The year 1955 was busy with publications when we purchased Verona Lake Ranch, and we soon found ourselves working overtime seven days a week, with plans for the park’s opening in 1956, thinking about concession stands and improvements. I was shuttling back and forth from the house to the office in Cincinnati and to the park. We sold the Blue House in early 1956, bought a nice trailer and moved to the park.
At the time, Verona had a population of between 400 and 500. Some Sundays, though, it swelled to 10,000! The only people we knew in Verona were the Scroggins, the bank president, and Marie, the bank clerk, whom we’d met when we signed the papers for the loan. I remember very few businesses in addition to the bank, namely the funeral home, grocery store, auto garage, small general store with the post office in the rear, and the elementary school, which bordered the park. So Georgianna and I made a visit to each of these places to introduce ourselves, and everyone was delighted to hear about our plans to put Verona on the map. We were quite interested in learning the history of Verona.
Thousands of visitors at Verona Lake Ranch
Set on a high ridge in the Eden Shale hills of southern Boone County, Verona was established in the mid-19th century and became a post office in 1850. One of its first institutions was the New Bethel Baptist Church, formed in 1840.
During the 1850s, Verona became the center of the largest Irish community in Boone County. Irish immigrants first arrived in the county in 1850, no doubt because of the famine that devastated Ireland in the 1840s. The first to arrive came to work on the farm of a Mr. Hudson near Richwood. By the 1880s, many Irish families had settled in the town and the surrounding countryside. Skilled Irish craftsmen may have constructed many of the distinctive stone cellars found on Verona area farms, as well as the stone fences once prominent along southern county turnpikes.
The heart of the Irish community was St. Patrick's Catholic Church, founded in 1850. Although the parish eventually merged with All Saints in Walton, the building still stands, in much-altered form.
By 1879, Verona had 175 residents. Its business district included saw and flour mills, a hardware store, a millinery shop and, in the 1900s, a bank. In the uplands and bottomlands of Verona Precinct, farmers raised livestock and tobacco.
One of the most important institutions of early 20th century in Verona was the Verona High School, which opened in 1914. The school served not only local students but children from counties to the south, who rode the train to attend classes.
By the late 20th century, Verona’s commercial importance diminished. Nonetheless, many of its original residences still stand, and relative isolation has preserved a number of the outlying farms.
The Scroggins lived in the most prominent home in the area, just down the state road from the park. It was a beautiful home, with white columns and a driveway along the lines of a Southern plantation home. After meeting “Bill,” we were taken back a little when we first met his wife, Edna, a charming woman who was certainly the queen of whatever society functions abounded in the area. They were as different as night and day. We had pleasant visits with Mrs. Scroggins. She served tea and enjoyed hearing about our show business and music backgrounds. We found out she liked classical music and ballet but had never seen a ballet. Our daughter, Tracy, who was 9 when we bought the ranch, studied ballet, and sometimes she and Georgianna would visit Mrs. Scroggins for tea, and Tracy would dance for her.
I went to Nashville soon after the park purchase and visited with some of the artists and two of my good friends, who were talent bookers and managers, “Lucky” Moeller and Hubert Long, to discuss acts for the 1956 season. Of course, everyone was delighted about my new venture and pledged their support. I met with Ernest Tubb, one of the top stars of the Opry, and we made a deal whereas he and his band would play our opening Memorial Day show each season, for a fee of $1,000. I met with my good friend Hank Snow, whom I admired and always made a point to spend time with in his dressing room backstage at the Opry in the old days at the Ryman Auditorium. I think he and his band played Verona almost every year, and he, too, was paid $1,000. We had three shows each Sunday, 1PM, 3PM and 6PM. For regular shows we charged 75 cents, children under 10 were free.
The highest paid star I had was Webb Pierce, for the 4th of July show in 1956; we paid him $1,250, and he brought “Red” Sovine with him, a singer who was associated with truck driving songs, including his No. 1 hit, “Teddy Bear,” in 1976. In later years, Red’s son, Roger, ran my Nashville office.
Pierce was a major star in the 1950s with his honky tonk songs. In the 1965 edition of my coveted Country Music Who’s Who, he was the largest advertiser, with a three-page open-out sheet, the first page proclaiming, “The only artist to receive Four Triple Crown Awards.”
Pierce was a hard drinker and became known for his excessive lifestyle, having had Hollywood tailor Nudie Cohen (he was known as “Nudie” in the country and western trade) make him flamboyant suits and line two convertibles with silver dollars. Nudie drove a special custom-made Pontiac that had steer horns on the front, actual 45-revolver door handles, cowhide covering on the seats, etc., and on my trips to Hollywood, I always stopped at Nudie’s store on Lankershim Boulevard and visited with him and his wife, Bobbie.
Webb Pierce in his convertible lined with silver dollars.
Nudie started out making undergarments for show girls, and on one of my visits, he said, “C’mon, I have to go over town.” I followed him out the back door, and there was his famous car. Sitting in that lavishly decorated Pontiac convertible, I felt like a potentate and thought I should be bowing to the crowds every time we stopped; that was a fun ride.
Another time in his store, I noticed a young man browsing through the racks of clothes, and suddenly realized it was Audie Murphy, the western film star who was the most decorated war hero of World War II. I introduced myself and told him how much I enjoyed his movies. He was a modest, very polite gentleman, and I was honored to shake his hand. The Willie Nelson Museum in Nashville contains Audie Murphy memorabilia. I suppose if you wanted to meet the “who’s who” of the county/western film world, you only had to spend time in Nudie’s. He made clothes for a long list of famous names, from John Wayne to Hank Williams. He even made the $10,000 gold lame´ suit for Elvis.
Audie Murphy featured on the cover of Life Magazine.
Webb Pierce’s home in Nashville was close to the Tennessee Governor’s mansion and Minnie Pearl’s home, and he had a $30,000 guitar-shaped swimming pool. His home was a favorite on the route of the tour buses for years.
Well, Georgianna never forgot Pierce’s Verona visit. He had smuggled a lady from the audience into his dressing room, and when Georgianna later found out about it, she went up to Pierce (who was at least 6 inches taller than her), grabbed him by the collar and threatened to throw him off the stage if he did that again!
There was an article in the Cincinnati paper the following day that reported, “Most of the parks in the area were closed over the 4th of July, due to the heavy rains. … At Verona Lake Ranch, where Webb Piece appeared, the crowds were reported as very good even though rains interrupted the show.”
Other stars that first year included The Porter Wagoner Trio, Homer and Jethro, the legendary Lulu Belle and Scotty from the WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Hank Snow and His Rainbow Ranch Boys, Carl Smith, Faron Young and Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash was there August 5, 1956, with the Tennessee Two, Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant. His records were just beginning to get national attention, and he wasn’t a big name as yet. His fee for the three shows was only $750. He got to the park early and walked around, no one noticing him. He came up to the concession stand where I was and asked if I had a fishing pole. Marc, our son, loaned him his pole, and Cash went fishing before the show!
Like most of our seasons, we had many rainy Sundays. Every time it rained and kept the folks away, I always thought about what Scroggins had said about “hardly ever getting rained out.”
Here are statistics for the first season:
Don’t miss the next chapter: “Miss Georgie”