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ROCK CITY GARDENS - LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN GEORGIA

Story and photos by

What do Lookout Mountain, which straddles the states of Georgia and Tennessee, Rock City Gardens, painted barn roofs and a successful ad campaign have in common?

Rock City trail
Rock City trail
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Rock City and its unique method of promotion were created by Garnet Carter, the U.S. inventor of miniature golf. As a land developer, Carter was impressed with the panoramic views from the top of Lookout Mountain. With a partner, he purchased 700 acres (287 hectares) of mountaintop land, where he planned to build homes, a hotel and a country club.

History of Rock City

Carter built his home on Lookout Mountain's sheer bluffs. His wife, Frieda, developed 15 acres (7.4 hectares) of the property into what was to become the world's ultimate rock garden.

Frieda laid out the first pine needle paths along the crevices and natural pathways through the 20-story-tall rocks. She collected and planted more than 400 species of wildflowers and shrubs to create a garden that received national acclaim from the Garden Club of America.

In 1932, the Carters opened Rock City as a tourist attraction. But the timing was bad. Eleven million Americans were out of work. The economy had touched bottom and tourists were an endangered species.

The turning point in Rock City's fortunes came one morning, in 1935, when Carter summoned Clark Byers to his office and disclosed his notion of painting advertising messages on farmer's barns along major highways.

Byers recalls being startled by the idea and asking Carter, "What would we paint on them?"

Painting Rock City barns

At this point, Carter pushed across the desk a scrap of paper on which he had scrawled three words, destined to become one of the most effective advertising messages in the history of the industry: "See Rock City."

Carter's plan was for Byers to paint the barns for free, if the farmers would let him put the message on their barn roofs. They also received free passes to Rock City Gardens and items, like thermometers, with Rock City logos.

'See 7 states from Rock City' painted barn roof. Crossville, Tennessee.
"See 7 states from Rock City" painted barn roof. Crossville, Tennessee.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Clark Byers spent the next 32 years painting Rock City barns, along the old "snowbird's route" to Florida. In the early years before rollers, he mixed his own paint, using lampblack and linseed oil, and painted the letters freehand with a brush.

"See Rock City!" proclaimed the black and white signs painted on barn roofs. For more than half a century, travelers in the southeast U.S. were amused and sometimes startled by the bold slogans.

By 1956, Byers had painted nearly 900 Rock City barns in 19 states between Canada and Texas. He managed to avoid angry bulls and slippery roofs. But not lightning strikes. In 1968, lightning struck a barn he was painting during a thunderstorm. Byers was nearly electrocuted. It took him a year to recuperate.

Clark Byers died in 2004, but Jerry Cannon continued painting the Rock City barn roofs.

See Rock City souvenirs

Rock City barns spawned editorial cartoons and hundreds of jokes. Newspapers joked about them, calling Carter and Byers the "barnyard Rembrandts." The signs were immortalized in paintings and photographs.

Nonetheless, "See Rock City" cropped up on door mats, ash trays, bumper stickers and birdhouses. Soon, tourists began coming in record numbers. The logo made Rock City one of the most popular tourist attractions in the southeastern United States.

Famous people, including Walt Disney, Pat Boone, The Forrester Sisters, The Monkees, and several astronauts, also visited Rock City. Today, more than a half million visitors visit Rock City Gardens annually.

Fat Man's Squeeze
Fat Man's Squeeze
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Lover's Leap

Visitors follow the self-guided Enchanted Trail, about six city blocks in length. It brings them along twisting trails and over stone and swinging bridges to several observation points.

The highest, at 1,700 feet (519 meters), is Lover's Leap. It's a popular spot for wedding proposals. On clear days, it offers a view of seven states: Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia, North and South Carolina.

The trail also leads visitors beneath a delicately balanced 1,000-ton rock, past rock formations shaped like mushrooms and tortoise shells, and through narrow crevices called the "Needle's Eye" and "Fat Man's Squeeze."

The walk takes about 60 to 90 minutes, depending on how long you spend admiring the 100-foot (30-meter) waterfall, flowers and 200 million-year-old rock formations. White fallow deer, descended from European species imported in the 1930s, inhabit the forest.

Rock City restaurants

As time passed, new attractions, like Fairyland Caverns, were added to the original Rock City Gardens. Mother Goose Village displays scenes from popular fairytales.

Families can watch Birds of Prey shows in an outdoor stadium, called the Critter Classroom, located near the entrance gates. Rock City Gardens now covers 14 acres (nearly six hectares).

Cornerstone Station, a replica of the first Fairyland Fire Station, sells Rock City birdhouses and souvenirs. Visitors can eat at Big Rock Grill, near the entrance, Cliff Terrace, by Lover's Leap, or buy snacks from pushcarts inside Rock City Gardens.

Special events

Rock City has several annual festivals, including Southern Blooms in May and Summer Music Weekends. Between mid-November and January, Rock City Gardens hosts the Enchanted Garden of Lights.

A half million lights illuminate rock formations along the Enchanted Trail and more than two dozen displays, ranging from snowflakes to a life-size gingerbread house. Visitors listen to Christmas music while sipping hot chocolate.

Visitors enjoy view from Lover's Leap.
Visitors enjoy view from Lover's Leap.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Undoubtedly, Rock City has become one of America's great private gardens. But what happened to the barns?

Saving Americana

In the 1930s, engineers claimed that the only thing holding most of the rickety old barns in the southeast together was Rock City paint!

The Federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965 almost put an end to Rock City barns and an important collection of Americana. Fortunately, three states, Tennessee, Ohio and West Virginia, designated them as historic landmarks. Tennessee has the most Rock City barns.

Today, there are less than 100 Rock City barns left. Over the years, they've become part of American folklore. They are remembered with a special fondness by millions of tourists who saw them in their heyday and followed their advice to "See Rock City."


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Driving directions to Rock City

Rock City is only 10 kilometers (six miles) from downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. By car, drive I-75 from Atlanta, Georgia, or Knoxville, Tennessee, I-24 from Nashville, Tennessee, or I-59 from Birmingham, Alabama. Exit at Chattanooga on I-24, using any of the Lookout Mountain exits, and follow the signs up Lookout Mountain to Rock City Gardens.

Rock City Gardens: www.seerockcity.com