More than 50 years have passed since Garnet Carter died, yet his legacy as a gifted promoter and salesman continues to endure.
At a time when leisure was just becoming popular for most of mainstream America, he developed miniature “Tom Thumb” golf courses as well as his most famous contribution – Rock City Gardens.
“He was one of a kind,” said his nephew, E.Y. Chapin III, who took over the operation of Rock City from him and ran it for a number of years before his son, Bill Chapin, became proprietor. “There weren’t many folks like him.”
Born John Garnet Carter on Feb. 9, 1883, in Sweetwater, Tenn., his family later lived in Chicago before settling in Chattanooga. He eventually dropped out of school, but he did not drop some business ambitions he was already developing.
He took a six-month business course and went to work for the Dewees grocery store, putting in long hours but receiving low pay. He later became a traveling candy salesman for N. Dietzen & Bros and found the pay sweeter as well.
In 1905, while still a traveling salesman, he met and married Frieda May Untermoehlen of Jackson, Tenn. Nearly three years older, she was from a family of German descent. Her father had been a music professor and played the violin, while she was an accomplished pianist as well as award-winning painter.
She would be a key to Mr. Carter’s success by adding an artistic touch to his business ventures.
He later went into business with his brother, Paul B. Carter. He also became involved in a punchboard prize business as well as a profit-sharing coupon business, the later of which offered aluminum ware as prizes.
Among his later ventures were being involved with O.B. Andrews in owning the Chattanooga Lookouts briefly and developing the Fairyland properties on Lookout Mountain.
The latter had come about while visiting Florida in the 1920s to see if he wanted to invest in the real estate boom there. He concluded, however, that Chattanooga offered just as much.
He and Mr. Andrews put in some lots and roads in the Fairyland community and began building the Fairyland Inn. They originally brought in a Florida partner who proposed building a 15-story hotel there.
Those plans never materialized, so Mr. Carter and Mr. Andrews finished the ballroom and the rest of the scaled-down inn.
The inn closed for several years during the Depression until the Fairyland Club was organized in 1934 and took over the properties. In 1945, the club purchased the building and grounds.
Mrs. Carter designed many of the homes in the area and gave the streets fairy tale names. She also won recognition for her Mother Goose Village vacation cottages near the inn. Her thinking was no doubt likely that residents and visitors would imagine they had come to a dreamland in the woods.
Garnet Carter also developed the first miniature golf course at the Fairyland Inn and later helped develop thousands of these courses elsewhere, his obituary said. The courses required electrical fixtures, lamps, golf clubs and balls, and various man-made hazards. In contrast to today’s Putt-Putt or Sir Goony Golf style courses, they were laid out on natural lawn areas
Although he had become quite a business success by this time, his greatest legacy was still ahead of him. In 1925, while the Fairyland development was opening, the Carters moved to Lookout Mountain from Missionary Ridge.
Some rocky west brow property they owned had been a popular picnic area for years, but they fenced off the land. Many people who had enjoyed the spot suggested they reopen the land for picnicking but charge an entrance fee.
This gave the Carters the idea to develop Rock City Gardens into the popular tourist attraction it is today. According to Mrs. Carter’s obituary, she was the one with the idea to develop Rock City and designed the first Enchanted Trail complete with stepping stones and rustic bridges. She also planted every flower native to the region. She and the attraction later received a national garden club award.
The Carters also built a home on the property in 1937.
While Mrs. Carter initially made Rock City an attractive place for people to come, Mr. Carter was the one who brought them there after it opened on May 21, 1932, at the height of the Depression. He had Clark Byers paint countless “See Rock City” barns on highways and byways in numerous states. Many of the barns have since become landmarks and iconic symbols of Americana.
Mr. Carter went on to see his attraction become a very profitable venture before his death on July 21, 1954, at the age of 71. His wife died July 20, 1964, at the age of 84.
Mr. Chapin said that in his later years, Mr. Carter would call his brother every day, in part because neither had any natural children. Garnet Carter also enjoyed having a late afternoon drink with several friends and playing cards, Mr. Chapin said.
Mr. Chapin – who bucked conventional wisdom by going to work for his uncle rather than follow his family in a more stable banking job – also remembered that Mr. Carter was a thoughtful and helpful person who was bright, creative and a natural salesman with plenty of perseverance.
“He would set his mind on something and work until he got it done,” he said.
Mr. Chapin said Mrs. Carter was a lovely lady who was a talented artist. In fact, he still has some of her paintings in his home.
Both husband and wife created quite a landscape – and legacy - on Lookout Mountain and beyond.