In the 1950s, we were living at the “Blue House,” so called because we painted it blue shortly after we bought it in 1950. The house was located on three acres, with a running creek, situated about halfway between Covington and Visalia, where I was born. Finally, the publisher of country publications lived in the country.
“Red” Turner, a country musician, lived next door; he was a regular on the country shows over Radio Station WLW, Cincinnati, Ohio. And only a short distance away lived Skeeter Davis, who, with Betty Jack Davis, were billed as the Davis Sisters (although they were no relation at all), and they had a big hit in 1953 with their recording of “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.”
In August of that year, they were in an auto accident and Betty Jack was killed. (Skeeter Davis went on to a successful solo career and became a regular on The Grand Ole Opry until her death in 2004.) Shortly after Betty Jack’s funeral, I gave Georgianna the difficult assignment of visiting Skeeter and getting an interview for the first issue of our new magazine, Hoedown, dated September, 1953.
The Davis Sisters
The Jimmie Skinner Record Shop in Cincinnati was a major source for records for many years for country fans, and they sold all my books in the shop as well as mail order. They advertised “the largest selection of bluegrass and sacred records in the world.” Jimmie Skinner was a major country/bluegrass recording artist. He and his partner, Ray Lunsford, who played a unique electric mandolin, were very popular artists in the greater Cincinnati area and toured nearby states. The shop was located a short walk from our Cincinnati office, so I spent much time in the shop visiting with Jimmie and his manager, Lou Epstein. We were very good friends and many times had lunch at our favorite chili parlor, The Empress, famous for their Cincinnati chili.
In 1955, Brenda Lee, who later became a major star on The Grand Ole Opry, sang on Jimmie’s Saturday morning radio shows at the record shop, broadcast over WNOP, a Newport, Kentucky, station. She was 11 at the time, and she was so little that she had to stand on a wooden crate.
Brenda Lee with Elvis
One day in 1955, Jimmie said to me, “Thurston, Lou and I want to come to your house and visit with you.” They had never done this before, and I wondered why the visit then. Well, it was a beginning of a big chapter in our lives.
When they got to my house, Lou quickly got to the reason for the visit. He asked me, “Are you familiar with the 80-acre hillbilly park, Verona Lake Ranch, over in Verona?” I knew very little about it, and told him so. Then he went on to tell me about this park, owned by a “Bill” Scroggins, the three fishing lakes, and the fact that the park presented hillbilly shows every Sunday in the summer. He said they featured talent from around the greater Cincinnati area, and whenever Jimmie and Ray were in town, they played there. Verona was about 25 miles from our home.
Then he got to the point: Verona Lake Ranch was for sale and he and Jimmie thought I would be greatly interested since I had become a “name” in the country music business and had contacts in Nashville, whereby we could bring in big names from The Grand Ole Opry to appear at the park.
Verona Lake Ranch
Well, as Georgianna always told the kids in the books she wrote, “If you don’t go forward, you won’t go anywhere.” So naturally I was intriqued, and Georgianna and I looked at each other questioningly. Eleven years of marriage had passed, and she was always by my side, always ready for new adventures or another move to another city or state. We had Lou set up an appointment for us to go to Verona. I realized Lou didn’t want to lose this source of summer income for Jimmie and Ray, and he knew if we bought it they would play there as long as we owned the park.
On the day of our summit meeting, Georgianna and I got there early, along with Lou and Jimmie, to look around. It had a great stage with a couple of dressing rooms in the back, amphitheatre seats of old railroad ties (which worked perfectly for an outdoor amphitheater), a beautiful wooded picnic area, outdoor privies, a large barn, and a small building.
We were on the stage when “Bill” Scroggins, a self-styled banjo player, jumped out of his Jeep and came down to the stage. Here was a character, old work clothes, long white sideburns, cowboy hat, looking like he just stepped out of the set of a cowboy movie. He had a trick horse that had performed at the park in prior years. He was very personable (of course, he wanted to make a sale), and we liked him right off. He made over Georgianna, and she knew how to play back to him so they got along great.
We heard all about the park, how he had operated it for years, and I never forgot that he stressed that they were very seldom rained out. Boy! Those words came back to haunt us many Sundays. He told us about the “tobacco base” – it was actually classified as a farm, and he said the tobacco (which was planted and cured in the big barn by Calvin Sturgeon, the caretaker who lived in a trailer by the barn) more than paid for the annual taxes.
Bill said it was important to have a good MC who could really reach out to the rural folks that came to the park so they would think of the MC as their friend. I looked at Gergianna and said, “Well, I’ve got the greatest MC in the world, and here she is!”
Georgianna laughed and said, “I think it would be fun, but someone will have to tell me who the stars are that I am introducing. You know, my favorite singers are Elvis and Nat King Cole!”
Georgianna was beautiful and had been in many shows, acting and dancing, and I knew everyone would love her, especially the men. How little did I know then that she would have a great following with the old farmers, many who came as regulars to sit on the front rows just to see “Georgie” and get a kiss. And when she did some of her dances, like the “hula” and the 1920s shimmy in her fringe dress, they had a hard time staying in their seats.
Georgianna dancing on the hula stage at Verona Lake Ranch.
In the 1930s and ’40s, there were several hundred so-called “hillbilly parks” in the United States, more in Pennsylvania than any other state, many of them built on the same sites as the “brush arbor” revivals or tent Chautauqua gatherings, the medicine shows and outdoor jamborees that started in rural areas in the 19th century. These soon evolved into venues for professional traveling musicians.
During the early years of the twentieth century, traveling Chautauqua programs entertained small-town and rural areas with culture and intellectual thought, music, and performers like the master magician Howard Thurston (my namesake) and Nashville’s Fisk Jubilee Singers. Booker T. Washington and Carrie Nation were favorites, too. I used to tease Georgianna about creating a one-woman show: “Carrie Nation, the Hatchet Lady.” Teddy Roosevelt said of Chautauqua that it was “the most American thing in America.”
In 1932, Dr. Hauer's medicine show, which toured the Southern Appalachian region, hired Roy Acuff as one of its entertainers. The purpose of the entertainers was to draw a large crowd to whom Hauer could sell medicines (of suspect quality) for various ailments. Acuff was one of the many famous stars of The Grand Ole Opry that we brought to Verona Lake Ranch.
By the start of the depression, farmers, who were fans of the hillbilly music, started building outdoor stages to present the stars of radio and the cowboys of the silver screen. They filled out the bill with beauty contests, political rallies, carnival variety acts, turkey shoots, and much more. The music parks thrived based on an ingenious blend of the camp meeting and the county fair, the variety show and square dances. I guess those things were running through my mind as I pondered what to do. I knew the parks were disappearing, but I knew of some very successful ones and thought, Why can’t we have the most successful outdoor country music park in the country?
I could see the potential of turning this small operation into a major park, primarily because it had the right location to pull people throughout Kentucky, southern Indiana and Ohio. When “Bill” told us the price was $20,000, I looked at Georgianna, and she smiled. With her wonderful imagination of turning winter into a beautiful spring and summer, she said, “I like it, let’s buy it.” I also knew it would take a lot of money for new construction, and I said, “If we can get a loan for $18,000, we’ll buy it.” “Bill” assured me that the Verona Bank – a relic from Jesse James days – would make the loan. They did, and in a few days we were the proprietors of Verona Lake Ranch.
Verona Lake Ranch bumper sticker.
Don’t miss the next chapter: Verona Lake Ranch – Country Music Park.