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See Rock City book and author

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Living on Lookout Mountain since his boyhood, promoter Garnet Carter developed the mountaintop as a famous Southern tourist attraction in 1932.

Rock City collection

Words, photos capture panoramic tourist attraction

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

Tim Hollis first saw Rock City on the east face of Lookout Mountain at the tender age of 4.

Just a stone’s throw from Chattanooga, the fabulous geological wonder with its Swing-A-Long Bridge, Fat Man‘s Squeeze, Lover’s Leap and Fairyland Caverns enamored him as it did again in 1991 when he began work on a book about the tourist attraction, made famous over much of the 20th century via its advertising painted in white letters on a black background on hundreds of barn roofs. (Who can forget “See 7 States from Rock City”?)

Today, Hollis sees Rock City on the cover of that book, which some 18 years later, finally has been published. On Saturday afternoon, the author will sign copies of “See Rock City: The History of Rock City Gardens” (The History Press, $17.99) at Sherlock’s Books in Lebanon.

Hollis, 46, an editor in Birmingham, Ala., has lived in the same house all of his life, and “See Rock City” marks the eighth book he has written about historic Southern tourist destinations. What sent him in a Dixie direction?

“From the time I was born, we took so many vacations. We went to all of the tourist hot spots in the South, and my dad and I saved everything from those trips. So I had this archive of stuff to draw on before I got started,” said Hollis, whose childhood ran from the mid-1960s into the late 1970s.

“It was all my dad. He loved traveling and going on vacation, and my mom hated every single, miserable minute of it. And in the early days, my grandmother, my mom’s mother, went with us,” said Hollis, an only child, who favored Panama City because of its miniature golf courses.

As for his trips to Rock City, Fairyland Caverns captured his attention. “It definitely makes an impression on you when you are young,” he said.

The writer started work on his rocky inspiration in the summer of 1991 when Rock City made a deal with him to write its history for its 60th anniversary. Then the tourist attraction decided it didn’t want to get into book publishing. Hollis’ manuscript went onto a shelf until History Press decided to get a piece of the rock and recently released it.

Meet the author

Tim Hollis will sign copies of “See Rock City: The History of Rock City Gardens” 1-4 p.m. Saturday, June 20, at Sherlock’s Book Emporium, 200 Maddox-Simpson Parkway, 449-9807. For more info about the author, go to www.birminghamrewound.com.

Tour Rock CityRock City, located in Lookout Mountain, Ga., is about six miles from downtown Chattanooga and about a two-hour drive from Lebanon.

Summer hours are 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m. (Eastern time). Admission is $17 for ages 13 and older, $9 for ages 3 to 12. For more info, go to www.seerockcity.com.. 

Hollis knows the story of the mountaintop experience far better than most Tennesseans and Georgians.

“Going back to the 1800s, people always called the place up on the mountain the Rock City,” he said. “The rocks were so big they looked like city buildings and the paths looked like little streets.”

In 1924 businessman and entrepreneur Garnet Carter bought the property as the land was dirt cheap as it was hard to get to the top of the mountain.

“When Garnet decided to go into the real estate business, he bought this property to sell building lots. He saved the Rock City property for himself since it wasn’t any good for building houses on,” Hollis said.

“He called the neighborhood (where houses were built) Fairyland, and he named the streets after fairytale characters such as Red Riding Hood Trail, Peter Pan Road. You have to drive through Fairyland neighborhood today to get to Rock City.” 

In May 1932, Carter and his wife Frieda opened Rock City, and the tourists have been coming ever since as have the added attractions. In the late 1940s, the Carters created Fairyland Caverns and tossed in a manmade waterfall at Lover’s Leap.

“In the last 15 years they’ve added more. There are wildlife shows going on, and they’ve added a lot of things with the goal to give people more to do while they are there,” Hollis said.

Beside the Carters, the major players involved in the development of Rock City include Clark Byers, who painted the first Rock City barns, Jessie Sanders who sculpted all the Fairyland scenes, and Ed Chapin, Garnet’s nephew who took over when he retired. The park has been in the Chapin family since Garnet’s death.

As for the nostalgic Rock City barn signs, there were about 800 of them at their peak, while about 100 remain today.

And as for the seven states that promoters claim can be seen from atop Rock City, they are Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia.

Another interesting sidelight to the man who created Rock City is that he also gets credit for inventing miniature golf in 1928.

“There had been the idea before him, but Garnet was the first person to actually create miniature golf as a game of its own,” Hollis said. “He patented it and called it Tom Thumb Golf.”

Hollis’ other tourism-related books include the following:

• “The Land of the Smokies: Great Mountain Memories,” which covers the tourism history of Gatlinburg and Lookout Mountain and such North Carolina sites as Cherokee, Maggie Valley and Boone.• “Dixie Before Disney,” a look at the history of the South’s tourism industry. • “Florida’s Miracle Strip,” a trip back in time along the stretch from Panama City Beach to Fort Walton to Pensacola.• “Glass Bottom Boats & Mermaid Tails: Florida's Tourist Springs,” with the stories behind Silver Springs, Weeki Wachee, Rainbow Springs and other legendary attractions.• “Six Flags Over Georgia,” the theme park's official 40th anniversary history.• “Selling the Sunshine State,” a coffee-table book with 500 images that show how Florida was marketed through tourism literature.• “Stone Mountain Park," which will be released this month and tells the story behind the giant Confederate memorial carving near Atlanta and the park that grew up around it.

He currently has six other books in print, ranging from radio and television history to children's records to historical aspects of his hometown of Birmingham.

A collector and pack rat to the nth degree, Hollis even has his own personal museum of nostalgic memorabilia attached to the back side of his house near Birmingham, and it is open by appointment.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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