SHOAL CREEK COUNTRY MUSIC PARK – THEN & NOW
By Janice Sayer
“Entrepreneur” is a word that described Alton Walters long before he was old enough to consult Webster as to its meaning. At age nine, Alton sold garden seeds to his neighbors and purchased a 1939 Gene Autry guitar. By the early ’60 Alton and his wife, Bertha Mae, were already owners of the successful Janice Eskimo Queen Restaurant (On many Sundays, the Walters would serve 400-500 people at noon for $1.00 a plate at the all-you-can-eat restaurant), Walters Poultry Company and Walters Ice Company in Lavonia, [Georgia] plus the Carolina Poultry Company in Anderson, South Carolina.
The husband and wife team had been country music fans even before they began to date and their love for the music had increased over the years. Janice Eskimo Queen somehow got to be a place where some of the country music entertainers would stop while they were on the road. Bill Anderson was one who stopped.
While Anderson was in the restaurant one night he told Alton about some outdoor parks up in Pennsylvania where they held concerts. Alton thought that was a pretty interesting idea. But would it even be feasible that a music park could take shape and be successful on the banks of Parkertown Creek in a little known corner of the world? A few of his neighbors said it couldn’t be done. Alton said it could.
The Walters had recently purchased a 162 acre farm in the Shoal Creek community of Hart County. Whenever possible Alton and Bertha Mae with daughter, Janice, and sons, Butch and Steve, would slip off to spend time camping in an old concrete sandhouse located on the property. Several times as the family laid on the hard floor wrapped in quilts that protected them from the dampness of the creek’s night air, Alton shared his idea to build an outdoor music park with his wife and family. It would be the first of its kind in the state of Georgia. With faith and determination Alton and Bertha Mae launched the dream.
On Sunday afternoon, May 5, 1962 the Walters watched as Mel Tillis christened Shoal Creek Country Music Park on a 12 x 30 foot stage constructed from the old sandhouse on the bank of the creek. (His fee for the event was $150.00.) Admission for the Sunday show was: Children…40 cents, Adults…75 cents. Only about 50 people showed up to watch the show. Seating was rough boards supported by concrete blocks.
Billy Dilworth looking back in a news article in 1971 said “The only road leading past the place was dirt, electric lights were few and civilization seemed right far away.” But Alton wasn’t discouraged. He believed the park could be successful but it would take time.
When crowds failed to pick up for Sunday afternoon shows, Alton decided to switch to Saturday. After all, during this era Blue Laws prevented many businesses from opening on Sunday.
The first year was good…the second and third better. Playground equipment, including swings for the kids, was added and six giant outdoor lights made the park area as bright as daylight. A new up-to-date sound system was installed. Regular shows on Saturday night were at 8:30 and 10.30 pm.
In 1963 a 3-day bluegrass festival was born. Eventually, the festival changed to a 9-day event and attracted up to 35,000 people per festival. It lasted for 18 years and became know as the nation’s best known annual bluegrass music festival.
“We packed them in every year,” Walter said. “They came in from all over the country. You’d see license plates from New York and California and Florida. We had some people from Japan one year and they loved it,” he said.
In 1967 a covered shelter was built in the concert area to protect fans in case of rain and the dirt road past the park was paved which eliminated acres and acres of dust …..or red mud.
The park was really a family affair. Alton directed the bookings, the talent and the business arrangements. Bertha Mae and their daughter, Janice, was in charge of the concession stand, and sons, Butch and Steve, pitched in at the concession stand, behind the stage and in parking cars. Alton’s dad, Willie Walters, also helped with parking cars and directing fans to the seating area.
Consider some of the lineup at Shoal Creek during the 1970’s: Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Price, Mel Tillis, Hank Williams, Jr., Ricky Scaggs, Grandpa Jones, Connie Smith, The Osborne Brothers, Bill Anderson, Sonny James, Carl Smith, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jim and Jesse, Mac Wiseman, Carl Story , George Jones and Tammy Wynette. It read like a roll call at the Country Music Hall of Fame. (Legend has it that Tammy Wynette left George Jones drunk on the bus at Shoal Creek. Two days later George woke up and wondered where everyone was.)
In August, 1970, six thousand people came to hear and see the nation’s top recording artist, Conway Twitty. It was the largest crowd ever to gather on the shores of Shoal Creek to see a single entertainer.
“We have struggled several years to make this park a success and a place where country music lovers could come and hear the greats,” said Walters, “and it seems we have finally reached this point.” (The Hartwell Sun – Thursday, August 27, 1970.)
Through the 1960’s concerts were still held in the open air down by the creek. The covered shelter built in 1967 had long since been too small to accommodate the large crowds when it rained.
