always loved that as a kid. I appreciated that and recognized that early on. But as I said before, I started hunting early. I went on hunts when I was 9-10 years old. But as you get older, you start looking at other things, you start getting interested in girls, and cars, you’re going to college and different things. Maybe the interest is still there, but you just kind of take it for granted. So I kind of was all in 100% when I was kid, then drifted away from it a little bit, and then all of a sudden realized that I really need to make sure that this carries one, that people are aware of this, the story’s told. My own son is 23 years old now, and his birth 23 years ago was kind of a turning point for me as well. I realized that he needs to know this stuff, and by that point my father was already dead, and my uncle was dead, Von was dead, all the old timers were dead. So for me that was really important.
Luke: Sure. You kind of feel the weight of the legacy shifting onto your shoulders.
Bob: Yeah. I don’t want to imply . . . There’s plenty of other people, non-family members, who have carried on that legacy. Of course, that’s one of the primary subjects of my upcoming book. It’s about people who’s last names were not Plott, who were not related to the Plott family, because the truth of the matter is the Plott Hound would have been world famous regardless, and at some point would have been registered, whether it was in 1946 or whenever. But it was really people not named Plott, their friends, their associates, people like Taylor Crockett, the Cable family, folk like that who helped perpetuate the breed. Then later on, when the breed got big in the Midwest, guys out there really helped keep it going, and make it what it is today. Had it not been for their assistance, I think we’d have probably remained more of a regional phenomenon, versus a national or world-wide phenomenon.
Luke: I think the first Plott Hound breeder I heard of was in West Virginia, and I know there’s some here in Ohio where I’m located. So clearly there were people involved in spreading the breed around the national. You’re also a Plott Hound breeder, aren’t you?
Bob: Yeah. That’s another thing I’m really proud of. I talk about this in my programs. Everybody who’s got a purebred Plott Hound, started off with a dog that originated through the Plott family or one of their close associates. Some people have crossed Plott Hounds with other breeds, and in doing so have lost the original blood line over several generations. That’s one thing I’m proud that we haven’t done, and I take no credit for it, all I did was take what was given to me, and I inherited it. We’ve carried that on, and we’ve kept them in such a way that when you look at the dogs in my kennel now, I can roll out their UKC pedigrees and trace them directly back to the first dogs registered in 1946. And more importantly, when you look at photographs of Plott Hounds from the 1870’s (that’s some of the earliest ones that I’m aware of), those dogs look exactly like one of these dogs I have in the kennels now. So when you look in the eyes of one of these dogs, and you’re petting their heads, rubbing their ears, you really truly are touching the face of history. It’s a history that we’ve been true too, and we’ve tried to maintain and keep as pure as possible.
Luke: That is really something. Talk about living history! It doesn’t get more alive than that. Do you still hunt with your dogs?
Bob: I do. My problem is juggling, and finding the time to do it justice. You want to make sure that you’re raising good dogs, and that they perform well in the woods, and mine certainly have been proven in that regard. But you know, I still work full-time, and of course I’m trying to write books. I write magazine for two national hunting magazines. I do these dog programs all over the Southeast. I’ve got a family. Like everybody else, I got a lot going on, but you try to juggle it as best you can. You never get to hunt as much as you want to.
Luke: Isn’t that the truth.
Bob: Yeah, and the older I get, the more I appreciate it, and the more I realize how difficult it is. To do it justice, you really got to get out there and stay close behind the dogs. You can’t sit in the truck, you can’t track them on a Garmin handheld unit, you got to get out there and stay after them like the old timers did, I believe. And that’s challenging. Bear generally, I don’t care if you’re hunting in the swamps, or if you’re hunting in the mountains, bears are going to go on the toughest, most difficult terrain possible, because they don’t want you to catch them. So it’s a tough sport, it’s not for everybody.
Luke: Do you have any favorite stories that you like to share from raising, or hunting with these dogs?
