Rock City Gardens is as much a part of pop culture as the family station wagon and summer vacation, and in 2012, the iconic roadside attraction commemorates its 80th anniversary (www.seerockcity.com/anniversary).
Rock City celebrates Founder’s Day on May 21, and the first 80 people through the gates will be able to “See Rock City” for the original ticket price of 25 cents. At 1 p.m. that same day, Rocky, the mascot, will host a birthday party with sugar cookies and lemonade, the same menu as opening day.
Martha Bell will be attending the party, just like she did in 1932, when she was five years old. Bell is not only one of the first Rock City Gardens visitors, she also took on the role of Mother Goose at the attraction from 1983 to 2005, and helped conduct outreach at the local schools during that time.
The birthday party will take place at Lover’s Leap, one of the most scenic vistas in all of the Southeast. Recently added elevated terrace seating with two fireplaces offers seating for guests to dine and take in the “view of seven states.” The New Binkley Brothers, Rock City’s “house band,” will entertain guests with authentic Old-Time, a style of Southern Appalachia folk music, from the new permanent stage.
Founder’s Day is just one of many special events planned throughout the year at Rock City. Shamrock City and EarthDayz were held in March and April. The Southern Blooms Festival, celebrating the gardens, is set for May 4-6. Summer Music Weekends, Rocktoberfest, the Enchanted MAiZE/Blowing Scream Farm and the Enchanted Garden of Lights are all scheduled for later this year.
“Over the years, our family has welcomed the world to Rock City,” said Bill Chapin, CEO of See Rock City Inc. and a third-generation descendant of founders Garnet and Frieda Carter. “We have strived to create memories that parents can share with their children and then repeat with their grandchildren. The fact we’ve been able to do this for 80 years means a great deal to our family.”
Today, thousands of visitors still come to Rock City every year, carving out a distinction as one of the few roadside attractions left, and thriving, in the United States.
Rock City Gardens opened in 1932, during the Depressions era, and allowed the general public to enjoy the beautiful garden Frieda Carter had planted amid the ancient rock formations and scenic views atop Lookout Mountain, Ga. Three generations later, the family still opens its backyard, literally, to close to a half-million guests each year to see the well-kept woodland garden and the remarkable scene along the 4,100-foot winding trail.
Current owner Bill Chapin, Frieda’s great nephew, purchased the famous attraction in 1985, and he runs it with his son-in-law Andrew Kean, who handles the day-to-day operations. What they are most proud of is the way they’ve been able to stay relevant to generations upon generations of travelers.
While the pop culture status of Rock City remains and is something they still pay homage to through advertising and barn souvenirs, much of their focus has been on stewardship and conservation – not only being good stewards of these natural wonders but also sustaining the creativity and uniqueness of the community around them. Along with reducing (power, water, waste), reusing (wood and other materials for projects) and recycling, Mr. Chapin and Mr. Kean also have started ensuring the culture of the local area is imbued in the Rock City experience.
“We know there’s a large amount of ‘cultural capital’ here in Chattanooga, so we not only want to provide access to beautiful views but also a gateway to the local culture through art and music,” said Mr. Kean, president and COO of See Rock City, Inc. “If we miss this, we miss a pretty substantial piece of the sustainability equation. Natural resources are only part of sustainability; it’s also about the people and the quality of life.”
Rock City wanted to add a cultural aspect in a way that made sense and was congruent with the natural surroundings. The attraction has now become an avenue for up-and-coming sculptors to showcase their talents. Currently, five sculptures can be viewed around the grounds of Rock City, the latest installation being artist Michael Brandt’s “Invitation,” a trellis made of reclaimed steel combined with a red oak that had fallen on the property. This is Brandt’s first sculpture.
“Rock City is filled with large-scale rock ‘sculptures’,” Mr. Kean said, referring to the rock formations that give the attraction its name. “This is a different way to talk about Rock City with guests and potential guests, and it provides another way to engage in the overall experience.”
In addition, Summer Music Weekends, and similar events, have given gifted musicians the chance to perform. The New Binkley Brothers, who will be featured on Founder’s Day, will also play throughout the summer.
“We know we’re getting the balance of new and old right when we hear about it from our guests,” Mr. Kean said. “We had a guest come last spring who said he was astounded at the changes, but it was similar enough that he could remember the good experience he had 25 years ago. He was excited enough that he brought his family back with him last summer to share his own Rock City memories and make new ones.”
Rock City has several other new additions in conjunction with the 80th anniversary, including an audio tour and the return of the gnomes in the new Gnome Valley installation. But much of the attraction remains true to its origins, so the next generation can enjoy what so many around the world have already experienced.
The woodland gardens are as beautiful as when Frieda Carter began planting trees, shrubs and flowers along the trails. On a clear day, legend has it guests can still see Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama at the Seven States Flag Court. Young-at-heart visitors enjoy the magic of Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village. Legacy Lane, created in honor of the 75th anniversary, provides guests a history of Rock City, and visitors can stop by the original Fairyland community fire station for a Starbucks treat.
And, of course, travelers on the highways and back roads of America can still see nearly 100 barns from Texas to Michigan with the famous phrase “See Rock City” emblazed on the roof. Several are being repainted by Jim Byers, son of Rock City’s original barn painter Clark Byers, and Don Parris this spring as part of the 80th anniversary celebration.
Tickets are $18.95 for adults and $10.95 for children (kids under 3 get in free). Annual passes are $34 for adults and $18 for kids and include unlimited daytime admission to the attraction, food and retail discounts and other specials.
Rock City is open daily for self-guided tours from 8:30 a.m. to dusk. Other features include Starbucks, formerly Cornerstone Station, the remodeled Big Rock Grill, assorted gift shops and the ever-popular Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village. In addition to Rock City Gardens, See Rock City, Inc., also leases and manages the Incline Railway Ticketing and Concessions, owns and operates Battles for Chattanooga Museum (battlesforchattanooga.com) and Grandview Conference Center (meetatgrandview.com) on Lookout Mountain, and Rock City's Enchanted Cornfield Maze at Blowing Springs Farm in Flintstone, Georgia (enchantedmaze.com). For more information and a complete schedule of events, please visit www.seerockcity.com.