“And you know I can remember a lot of times I’d have something like $150,000 tied up in a concert and I’d look up and see those rain clouds rolling in,” said Alton.
On Sunday afternoon, October 31, 1971, Governor Lester Maddox and Lt. Gov. Zell Miller presided at the opening ceremonies dedicating the new $100,000 – 3500 seat Shoal Creek Entertainment Center. Following the ceremonies. Ralph Emery emceed the country music featuring Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner. Thousands were in attendance requiring two shows, one at 2:30 and another at 6:00 pm. This new facility allowed shows to continue during the winter months and rainy weather. (Someone who was at the Sunday dedication in 1971 said that Dolly Parton busted the zipper in her dress and had to wear a sweater for the rest of the show.)
Just when things were going so well for the Walter’s family, tragically, Alton and Bertha Mae’s son, Butch, was killed in an automobile accident just days from his 19th birthday in 1974. Butch had been his dad’s right hand man in Walters Poultry Company and at the music park. Reports were that Alton never got over losing his son and began to drink heavily.
On July 9, 1976, in honor of the recognition the festivals at Shoal Creek had brought to the State of Georgia, Governor George Busbee by proclamation declared July 15 – 28, 1976, as the “EIGHT ANNUAL GEORGIA STATE BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL DAYS.”
Alton was nominated to The County Music Association, Inc. on August 12, 1975. The plaque read: FOR HIS GENEROUS CONTRIBUTION OF TIME AND TALENT IN OUR MUTUAL CAUSE FOR THE BROADER ACCEPTANCE AND PROGRESS OF COUNTRY MUSIC. It has been said that no man had contributed more to the growth of country music in the State of Georgia than Alton Walters.
In the early eighties Shoal Creek Music Park fell on hard times. Its decline was attributed to the entertainers requiring more money than a small park owner could afford to pay. For example, “The last time we had Mel (Tillis) it cost us $30,000,” said Alton. Also about this time the price of gasoline started steadily rising(…$1.00 per gallon.) “Things were just changing,” said Walters, “And I was having some health problems, so it was hard. It’s a little sad in some ways when I go out there. Sometimes I miss the way it use to be, but then sometimes it was a headache.” Walters said he could relate to Porter Waggoner’s song “That Was Then and This is Now.
The last few years of Alton’s life weeds grew on the once manicured fields…and ruts were unavoidable on the dirt driveway leading to the metal building that had provided shelter to so many thousands of loyal fans. The outside concert area by the creek had also fallen into disrepair. Shoal Creek was no longer a must-stop point for bluegrass and country music fans. But the land was not totally unused. A small flea market operated there and country music dances were held each Saturday night in the building at the top of the hill. Several wrestling matches were also held. Alton and his grandson, Marty (9) were “co-owners” of the A & M Funny Farm and had incubators in the building. They owned about 100 different varieties of rare breed chickens. Alton was the entrepreneur until the very end.
Alton Walters passed away February 2, 1988 with complications from pneumonia. Through good times and bad Alton’s most loyal supporter had been his wife, Bertha Mae. After Alton’s death she, too, in failing health went to live with her daughter, Janice.
Bertha Mae Walters passed away January 3, 1991. .
The dream of “Fatman” (A name Alton was affectionately called by his friends.) had taken a scarcely populated community in rural north Georgia and brought the world to its doors.
In early 1989 Shoal Creek Country Music Park lay in ruin waiting for the next chapter.
Clem Sayer passed the park one morning and noticed the overgrown “For Sale” sign in the field. It just happened that Bluegrass Express from Hartwell where Clem has been playing on Saturday nights for the last 5 years had been looking for a larger facility. It didn’t take long for Clem and Bertha Mae Walters to reach an agreement.
In May, 1989 with only 29 of the original 162 acres left, the park officially became Clem’s Shoal Creek Music Park. (Clem decided to drop the word “country” because he liked all kinds of music – especially bluegrass.)
After the sale became final Bluegrass Express decided they did not want to move from the Hartwell area so the question was: What do we do with this Park? (The neighbors had already told us the place was to rocky to grow corn.) After much soul searching Clem left the Saturday night show on Depot Street and got out his hammer and nails.
With a crew of carpenters, electricians, painters and several volunteers working long hours each day the park was rebuilt. The outside stage on the creek had its roof repaired and the entire structure was repainted. The concession stand had to be lifted out of the dirt about 18” and the floor rebuilt. The bathrooms were updated and showers with hot water added. The water supply for the park since its construction in 1961 was furnished from a single spring. Cisterns were added to insure an adequate amount of water for the bathrooms, concession stand, campsites, auditorium and to the mobile home residence. More lighting was added for security.