Bob: My gosh, there’s so many. One of my friend’s told me, in regards to hunting, “The fun stops when you pull the trigger.” And I think that’s true. Certainly we all believe in harvesting game, and utilizing it the right way, and being part of the ecological process that’s the circle, or cycle of life, if you would. But there’s so many different things that have happened. I’ve been on hunts where we didn’t get anything and had a great time, just being out with my friends and dogs. And I’ve been on hunts where we killed four, five, six hundred pound bears, and they were equally as rewarding. I think you situations where it was 50 degrees at sunup, and foggy, and rainy, there’s a thunderstorm by midmorning, a literal deluge of rain, and then the temperature drops 30 degrees and it starts snowing, all in the span of about 7 hours. You’re caught in the middle of that trying to get your dogs back out, and always take care of them and make sure they’re okay. There’s story after story. My uncle, on one of the first hunts I can remember when I was a kid, he broke his back, and we had to rig up a travois, and we had horses, and we had to drag him out. We drug himself back home, but he didn’t go to the hospital till the next morning. He walked into the hospital and they said “It’s a miracle you’re still alive. Your back’s broken.” Stuff like that sticks with you, and of course seeing dogs perform well. Seeing a puppy develop and evolve into a seasoned hunting dog is very satisfying. One of the principles my family espoused was, you don’t start a dog too early on big game. You don’t send them out to hunt a bear. The analogy Von gave me was, you don’t send a 12 year old boy out to fight a full-grown man; you don’t send a pup out to fight a bear. Both of them may want to, both of them may think they can win that battle. But they’re probably not going to, and in the process they’re going to get hurt. He said, “that’s just not worth it.” He always believed in not starting dogs until they’re old enough.
Of course, you’ve got all the classic stories from the old timers, some of which you participate in personally, and other things you just heard, and that’s what most of my books are about. I just always loved those type of things.
Luke: I really enjoy those as well. One of the stories that stood out to me in Strike and Stay was the story of Quill Rose and his hat.
Bob: I’m writing a complete profile on Quill in my upcoming book. Somebody should make a movies about him, he was really an interesting guy. He was a Civil War veteran, and made moonshine, he even had his own brandname for it. He called it “Tanglefoot” because your feet got tangled up when you drank too much of it. He didn’t subscribe to the theory that whiskey should be aged, he drank it fresh out of the still, two days old, and he couldn’t tell a bit of difference in it. He lived high up on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, on a tributary called Eagle Creek that ran into Hazel Creek, and into the Little Tennessee River. And he lived there because if the Tennessee law came after him, he could escape to North Carolina, and if the North Carolina came after him, he could go to the Tennessee side. He’d went down to a little lumber town about ten miles from his house, but he had decided he was going to ride into Bryson City, North Carolina on a train. There was a train station there, and he realized that he had two of his Plott Hounds, Ring and Snap were their names, with him. Of course, he couldn’t take them on the train, he couldn’t send them back home either. He didn’t want to do that. So he just took his hat off and threw it on the ground and told the dogs to stay. You have to remember that when he did that, he was thinking that he was gong to return in just a couple of hours. This was just going to be a short trip into town to conduct some business, and come back in the afternoon. But he got into town and met some of his friends, and started having too good of a time, and ended up probably drinking some of his own whiskey, and didn’t end up coming back for about 24-48 hours. And when he did, he caught a wagon, and took a different route home. When he got home, his wife wanted to know where the dogs were. He’d just completely forgotten about them, so he immediately went right back down to the station, and there were the dogs, still laying beside his hat waiting for him. I think that’s one of the great things about the intelligence of these dogs, and how loyal, and tenacious they are.
Luke: So how would you describe their temperament to somebody who’s never met one?
