There were many acres of parking at Verona Lake Ranch, and our faithful parking attendant was “Peanuts” Washum, a small man who lived across the road from the park. He helped Tracy and Marc, our two children, clean up the park on Mondays as well. We had bumper stickers printed, and Peanuts always asked if he could put them on the car’s rear bumper. Most folks were glad to promote the park. Periodically we checked license plates to see where the folks came from − it was about 50 percent Ohio, 40 percent Kentucky, and 10 percent Indiana. And every week there were cars from other states as well, people who had heard about the park or saw posters.
We had a 19th-century buggy on top of the ticket booth, and for a time we had Kentucky’s last hangman’s scaffold on display. I don’t know who sold me on that, and I was sorry after it was there. I don’t remember where it came from or where it went when we got rid of it.
In the four years we operated Verona Lake Ranch (1956-1959), we had many special events in addition to the regulars shows. The stars we had on stage read like a “Who’s Who in Country Music.” To name a few not already mentioned: Stanley Brothers; Ferlin Husky; “Jumpin’” Bill Carlisle; George Jones; Kitty Wells and Johnnie and Jack; Carl Smith; Billy Grammer; Don Gibson; Wally Fowler’s Gospel Show; Wilburn Brothers; Grandpa Jones; Lonzo and Oscar; and Skeeter Davis.
Thurston looks on as Ferlin Husky signs autographs for employees.
Our three-piece house band consisted of fiddler Billy Thomas, who also played the banjo, his wife on the double bass, and Joe Elliott who was a fine guitarist in the style of Chet Atkins. Every week he got requests to play “Poor People of Paris,” Chet’s big hit.
Georgianna was a major draw to the park, too. A newspaper article in the spring of 1957, wrote, “The shows were hosted by Miss Georgie, whose amiable personality, cutting up and dances made her a favorite with thousands of folks.” Miss Georgie, as everyone called her, had many put-on skirmishes with Billy, and the audience never knew what to expect next.
Billy Thomas and Georgianna.
Their biggest show-stopper was one Sunday when Billy was chasing her around the stage. He finally caught up with her, grabbed her in his arms and headed for the lake. The audience was going wild and thought, surely he’s not going to throw her in the lake! Hundreds left their seats and followed them cheering. Yes, you guessed it! Billy did throw her in the lake, clothes and all. That was not rehearsed; the audience loved it, and Miss Georgie was more popular than ever.
It was a privilege to present “John Lair’s Renfro Valley Gang” from Renfro Valley, Kentucky. That show first began in the mind of John Lair in Chicago in the 1930s. He was listening to the WLS Barn Dance on the radio and was homesick for Renfro Valley. With the help of hillbilly super star, Red Foley, his show first opened in Cincinnati in 1937 on Radio Station WLW. And on November 4, 1939, the doors swung open in the Old Barn, and the WLW announcer was heard to say, “And now friends, by way of the magic carpet of radio, we take you to the big Old Barn in Renfro Valley, Kentucky, with John Lair and the Renfro Valley Barn Dance.” The Renfro Valley Entertainment Center continues with excitement week after week.
John Lair, founder of Renfro Valley Barn Dance.
Coon Creek Girls, regulars on the National Barn Dance and the Renfro Valley Barn Dance.
Another artist Georgianna had a tiff with was Stonewall Jackson, who didn’t draw a large crowd. He had a big hit at the time, “Waterloo,” and when Georgianna introduced the song, it got mild applause, and he walked off the stage. Georgianna went backstage and he told her, “I am not going out there.” She told him he was going to sing that song and finish his show or he would not be paid. He performed. We became friends in later years when he became a Grand Ole Opry star.
Little Jimmie Dickens, one of my favorite people in country music, was at the park when it rained most of the day and we didn’t have many people. It was evident to Jimmie and his manager that I would lose money that day. I think Jimmie’s fee was $650.00. After the third show, I went to pay him and Jimmie said, “Thurston, I know you didn’t do well at all today, and we’re cutting our fee to help you.” I told him that wasn’t necessary, that we had a contract. But they insisted; I do not remember what he was paid, but in four years he was the only star that ever offered help when I lost money or barely broke even.
Little Jimmie Dickens and Thurston.
Jimmie was an advertiser in my “Who’s Who” publications. I never had contracts with the artists because I trusted them and considered them friends. I would send an invoice after the book was published and they paid; all except Jimmie and one other. I didn’t worry about it, because whenever I saw Jimmie, he would put his hand behind my back and slip a $100 bill to me. I got paid in Nashville and other cities where we ran into each other. We never said anything, and he knew I would keep track and tell him when he was paid up.
Another interesting artist − who also had an interesting method for paying for ads − was “Stringbean,” who was a major comedian on The Grand Ole Opry for many years. For his act, he always wore bib overalls. (I wondered if he ever wore anything else.)
He kept $100 bills in the top pocket of his overalls and knew what he owed me. When I went to Nashville and backstage at the Ryman, he would slip out a $100 bill and hand it to me; nothing ever said. Like everyone, I loved String. He was a ray of sunshine wherever he was.
The most fun − or maybe I should say hilarious − luncheon I had in all my years was when I was attending a taping of the popular TV show, Hee Haw, which ran from 1969 to 1971, and then for 20 years in local syndication. I had lunch with three of the funniest people in show business: Stringbean, Archie Campbell, and Jr. Samples! I don’t think I ever knew what I was eating.
On a Saturday night in late 1973, Stringbean and his wife returned home after a performance on the Opry, and both were shot dead. Their bodies were found the next morning by their neighbor, “Grandpa” Jones.
Don’t miss the next chapter: Verona Varieties