In 1963 when the bluegrass festivals started only rough camping was available. The only place to bathe was in the creek (According to gossip, Dolly Parton shaved her legs in the creek using Porter Waggoner’s razor.) By late summer, 1989, Clem had added 50 campsites with water and power. (And oh! how camping had changed. Now the campers or motor homes are like Holiday Inn on wheels.)
All through early spring well into the summer construction continued. Roads were scraped and graveled, grass was cut, picnic tables placed around the grounds and new planks were added on top of the old concrete blocks for seating. As the old planks now splintered and broken were removed, Clem reminisced about all the hundred or thousands of butts that had graced those planks through the years. Finally, the park was ready for an opening date of July 8, 1989.
For the first show several hundred people turned out. Clem was pleasantly surprised… after all, the park had laid dormant for so many years.
Saturday night shows continued down by the creek until September. Then they were moved to the auditorium for the winter months. Only one show during the summer was rained out and had to be moved to the building. (Alton’s words kept ringing in our ears, “And I looked up and could see those rain clouds rolling in.”)
By the spring of 1990 Clem had made plans to put a roof over the entire seating area of the outside facility. No more watching the sky for rain clouds. He called in a bulldozer to level the ground in front of the stage. You guess it. Rock – pure rock. So the plans had to be redesign slightly to take care of the rock. (Legend has it that Alton buried money on the property. So with each scoop of dirt we listened for any sound of clink, clink, but no buried treasure to date.) But the seating area did get a roof.
Clem was also secretly sending out feelers about starting up the bluegrass festivals again.
Alton had definitely been right when he said the country entertainers had out-priced themselves. A small promoter couldn’t afford the gigantic amount the country stars expected.
The first 3-day BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL, AGAIN was held in July, 1992.
When the first 3-day festival was over, it was decided right then and there a 9-day festival would NEVER happen. How did the Walters survive all those years? Way, way too much work!! And in the middle of July!
From the first day Clem brought the Park, he knew he was walking on hallowed ground. Alton and Bertha Mae had put so much sweat (and certainly tears) into this place he wanted to memorialize them. On May 13,14,15, 1993 Clem’s Shoal Creek Music Park presented the FIRST ALTON & BERTHA WALTERS BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL dedicated to the founders of the Park. The 3-day event is still held each May on Memorial Day Weekend.
Festivals in July continued for several years. Finally, an open date became available in September when Charles Hamby sold his Bluegrass Park in Baldwin, Georgia and the July festival was moved to the 3rd weekend of September because of the July heat.
More campsites with water and power were added in the late nineties to accommodate the people who wanted to be down on the creek in the shade.
In 2000 a Thanksgiving festival was added to the lineup. Although it continued for 9 years it really never grew. The Thanksgiving festivals were like Alton’s Sunday programs. People didn’t turn out……
But they did turn out for the Gospel concerts. Most of these programs were held in the auditorium. During the years the lineup included The Lewis Family, Charles Johnson and the Revivers, The Chuckwagon Gang, The McKameys, Wendy Bagwell and the Sunlighters, The Kevin Spencer Family, and other great gospel groups.
Things have a way of happening at the most unexpected time. Things are rolling along fine and then a wheel runs off. Remember Alton and Bertha Mae son, Butch, was kill at the heyday of the Country Music Park and it brought on change. In 2003, Clem suffered congestive heart failure and was hospitalized for several weeks and was not given a good prognosis at the time. Now, thanks to God’s intervention and a good doctor, he is doing great! But it demanded change in lifestyle.
No longer are there Saturday night programs at Shoal Creek. The Thanksgiving Festival was cancelled as of 2010. Life has gotten a little easier…..Clem will turn 73 in March and has owned the Park now for 21 years. Time to slow down and as they say “smell the flowers.”
…………… Update to this biography which was written in November, 2010………….
Sadly on Tuesday morning, February 15, 2011 around 5:30 a.m. Clem passed away in his sleep.
Two achievements that had been reached during these 21 years that made him very appreciative were:
- Clem honored at the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame November 24, 2007
- Clem’s Shoal Creek Music Park honored at the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame
November 27, 2010.
When Shoal Creek Country Music Park was purchased from the Walters in ’89, it was never looked upon as a money-making venture. As they say, “The train has already run.”
But there was money to be made if Clem had lowered his values and used the Park according to some suggestions. Time upon time he was offered several rental deals most of them included alcohol, but he would never use the Park for anything that degraded the community of Shoal Creek.
Now what? The Park once again awaits the next chapter.
Thanks go to: Billy Dilworth for his news articles in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s
The Franklin County Citizen
The Hartwell Sun
Special “Thanks” to the Walters Family who lived this history