Bob: I come from a generation where I still got spankings or “whippins,” whatever you want to call it. The dogs loved my father almost as much as they loved me, but I think they loved me a little more because I fed them and took care of them. So, whenever my father wanted to discipline me, he’d have to put the dogs up because they’d fly into him. I mean they’d would tear into him, even though they loved him. There’s just story after story of similar type situations of these dogs having that kind of bond with their owner. Mark Cathey was a hunting partner of my uncle’s, and Mark died in 1944. When Mark died, he’d taken some of his dogs out for a hunt, and he’d told his sister he’d be back before dark. When he didn’t come back, she sent a search party out for him. His sister was a religious person and she was concerned that Mark was going to go to Hell because he never went to church. So, she’d convinced him to talk to a preacher just a few weeks prior to that time, to make his peace with God, and he did. They sent the search party out for him, and they found him about midnight, sitting under a tree. Evidently he’d had a heart attack and died. His Plott Hounds surrounded him, and the search party literally could not touch him. The dogs wouldn’t let them touch him. They had to go back and get his sister to pick him up and bring his body back for burial. He’s buried there in Bryson City, I’ve been to his grave. He’s got the greatest epitaph I’ve ever seen on a tombstone because he made his peace with the preacher just a few weeks before his death, the epitaph says: “Beloved hunter and fisherman. Caught himself by the gospel hook just before his season ended for good.” I always loved that.
Luke: That’s poetic, right there!
Bob: I think it demonstrates, again, the loyalty of these dogs. There’s tall tales, all kinds of stuff that may or may not be true, story after story about how they’re so tenacious, they’re so loyal, they’re so intelligent. Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, grew up in east Tennessee, and knew about Plott Hounds. He once described the Plott Hound as being “simply without fear.” He equated them as the “ninja warriors of the dog kingdom.” I think there’s some truth to that, they are very very tenacious, very very loyal, very stubborn, that kind of goes along with intelligence. They can be pretty hard headed. I think their disposition, to more specifically answer your question, very few of them are hyper-aggressive. In some of them you see the old alpha male traits come into play, where the male always wants to show his dominance, but as far as being really mean or aggressive, normally they’re not. They’re generally good with children. I’ve seen people that get them as pups and have them on chicken farms. It’s just what you get them acclimated to. They can herd animals really well. They’re just remarkable dogs.
Luke: That was something else I took away from the book, is just how versatile they are. They really needed to be for these people that were settling in the Appalachian region, out in the frontier areas. They were true multipurpose dogs.
Bob: I couldn’t agree more, multipurpose being the key word there. You’ve got to understand that on that frontier that you’re speaking of, people back in those days had fences to keep game out, not keep it in. So if your had a garden, you put a fence around it to keep the cattle or pigs from getting into it, and then if you had cattle or pigs, you took them out and notched their ears or put some kind of brand on them to identify them as your own. They roamed freely in most of those parts. Not a milk cow of course, you kept a milk cow around for milk, but beef cattle or pigs, they would just let it range. Then they would literally use those Plott Hounds to herd the livestock back in in the Fall or Winter and they’d slaughter hogs or the cow. That was one aspect of that multipurpose capability. Taylor Crockett told the story of his little brother, his parents would put their Plott Hound out in the yard with him when he was a little boy, and tell the dog to stay with the little boy while they were working in the fields. They knew that nobody would touch that kid. It was just like the dog would babysit for them. Then of course you have the hunting capability, the fact that they could help put food on the table. You also have story after story during the Revolutionary War, even before the Revolutionary War during the French and Indian War, of these dogs being used to ward off Indian attacks. During the Civil War particularly in western North Carolina where there were Confederate and Union sympathizers, because most of our people didn’t own slaves, we were pretty poor people, so you had people that fought for the Union and fought for the South. There were a lot of raiders, guys that deserted one side or the other and came back and were attacking homesteads, and there’s story after story of dogs valiantly defending the homestead. They’re really a unique animal in so many different ways.
Luke: Very true. Well, Bob, thanks so much for doing this interview with us. Why don’t you tell us about this new book of yours, and when and where we can find it.
Bob: I appreciate that, it’s my pleasure to be here with you, Luke. The new book is tentatively titled Plott Breed Legends of the Southern Appalachians: People and Places that Helped Make the Plott Hound Great. Unlike my other book, the focus here is entirely on people who were not Plott family members, we mentioned Quill Rose earlier, he’s profiled, some modern day people. We tried to capture how the breed evolved over the years, and how it wouldn’t have got so famous if it had not been for these people that were friends and associates of the family, and recognized the value of these dogs. We’re still formatting the book, but it should be out in March, April at the latest. It’s a nationally published book so you can order it directly from me at bobplott.com or find it at any of the major online book retailers.
Luke: That’s a read that I’m certainly looking forward to.