Sam Burnham, Curator
The 1954 New York Yankees had five future Hall of Fame players, including Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. They went 103-51. They finished 2nd in the American League. They lost roughly 33% of their games. Almost 10% of their losses came against one pitcher, a young hurler from southern Floyd County, Georgia. His prowess when facing the Bronx Bombers earned him the nickname “The Yankee Killer.”
Willard Nixon was born in Taylorsville, Georgia but grew up in Silver Creek and Lindale where his parents worked in the Pepperell cotton mill. Nixon played Textile League baseball for Pepperell before starring as a pitcher at Alabama Polytechnic, now known as Auburn. In both the Textile League and in college he was known for his pitching and his hitting.
He was highly successful in both college and the minor leagues. He made it to Boston and eventually secured a role as a starting pitcher. He also saw action as a reliever and as a left handed pinch hitter.
His win-loss record wasn’t as great in the majors as his earlier experience seemed to predict. In fact, he went 11-12 in 1954. Of those 11 wins four came against the Yankees and five came against the Tigers.
Beating the Tigers was not an amazing feat. Despite future Hall of Famer Al Kaline, the Tigers ended 1954 with a 68-86 record. But beating the Yankees four times and then carrying that momentum over into 1955 to give Nixon five straight wins over New York...that’s the stuff of legend in Beantown.
It is well documented that Nixon also had a skill at forgery. He had the ability to mimic the signatures of several Red Sox players, particularly Ted Williams. Attendants would bring a box of balls for Williams to sign and he’d say “Give it to Willard.” So if you have a Ted Williams autographed ball, there’s a good chance it’s really a Willard Nixon autographed ball.
Back in Northwest Georgia, folks don’t remember the 12 losses. They remember the domination of the Yankees. Kids grow up wading in Silver Creek where it flows through Willard Nixon Park. The creek then continues north to Lindale where it goes through the middle of the old cotton mill where his parents worked and where he got his start in baseball. When those kids ask who Willard Nixon was, they learn about The Yankee Killer.
There’s still a rich baseball tradition in these communities. Willard Nixon was a product of that tradition but a lot of other kids have grown up on those diamonds. I myself played two seasons of t-ball in the shadows of the cotton mill’s smokestacks, where The Yankee Killer got his start. My ball playing days ended like the vast majority of the kids that play down there, which is to say not playing professionally on any level. But the legend lives on of one that made it to the show, the Georgia boy that the Yankees couldn’t beat, Willard Nixon, The Yankee Killer.
Sam Burnham, Curator
The first English settlers landed in the South, along the banks of Virginia’s James River in 1607. It would be 13 more years before the pilgrims would arrive at Plymouth. By that time, the Virginia colonists had discovered their cash crop.
Long before Eli Whitney’s contraption crowned King Cotton, the South made its living with this plant. Tobacco became popular in Europe and colonial farmers planted it anywhere they thought it would grow. There are even tales of women growing it in their window boxes.
Over the years this plant was used multiple ways as people smoked in pipes, cigars, and cigarettes. It was snorted as snuff. It was chewed or “dipped.” It became more than a cash crop. It became part of the culture. South Georgia farming consisted of cotton, turpentine, and tobacco. It’s hard to think of North Carolina without thinking of “Tobacco Road.”
These days tobacco, in all its forms, is relegated to anathema. The Feds say it’s bad for you. Honestly, they’re right. It’s not a particularly healthy activity. And in their zeal to protect people from themselves, they have added exorbitant taxes, prohibited advertising, banned smoking in privately owned “public” places, and added all sorts of other regulations and restrictions. All of these incursions have run parallel to a gradual loosening of similar restrictions on liquor, which the Feds also say is bad for you. One conspiracy theory I find intriguing is that this is because you can make liquor up north but you can’t grow tobacco there.
Ironically, liquor and tobacco naturally go together. A glass of bourbon is the perfect compliment to a nice cigar. That being said, we’ve discussed before how bootleggers gave us stock car racing, the premier series of which became The Winston Cup. Cars carried advertisements by various cigarette and smokeless tobacco companies. Of course beer companies got in on the act as well. Liquor was banned from advertising at that time, even though liquor gave us the sport. Times change and now liquor has a little more liberty but tobacco is out. Which is kinda funny considering the low number of tobacco related automobile accidents. And tobacco products have to carry a warning label that basically states “if you use this product, you’re going to die.”
Well, no kidding. We’re all gonna die.
You don’t have to look too deep into history to see 18, 19, 20 year olds who invaded occupied Europe or island hopped across the Pacific and SAVED THE WORLD, fueled in part by Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes. Douglas MacArthur was rarely photographed without the world’s largest corncob pipe clenched in his teeth. Winston Churchill is the namesake of the size of cigar he made famous.
These were men of grit and determination, men who knew not the taste of avocado toast. They didn’t live in their parents’ basements. They came home and built things, started businesses, and became our grandfathers.
I’ve seen tobacco related illnesses ravage people and seen them die prematurely. I’ve also seen it catch up with smokers and kill them dead at age 90. I’ve also seen avid runners and fitness practioners not live to see 50. I don’t say all this to tell anyone to smoke and I’m certainly not telling anyone to give up healthy habits. I’m saying this life is short, regardless. I’m saying the government’s onslaught against tobacco is ridiculous in a free country and hypocritical in regard to policies governing liquor, sugar, automobiles, processed food, and a thousand other things that cause cancer or other terminal illnesses. It’s time for some perspective. It’s time to chill out just a little. It’s time for free men and women to make up their own minds. No one gets out alive.
Sam Burnham, Curator
It’s not a rare thing to find a border town with some quirks. While it doesn’t sit right on the state line, Ringgold is the first town heading south into Georgia via I-75 from Chattanooga. The town has a storied history. The Great Locomotive Chase ended with the capture of the Andrews Raiders on the tracks just north of town. Patrick Cleburne forced to Union Army to balk on an invasion attempt at the Battle of a Ringgold Gap just to the south of town.The city was host to thousands of Sounders soldiers in hospitals after the battles for Chattanooga.
But there’s another side to this town’s history. In some cases it’s less tumultuous than the War Between the States but in some cases it probably kind of similar.
You see, a couple with one form of ID (each) and $75 (cash - card transactions add a 3% fee) can obtain a marriage license in a matter of minutes. Couples with 6 hours of premarital counseling can get a license for $31. Once the license is secured, couples can go before a probate or magistrate judge, both of which are standing by for weddings as couples arrive. Couples also have the choice of walking out the front doors of the courthouse and crossing the two lanes of Nashville Street (we recommend the conveniently located crosswalk) to the Ringgold Wedding Chapel where $115 can get you a couple-only weekday wedding. Obviously larger ceremonies are available.
These policies and practices have built a unique institution in Ringgold. This is how a town of 3,500 people issues over 2,000 marriage licenses every year.
There have been some famous folks among the half million or so people who have tied the knot in Ringgold. George Jones and Tammy Wynette began their six year marriage in Ringgold. Don Everly of the Everly Brothers had one of his several weddings in Ringgold. Singer/songwriter and two time Governor of Louisiana Jimmie Davis married his second wife in Ringgold. Best of all, Dolly Parton said that Ringgold reminded her of “rings of gold” when she married her husband (yes, I know his name but he appreciates his relative anonymity) in Catoosa County in 1966.
Ringgold’s booming wedding scene is just one reason to come to town. A well preserved historic downtown is filled with local restaurants and shops. So whether you need to elope or you just need to browse for antiques, Ringgold might be your destination.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire