Chattanooga, Tennessee's Lookout Mountain has long been a tourist attraction, especially when the Incline Railway and paved roads increased access. But it's best associated with Rock City, founded by couple Garnet and Frieda Carter in 1932. It started as a neighborhood called Fairyland, inspired by Frieda's love of folklore from her German homeland, and was the site of the first "mini golf" course. But once visitors got a glimpse of the incredible views and Frieda's award-winning gardens, they were hooked.
What the Carters didn't know, especially in those difficult early years of the Great Depression, was that it would go on to become one of the South's most visited places, with an average annual half a million visitors. Even during the oil embargo of the 1970s and the past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rock City has soldiered on.
Rock City CEO Bill Chapin, Carter's great-nephew, spoke with Southern Living and he describes it best: "Rock City Gardens is a unique geological and botanical wonder that lightens your heart, soothes your soul, stimulates your mind and invigorates your senses."
Generations of fans have made the winding drive up the mountain to "See Seven States" and pose for pictures at Lover's Leap. They come for annual events like Rocktoberfest and the Enchanted Garden of Lights. Visitors have come from every continent apart from Antarctica.
Many have found their way thanks to the famous "See Rock City" barns, which have a legacy all their own. In 1935, there were 900 hand painted barn signs in 19 states, from Michigan to Texas. Sign painter Clark Byers chose each one and traveled all around the country working on them until his retirement in 1969.
"The barns told people about it. The experience that Uncle Garnet and Aunt Freida provided told people after they got home… their guests were the biggest promoters," says Chapin.
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Sadly, less than 50 remain today, mostly in Tennessee, due to tornadoes, highway construction, a highway beautification law, and age. Rock City keeps a map of their locations on the website and updates them every so often.
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Rock City officially celebrates 90 years in May, but festivities are already ongoing. Last year, they partnered with the Tennessee Titans to paint some of these barns to promote the football team's upcoming season. Nashville visual artist doughjoe painted three outside of the city. This year, Rock City will continue to repaint the barn billboards.
Another big change coming to Rock City is the leadership. Doug Chapin will take over as the attraction's fifth generation CEO, after Garnet Carter's nephew E.Y. Chapin III took over in the 1950s. He's one of many multi-generational employees at the attraction.
Doug started work at Rock City as a middle schooler, when he was assigned the task of dressing up as Rocky the Elf, the attractions' mascot. Since then, he has worked his way through the ranks at every element of the operation, from the horticulture team to the acquisition of other businesses like Clumpies Ice Cream Co.
Rock City remains welcoming after all these years.
"We have always had a focus on hospitality, as well as on conservation," said Bill Chapin. "In the last 90 years we have protected the geological wonders of Rock City Gardens for everyone's enjoyment, and for future generations of the next 90 years."