How these spunky dogs can teach us a great deal about who we are as South Carolinians

Boykin Spaniels.
Boykin Spaniels. Provided photo

This column was originally published April 1, 2007.

Once our newspaper put out a “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” test.

And when our pupils were asked to name the official state dog, some of the scholars complained.

They said it was “useless trivia” that South Carolina’s official state dog is the lovely little Boykin spaniel.

I said they’re barking up the wrong palmetto.

It’s never useless to understand the place you live. It should help anyone to know what separates us from Dubuque. The strip-malling of America makes it even more important.

If this stuff is too hard, we could make it a multiple-choice test, like this:

What is our official state song?

A) “Carolina.”

B) “Bubba Shot the Jukebox.”

C) “I Still Miss You, Baby, But My Aim’s Getting Better.”

D) “Did I Shave My Legs for This?”

Seriously, knowing the Boykin spaniel — “The Dog That Doesn’t Rock the Boat” — and its role in South Carolina’s culture, economy and history is not trivia.

Scratch behind the curly brown hair of the Boykin’s ears and you’ll see what I mean. The story of this spunky dog includes a grist mill, a skirmish where the last federal officer killed in the Civil War died, a stray dog at a Methodist church, a gourmet restaurant, brooms still being made on 100-year-old machines, and a Christmas parade that begins with “road-kill barbecue” and ends with a gospel sing at the church.

And the story, of course, includes hunting.

The Boykin spaniel was bred for hunting, which is as much a part of Lowcountry life as oxygen itself. I had not lived in the Lowcountry long before I heard about a man who let a friend’s hunting dog jump out of the back of his truck and kill itself. The next to die was the man who let it happen. It was ruled natural causes.

Hunting is important to South Carolina in other ways.

Nationally, it has an economic impact of well more than $15 billion. Here in the Lowcountry it is the lifeblood of many rural communities. Hunting interests, such as Ducks Unlimited, have kept development at bay in many of our vulnerable coastal natural areas.

And since a dog is a hunter’s best friend, our esteemed legislature in naming the state dog noted that it is the only dog originally bred by South Carolina hunters.

They say it happened around the turn of the 20th century. A small dog was found wandering near a Spartanburg Methodist church and a worshiper took it home. It was turned over to L.W. “Whit” Boykin of the Boykin community, nine miles from historic Camden. Soon enough the little chocolate stray called Dumpy was known around all the pot-bellied stoves as a prize turkey dog and waterfowl retriever.

The breed that became known as the Boykin spaniel is a charming, small, energetic dog. In that way, it matches the Boykin and Boykin Mill community, with its brooms, restaurant, Civil War history and ancient grist mill on the pond.

Advanced students will recognize the Boykin name, and know the importance of Mary Boykin Miller Chestnut’s “A Diary from Dixie.”

But everybody in the class should understand the state’s official symbols and emblems. Why do we hold tea, “Porgy and Bess,” the marsh tacky, boiled peanuts, the shag, palmetto trees, loggerhead sea turtles, spirituals, blue granite, the Richardson waltz, and yes, Boykin spaniels so dear to our hearts?

If you can’t fill in those blanks, you deserve strip malls in Dubuque.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale