Mike on America

Rock City Next Stop: A View Of True Business Smarts

There is likely no better example of American business acumen and showmanship than what I'm standing on right now. 'Rock City', on top of Lookout Mountain, Georgia. I call it made by God, enchanced by man. Actually it could be Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, or Lookout Mountain, Alabama as well. The mountain itself runs 90 miles through three states and you can see seven, yes seven states, from Lover's Leap point. Or at least that's what Garnet Carter claimed. We'll come back to that.

Rock Cityis a legendary American, road side, 'natural' attraction. It is 75 years old this year and on average 430,000 people from across the country and world make the drive up Lookout Mountain to see it. And what they see is Frieda Carter's Garden. That's the 'Made by God' part. The 'Enhanced by Man' part was done by her husband, Garnet. The two of them bought 15 acres on top of Lookout Mountain for a homestead in the 1920's. And while Frieda busied herself with her gardens around their home, Garnet set about 'developing' another 300 or so acres nearby. He had plans for a subdivision, Fairyland, and a championship golf course. What he didn't plan on was 1929, the stock market crash and the Depression that followed.

The subdivision didn't get off the ground and the championship golf course was replaced by something Garnet named 'Tom Thumb Golf'. Yes, Garnet Carter is the inventor of 'miniature golf'. An idea and franchise he later sold and undoubtedly you played.

But what really caught his eye was the number of Frieda's friends that would make the trek up the mountain to see her gardens. He figured that if he 'enhanced' the natural rock formations around those gardens a bit he might even get people to pay to see them.

One thing though: how to get the message out? How do you let people know in other places, other states, that his newly coined 'Rock City' was up there on the mountain? Cars were still a new item in the 1930's, but Americans had taken to them with gusto. Garnet figured 'Rock City' was the kind of place folks would drive to, and enjoy the trip. He also figured he needed to get out where the cars were and peak the driving public's interest. There were plenty of barns along the roads in those days. Barns with roofs and sides that needed a little paint. He offered to paint them, as long as what he painted on them was, 'See Rock City', or 'Rock City 125 miles ahead', or 'Turn here for Rock City'. The farmers were happy to have him. Yes, Garnet Carter also invented 'targeted marketing'. The 'Rock City' brand was painted on hundreds of barns across the Midwest, Southeast and up the Northeastern corridor.

Bill Chapin, Garnet and Frieda's great nephew, runs Rock City today. The number of 'natural' road side attractions has dwindled in the United States over the years, victims of mega-amusement parks and changing lifestyles. But Chapin has managed to keep 'Rock City' not only alive, but flourishing. He's continued to 'enhance' the nearly mile walk through the caverns and trees. He holds seasonal events. And he brings the same passion to 'selling' the history and story of 'Rock City' as his great uncle did. Any man who greets me for the first time wearing a 'Rock City' bird house hat is a man with a story to tell.

There is also something very 'now' about 'Rock City' thanks in large measure to our societal re-interest in all things natural and organic. From our foods to our farming practices, and even in this case, our choice of ways to enjoy ourselves. There is nothing more 'organic' than Rock City.

Now, that business about seeing seven states from Lover's Leap. Alabama to your right, North and South Carolina straight in front of you. You're standing on Georgia, Tennessee is slightly to your left, and if you look WAY down to the left you'll see the point where Virginia and Kentucky come together. Bill says you can see the blue grass on a clear day.

Something else Bill says. Uncle Garnet always claimed it was easier to see the 7 states after four or five shots of good bourbon. Oh yeah...I can see all 7 now.

'Mike On America' will be roaming the Southwest next week. See you along the road.

Questions?  Comments?  mikeonamerica@nbcuni.com