Several local musicians have aired concerns in recent months about incorporating a museum into the historic depot, which has been under renovation since last year. The depot is the venue for Ringgold Opry’s weekly jam sessions.
City council members voted unanimously in favor of Councilman Bill McMillon’s motion to establish museum space in three rooms of the depot.
McMillon said that while some contend museum attendance can be minimal, he believes the museum's success will hinge on how the site is created and promoted.
“The Depot in Chickamauga, they have a model train museum and they have a lot of visitors,” he said. “It is whatever we are going to make it.”
Mayor Joe Barger encouraged the council to create displays that will allow use of the rooms in other ways such as meetings or small luncheons. His plan could also allow use of the rooms for musicians on Opry nights.
“I think there will be enough space for both,” he said.
The mayor said he visited the Old Stone Church and found that the local landmark has an average of 20 visitors per month compared to the estimated 200-300 who attend the weekly Opry shows.
The Catoosa County Historical Society operates the Old Stone Church museum. Past CCHS president Joy Mahan said by telephone that she believes the museum, which is open 16 hours per week, draws more visitors than estimated by the mayor.
Council member Martha Denton expressed concerns about whether the musicians will still be able to use the space.
“I did not realize how many people it actually draws,” she said. “I want it to be used for a museum but I want the pickers to be able to get in there and do their thing too. They have used it for so long. People are used to it. If we did not have the Ringgold Opry, I believe it would be such a loss.”
Losing the regulars?
Mayor Barger said he has been told that if the musicians cannot use the rooms, the Opry will not be returning to the building.
McMillon suggested that the deck area, including the space planned for behind the building, will provide many areas for the groups to gather and play.
Vice Mayor G. Larry Black, who seconded the motion to designate museum space, said that he has been told by some that, “people do not come to an Opry to see a museum.”
Councilman O.C. Adcock questioned whether the space behind the stage could provide a place for the bands to jam.
“Ringgold Depot is a historic site,” Councilman J.B. Petty said. “I think a small portion for a museum (is fair). We are getting a lot of people into town that will probably like to see some of the things people will want to donate.
“When you say 300 people will show up at the Opry, not long ago some person showed up representing the Opry, saying they tried to pass the hat around and could not collect enough money out of those 300 people to pay the utilities bills,” he said. “So the city paid the utility bills. If they are in town and we are having to pay for it we are giving somebody a free ride. The concession stand (at the Opry), I do not know where that money is going.”
Mayor Barger said the city paid the depot’s last two utility bills.
“During the time we paid roughly $2,000 in gas bills,” he said.
Petty said he was unsure if the Ringgold Depot Preservation Corporation and the Ringgold Opry are connected.
Ronal Graham, who served on the Ringgold Depot Preservation Corporation’s Board of Directors and as a major component behind the Ringgold Opry, said the two entities are separate.
“The Preservation Corporation is now dissolved,” he said. “It accomplished its goals; it increased interest and got the depot in a usable condition.”
Graham said a consensus of Opry participants will decide whether the Opry will continue to use the Depot once renovations are completed.
Following the discussion, McMillon agreed to adjust his motion to include a provision to review usage of the museum space sometime in the future if the museum does not draw the anticipated response.
Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame member Johnnie Sue, who has performed at the Opry since 1995, opening for entertainers such as John Conlee and Bill Anderson, believes a compromise might satisfy all parties.
“If they (the city) could set up museum pieces behind some double pane glass so there is not any vandalism, I think they will draw more people by having the music,” she said.
Sue said that if the museum is limited to three back rooms
— space typically used for jamming — musicians could likely use the decks except when the weather is too cold.
She said, however, that the back stage area is not conducive to jamming because sounds played in that area can be heard by the audience, and performers waiting to go on stage need those areas to prepare for their show.
Sue added that she believes the Depot’s biggest problem will be the lack of close parking, reducing access to the building for older and disabled attendees