'Uncle Earl's' coming in March for four-day run

By Jack M. Willis
Journal Correspondent

The annual Uncle Earl's Hog Dog Trials is set in Winnfield the third weekend of March, 2006. The now-famous event came into being in 1994, as a part of the local celebration of the Centennial of Governor Earl K. Long's birth.

For background on the 13th Uncle Earl's, I set out to find Claude L. O'Bryan of Winnield for a first hand account of how this phenomenon was birthed. Claude L., Bill Griffin and his brother David are fifth-generation hog hunters from the Winnfield area. Knowing that Earl K. Long was an avid stockman and hog hunter, they started kicking around an idea to put on some kind of hog dog event to coincide with his 100th birthday.

O'Bryan relates, "Bill is actually the one who had the notion, and he and David had been talking the idea over. In November of 1994, they came to me to see what I thought about it. We knew Jimmy Young was a hog dog raiser and handler, and that he and his wife Sharon publish 'Bayed Solid', a magazine devoted to breeding, training and performances of the Catahoula dogs, so we set out to find him."

They chased Jimmy down in East Texas where he was on a hog hunt, and that day the trio formed a pact that today is just as strong or stronger than when they hooked up together in 1994.

They were used to hunting hogs and would do so with three dogs at a time. There are three prime functions of a hog dog. Some are "bay" dogs, some are "drive" dogs, and some are known as "catch" dogs. Some are so smart that they can perform all three disciplines.

The purpose of baying is to get the hogs hemmed up so the owner can look the bunch over and decide what he's going to do with or to them. He'll feed them a little shelled corn to get them to settle down. If he decides he wants to get them in a trap, he'll tell his lead dog to "sic" and start aggravating the "boss" hog, and he'll get mad at the dog and start trying to fight him. The first thing you know the rest of the hogs are following the head hog and the lead dog, which is leading them towards the trap. Then the other two dogs follow along behind driving the rest of the bunch. The first thing they know, they've been tolled into a hog trap. In the trap the sows can be wormed, the boars castrated and ear marked, and even kept penned until they fatten up.

Claude L. said, " When we started planning these hog dog trials, we didn't have a blueprint to go by. We decided to have it on the fourth weekend in March while it was still cool, and we backed off from the Forest Festival in April, too. We just went out and done it."

It was decided the first year to hold a one-day bay. They had entries from all over and the National Association of Louisiana Catahoulas members showed up, and people were everywhere. The next year Bill, Claude and Jimmy decided to hold a two-day bay, and they ended up with way too many entries.

They started the baying at 8 o'clock on that Saturday morning and went for over 40 hours straight. At two o'clock in the morning the fairground grandstands would be two-thirds full. The response was overwhelming. In 1996 the organizers went to a three-day bay, and the following year they went to a four-day bay to accommodate the many entries.

"When we got started, there was not standard set of rules for conducting these events," Claude L. said. "We had to kind of go by trial and error and make rules as we went. And we've finally got a set of rules that just about everybody is in favor of. This is due to the fact that with the caliber of dogs being entered in the baying events today, the majority of pen owners felt they needed a stricter set of guidelines, and they're the ones what voted on the rules abided by today."

One common-sense rule is, :A bay dog has to control the hog he's confronting for a full two minutes, and he will be immediately disqualified for catching the hog, instead of baying." Dogs are retired when they start losing their edge, because there'll come a time when they won't move fast enough to miss the slashing tusks, resulting in being crippled or killed. Some can hunt until they're 8 to 10 years old, but most are retired by age seven. The baying dogs have to bark in cadence, in a crisp clear voice, for the full two minutes, but if they're too old or in ill health, they'll very simply run out of air.

Claude L. said, "We think we've kind of got this thing streamlined for 2006. We try to speed things up every chance we get. This year we'll have people from all the lower 48 states. People attend from Canada, England, California; every motel room will be full, and people register ahead for next year. Why, some people treat this like a homecoming event and come back year after year.

Some people stay in Natchitoches or Alexandria and drive in to the event, and some people come in RVs a week early. The Winn Parish Correctional Institute feeds the contestants a meal on Friday night. The Winn Sheriff's Dept. furnishes inmate labor for building stock pens, and handling clean-up of the grounds. The Sons Of Confederate Veterans handle entry registration, ticket money sales and collections, bookkeeping and making up bank deposits of the receipts. The Winn Parish Riding Club runs the concession stands. Money derived from concession sales built new modern rest rooms for the Fairgrounds.

Claude L. said "One thing we're most proud of is the youth participation in these events. As prizes this year to three deserving youth, we will be able to award $15,000 in Youth Scholarships. The amounts may vary from year to year, and we're always on the lookout for new contributors."

O'Bryan emphasized that the Uncle Earl Hog Dog Trials which be held this year from March 23rd thru March 26th are the joint community effort which unites to stage this event to promote tourism, and as a result this yearly episode is becoming known world wide. And all this evolved from a notion that Bill Griffin had back in 1994.

Eck Bozeman, one of Winn Parish's most venerable promoters of tourism, would be proud of an effort that started in his own back yard, had he lived.

Uncle Earl's Hog Dog Trials are a viable testimony as to what can be created when a community joins together and showcases a nostalgic way of life from out of the past.