See Rock City in Georgia

March 1, 2009
Filed under Travel

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“We’ve painted nearly 900 barns,” Bill Chaplin told me. You’ve seen them if you have traveled the roads in the midsection of the country in the last 70 years. You can hardly miss them; at least Bill hopes you can’t. In big letters they say: See Rock City.

Rock City’s barn-painting project began in mid-1930. It was successful advertising, because signs didn’t wiz by at 75 miles an hour back then. And the kids in the backseat, though bored – that never changes – were looking out the window noticing things, not focused on video games or portable DVD players.

Bill is the third-generation owner of Rock City Gardens, located atop Lookout Mountain on the upper edge of Georgia. Tourists tell him that they not only remember the barn signs, but are visiting now because of them. “On family trips, their parents just didn’t take time to stop along the way. So now they come back, often with grandkids, to see what they missed 60 years ago.”

The barn signs have become road-folklore, a piece of our subculture identified with this middle region of the country.
About 80 of those barns are still out there – they still get painted – concentrated along the roads leading to Chattanooga, Tennessee. They used to go all the way up into Michigan and down into Florida and west into Texas.

Originally Rock City was a walk-through garden developed in the 1920s by Garnet and Frieda Carter on their mountaintop estate. Frieda populated the garden with more than 400 varieties of local plants. Master craftsmen created rock-lined paths throughout.

In 1932, they opened it to the public. But few people came, maybe because the country was deep in the Depression. Being on a mountain didn’t help either, as it is not a place that travelers just happen on to. Remember, this was before
the days of travel brochures that today stuff racks in motels and welcome centers – in fact, it was before the days of welcome centers, too.

They needed advertising. Realizing that barns are everywhere, and often along the major roads with their broadsides facing the traffic, Garnet created the barn signs. They remain one of the most unique promotional campaigns ever.

“Today we advertise in many places … still, we use barns.” Bill said. “But when my grandparents opened it, road signs were about the only option. With a three-word message, barns were perfect.”

From a rock precipice called Lovers’ Leap, Bill claims it’s possible to see into seven states from Rock City. Seven poles fly the flag of each – Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

From the Gardens, I drove into Chattanooga, which is 25 miles away. Most of us associate this city with the “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and the song of the same name, both made famous by Glenn Miller’s band in the 1940s. The depot used by that train is now a Holiday Inn.

On display there is what may be the largest working “HO” gauge railroad in the world. It’s alive with animated features and thousands of lights. It took more than 33,000 man-hours to make the layout that today has a value of more than a half-million dollars. With 3,000 feet of track, it has 120 locomotives, 1,000 freight cars, 80 passenger cars, four passenger stations and 320 other structures.

Among those structures, located on one if its rural roads, is a miniature barn with a sign on the side: See Rock City.

Welcome to America’s Outback. Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com

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