Late last fall my daughter Taylor told me someone at Unity College has a breed of dog called Mountain Feist. Squirrel dogs. I had no idea such a breed existed. Hunting squirrels with dogs never occurred to me. I thought you walked through the woods hoping to find squirrels. When I started looking for information on this interesting breed I decided I should share these dogs with you. As though he read my mind, a couple of days before I planned to ask Marcus if I could interview him for this blog he approached me.
I asked Marcus to assume I know nothing, which is fairly accurate, and tell me everything. I thought I’d ask a lot of questions after he gave me the basics but there’s nothing left to ask. Over the next three days I’ll publish his story of the Mountain Feist.
Gray’s Barefoot Nelly. Photo courtesy of Marcus Gray
Welcome to the world of Mountain Feist. Yes, “feist” is like “deer”, the term is both singular and plural – never “feists.” The origin of the Mountain Feist is somewhat convoluted. No one knows for sure how the various mountain hollows developed their own distinct lines that are now being crossed widely given the advent of advances in communication and transportation. Geographic isolation and personal preference of the owner must have influenced the development of the Mountain Feist. If you study the pedigrees of the notable, nationally known bloodlines out there, you will begin to see many similarities in breeding and common ancestry. What is known is that the breed became greatly reduced in number as rural people abandoned farmsteads to take jobs in towns and larger cities. At the time of this writing (2014) all squirrel dogs are enjoying a rapid increase in popularity (since 2000) due to decreasing property sizes to hunt, busy schedules that prevent big game scouting or nostalgia for small game hunting.
The Mountain Feist is an artifact of the pioneer age that serves as a direct link to a time when many Americans lived off the land. Appalachia is considered to have been the last stronghold of this breed of dog that was once more widespread prior to the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization of the South. Appalachia is now considered the “cradle” or ancestral homeland of the majority of Mountain Feist lines available. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the enthusiasts that kept the breed going – either as family tradition or for the simple love of hunting with the dogs. “Mountain” was added in front of the catch-all term feist to distinguish the dogs originating from the Southern Highlands from those which may have been developed elsewhere by a high degree of outcrossing to other breeds. Depending on where you are and who you are talking to, these other dogs are referred to as “Treeing Feist” commonly. In some sections, the terms are interchangeable much to the chagrin of the mountain breeders.
Early settlers moving through the mountains to the Ozarks and other areas of the Midwest are thought to have taken these valuable dogs with them as they moved to new lands. In addition to hunting small game, the dogs kept vermin off the farm, warned of approaching visitors and even worked livestock. Written accounts of the dogs go back centuries, with several spelling variations seen. Abraham Lincoln wrote about them in a poem, “The Bear Hunt,” spelling feist as fice. Reference to them is included in the diary of George Washington in 1770 in which he wrote, “A small foist looking yellow cur,” and a feist is also featured in William Faulkner‘s, “Go Down Moses” in the line, “a brave fyce dog is killed by a bear,” as well as in his short story “The Bear.” In her 1938 novel The Yearling, author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings uses the spelling of feist to refer to this dog. Claude Shumate, who wrote about the feist type dogs for Full Cry magazine, believed that the feist was descended from Native American dogs, mixed with small terriers from Britain, and was kept as early as the 17th century (Full Cry, December, 1987). Mountain Feist played an important role in the development of the Rat Terrier which is descended from feist and toy breeds. Dr. Ralph Stanley’s famous song “Rabbit in a log” has an alternative title noted in an early recording as, “Feast (feist) here tonight.”
However we ended up with the funny, quirky little dogs really doesn’t matter in the end. We are fortunate to have them to enjoy today and as a link to our own shadowy past as a nation. The Mountain Feist will hopefully take a prominent place next to the Bluegrass/Mountain Music, language, soldiers, food and other customs so celebrated when one discusses the contributions of Appalachian people to mainstream America.
Tomorrow we’ll learn about varieties, comparable breeds and the traits of this breed. I’m intrigued. Squirrel hunting, anyone? ~Robin