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Dangerous Dogs Dilemma Debated

March 6, 2021

"Ever had a drink of watermelon wine?" he asked
He told me all about it, though I didn't answer back
"Ain't but three things in this world that's worth a solitary dime
But old dogs and children and watermelon wine"
"Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes
God bless little children while they're still too young to hate"
When he moved away I found my pen and copied down that line
'Bout old dogs and children and watermelon wine

It’s hard not to hum a Tom T. Hall tune while looking over the Davidson County Registration of Dogs for the Sheep Fund.  As early as 1860, the Tennessee Legislature established that stray dogs were a problem to be addressed. “An Act to protect Wool Growing in the State of Tennessee” passed in 1848. This act assumed stray dogs were likely to kill sheep, and those who killed such dogs were protecting their property (sheep), which is a “good defense” before the law. The act went on to say that those who owned such dogs were liable for any damages caused, especially “killing or worrying” sheep.  

In 1873, legislation passed that levied a tax on dogs, with the assumption that owners of strays would dispose of them to avoid paying any tax. Again, this was aimed at protecting the sheep breeding industry. It worked as well as one might imagine. In some regions of Tennessee, during this time period, photographs illustrate lots of dogs. No, those folks had no intention of paying a tax for their dog. I have a great snapping turtle story that illustrates this point, but I’m at a loss at how to work it in with the dog and sheep idea.

Mr. Woolwine's Fox Hounds (Metro Archives Historical Photographs Record Group)

The problem of populous canines moved the city council to react. After all, the area around Mill Creek near Murfreesboro Road known in genteel circles as Glencliff, was called “Dogtown” by the locals. By 1893, there were established ordinances governing dogs. Dog ownership incurred a tax. The dog must have a “medal having the number stamped thereon, which shall be kept about the neck of the dog, attached to a collar.”

Dog Tag, 1922 David Ewing Collection (Metro Archives)
Dog License Receipt for above dog tag, David Ewing Collection (Metro Archives)

That ordinance lead to the creation of the Registration of Dogs for the Sheep Fund. We have Sheep Fund Registers from 1919-1921. The ledgers include name, address, type of dog, gender, dog name and tax paid. On the surface, these seem pointless and are a candidate for destruction. But these volumes can provide an insight into the people and the culture of Nashville a century ago. 

Davidson County Sheep Fund Register, 1919 (Metro Archives)


Dog and child photograph, n.d. Amelia Edwards Collection (Metro Archives)

While society and culture change, habit and tradition quietly muddle along in the background, often oblivious to their highly visible companions. These centurion ledgers are populated with the age-old Rex, Rover, Spot, Fido, Jack, and the unfortunate yellow dog mix named Mutt. Spot seems to be the most popular name, followed by Rover and Jack.

The 1919 register lists a grey lab named Cigarette. Smoking cigarettes was a fashion brought home by our soldiers after World War One. Was the owner of Cigarette a veteran or just somebody intrigued by a new item in our culture? Relatively uninspiring is the collie dog named “dog.” But for the truly uninspiring, we look to Colonel Luke Lea, the man that came up with the plan to kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm II. He called his shepherd, “Shep”. 

A black Labrador retriever named “Floyd” stood out. I have a funny mental image of old reliable farm dog Floyd. The why of the name “Floyd” is lost to time, but he was loved enough for someone to pay his tax.

Of course, tradition and habit also engender names that show the dark side of that time. Ugly names that convey ridicule and are demeaning in many ways – we'll skip those. Yet, aside from names, general patterns of ownership reveal interesting things. Generally, inside the city wards were small breeds, often terriers or poodles. County districts seem to be full of working dogs, such as shepherds, collies, and retrievers.  

Tommy Parrish and his dog, Nashville Banner Photogravures, 1931 (Metro Archives)
Bill and his dogs, n.d. Ida Calhoun collection (Metro Archives)


Daniel and Laura Hill family, n.d. Ida Calhoun Scott collection (Metro Archives)

Lonnie Burns lived in the county and at one time was a city policeman. That fact isn’t in the register. However, his black Labrador was named “Nightstick.” Lonnie probably wasn’t a warm and fuzzy patrolman.

Why keep these? What can these records tell us about a Nashville sometimes shrouded in unsolved mysteries or unanswered questions? For one, people appear here that have no voice, no presence in any other record. A poor sharecropper won’t be in the City Directory, doesn’t register a deed, was never sued, arrested, or made a will. The only evidence of them is their affection for their pet. They are lost except for having a dog.

Old dogs and children are still some of the best things in life.

Children and dog, n.d. Ida Calhoun Scott collection (Metro Archives)


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Ken Fieth is the Metropolitan Archivist for Nashville and Davidson County. He is passionate about military history and brings it to life as a World War II reenactor. Learn more about the Metro Archives.