One of the most iconic advertising campaigns of the 20th century didn’t involve clever taglines on posters or infectious jingles. It was far more straightforward than that. To market his tourist attraction located on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, entrepreneur Garnet Carter contracted a young sign painter named Clark Byers to paint a series of roadside barns with the simple slogan: see rock city.
Byers started the work in 1937 (or maybe it was 1935 or 1936—according to legend he couldn’t remember exactly when he began), and by the time he retired in 1968, he’d painted some 900 barns in 19 states. The marketing effort became one of the most successful outdoor advertising campaigns in history, and it’s just a small chapter in the fascinating story of a legendary property and a man who was a master of promotion.
Garnet Carter was always looking for an opportunity. Born in 1883 in Sweetwater, Tennessee, Carter was a natural salesman. By the time he was 16, he was operating a souvenir shop at the Chickamauga Military Park in North Georgia. A couple of years later, he started selling candy wholesale to retail clients within a 150-mile radius of Chattanooga. In 1905, Carter married a woman named Frieda Utermoehlen, the daughter of a respected violinist. The newlyweds moved to Cincinnati, where Carter joined his father’s wholesale novelty business. Five years later, Garnet and Frieda returned to Tennessee, and Garnet set his sights on a new business venture, aluminum cookware. Within a year, he had sold more than $3 million worth of pots and pans.
Always on the search for new ways to turn a profit, Garnet became interested in real estate and visited Florida in hopes of finding cheap investment land. But Florida was a bust in his eyes, and he decided to look for property closer to home. Garnet found just what he was searching for in a 300-acre parcel located on Lookout Mountain, a ridge that straddles the Georgia/Tennessee border. The views were breathtaking, but since the land was rocky and nearly inaccessible, the price was low. Garnet purchased the property and along with Frieda began planning a residential community and resort complex that would rival the likes of Pinehurst and the Greenbrier. As a nod to Frieda’s love of old-fashioned fairy tales, Garnet named the project Fairyland.
By 1924 Fairyland homesites had become a hot property, in large part due to Garnet’s brilliance as a salesman. A year later the luxurious Fairyland Inn opened, and construction of an 18-hole golf course was underway. Garnet had enlisted the services of golf course architect Seth Raynor to design a course that would showcase the rolling hills and sweeping views of the property. At the time, Raynor was in high demand and working on courses all across the United States. But building a golf course on a remote mountaintop was costly, and soon the project topped $400,000, which at the time made it second only to the Yale Golf Course as the most expensive golf course construction project in the United States. Raynor’s untimely death during the construction, coupled with a spate of bad weather, put the course seriously behind schedule. (The course was completed in 1927 and is now the private Lookout Mountain Club.)
With the golf course project moving at a snail’s pace, Garnet desperately needed a Fairyland amenity that would appeal to golfers. The idea that came to him was truly novel. Garnet fashioned a “miniature golf course” with obstacles including pipes, hollow logs, and pieces of tile along with statues of elves and gnomes to carry through the Fairyland theme. He called his invention Tom Thumb Golf, and it was such an immediate success that Garnet began franchising Tom Thumb Golf courses throughout the country.
While Garnet was busy with his miniature golf venture, Frieda spent her time creating walking trails and designing gardens. One of her favorite spots was the section of giant rock outcroppings located on the eastern side of the property. Frieda designed a trail through the outcroppings and transplanted wildflowers and other plants near the massive rocks. Garnet thought this “Rock City” could be a profitable business, and in the spring of 1932, it was opened to the public. After a slow start, the attraction eventually became a wildly popular tourist destination, due in part to the abundance of roadside barns urging travelers to see rock city. By the time of Garnet’s death in July of 1954, thousands of people had visited his and Frieda’s tourist attraction.
Today, Rock City is as popular as ever. The 14-acre garden includes a 4,100-foot walking trail, a waterfall, and more than 400 varieties of wildflowers, shrubs, and trees. From its 1,700-foot elevation, the property offers breathtaking views of seven states. Under the leadership of Bill Chapin, a third-generation descendant of Garnet and Frieda, Rock City continues to attract visitors from around the world, making it more than a tourist attraction—it’s a legacy that has stood the test of time.