Berea Homecoming Festival
Was A Major Attraction For 15 Years
The First Festival Was Organized
In 1950 By The Berea Lions Club
Editor's Note: Dr. David B. Settles of Georgetown, Scott County, Kentucky, has written this manuscript, about a very famous series of country music homecoming festivals, which he started when he was president of the Berea Lions Club in 1950. The festival attracted thousands of people from surrounding states and brought International Lions' dignitaries. Dr. Settles is the only surviving member of the Lions group that organized and produed the festival. He has had several articles, letters, and pictures published in The Kentucky Explorer.
By Dr. David B. Settles - 2008
I was an amateur musician and singer when I was a young boy. I learned to play ukulele, mandolin, guitar, bass fiddle, and the piano. My brother, Paul, and I were the regular gospel singers at the Middleburg and Liberty Baptist churches in Casey County, Kentucky, where our father was pastor (see photo on page 62 in the April 2007 issue of The Kentucky Explorer). My interest in country music came naturally.
When I moved to Berea in 1950 as a young doctor of optometry, I was delighted to learn that Berea had produced several famous country music artists, and that some of the Renfro Valley stars lived there.
I immediately thought about the possibility of getting all of the stars together for a Berea Country Music Homecoming Festival honoring our hometown stars and stars from Renfro Valley who resided in Berea.
The Renfro Ramblers recorded a radio show for WRVK, Renfro Valley, in the living room of David B. Settles with a wire recorder, ca. 1950. L-R: Lead guitarist, Darrel Edister; steel guitarist, Billy Ray, deceased; singer, Betty Foley Cummins (Red Foley's daughter), deceased; singer, Harold French, deceased; rhythm guitarist, David B. Settles; bass player, name unknown; Begley Sisters Trio: Jewell Robinson, deceased; Sue Begley; and Janet Begley.
I was elected president of the Berea Lions Club in 1951.
Following the adjournment of the first meeting of my tenure as president, I asked Jim Bentley and John Bill Allen to meet with me at a small restaurant on Short Street where I approached them with the idea of such a Homecoming Festival.
The new Berea Rubber Plant was scheduled to open in August, so we discussed how we could celebrate the two occasions together.
We presented the idea to the membership at the next meeting. The idea was enthusiastically approved, so we formed committees and started to work on a two-day festival to include a talent-hunt show on the first evening which brought forth highly-talented amateurs, several of whom later had successful careers in the country music field.
Among those invited to return home for the big occasion were Red Foley of the Grand Ole Opry; Ernie Lee Cornelison of WLW Cincinnati; Jimmy Skinner and Ray Lunsford from WCKY and WLW; Bill and Hazel Haley of St. Louis (Hazel was one of the Texas Blue Bonnets); Roland Gaines and the Knox Range Riders; The Coon Creek Girls (Rosa Foley, Minnie Ledford, and Lily May Pennington); Slim Miller; Bradley Kinkaid, President of WWSO, Springfield, Ohio; Jerry Byrd; Old Joe Clark; Grandpa Jones; Stringbean; and the hottest instrumental guitarist of the time, Billy Keith Williams of St. Louis.
Lions Club District Governor, Dr. David Settles, waited on Past International Presidents Finis Davis and Monroe Nute at the Indian Fort Theatre, Berea College Forest, Berea, Kentucky. This was all part of the Berea Homecoming Festival which was founded by the Berea Lions Club in 1951.
It still amazes me that the idea I presented to Jim and John Bill would develop into an annual celebration that attracted people from many surrounding states, including many of the Lions International's highest dignitaries. On one occasion, we had the international president, the immediate past international president, three international directors, four past international directors, a district governor (me), and several past district governors at an afternoon cookout prior to the evening show held at the spacious outdoor Indian Fort Theater. Very few civic clubs in the world have attracted so much attention, and we didn't dream that the Homecoming would become an annual event featuring our homecoming stars, most of the Nashville stars, and Pat Boone who was Red Foley's son-in-law.
Let me digress back to the planning and development of the first homecoming show.
The dates for the celebration were set for August 28th and 29th, 1951. I was designated as general chairman, coordinating several other committees. The activities were to get under way with an open house at the Berea Rubber Company followed by a family picnic and softball game at the new Berea Memorial Park in the afternoon. I was very proud of the park and served as the first chairman of the park committee and the swimming pool committee which built Berea's first city pool.
Entertainment was at its best during the Berea Homecoming Festival created by Lion David Settles when he was president of the Berea Lions Club. The annual three-day event ran for 15 seasons, 1951-1966. Exiting the Indian Fort Theater stage was Red Foley while Ernie Lee Cornelison entertained the crowd.
A talent-hunt show was scheduled for Tuesday evening at Phelps Stokes Chapel. The three top winners would perform with the stars on the big show on Wednesday evening. The ticket committee set the price of admission at $1 per person for each show. The money would cover expenses and some charitable work.
Albert Sweazy, chairman of the beauty queen committee announced that any club or organization could sponsor contestants between the ages of 15 and 25.
Gilmer Wilson was chairman of the parade committee that designated positions of the stars, visiting dignitaries, and the beauty queen. Cotton Foley, Red Foley's brother and husband of Rosa Foley of the Coon Creek girls, was also the local Ford dealer and owned a collection of Model-T and Model A Fords to be used in the parade.
Everything went smoothly. Carolyn Van Winkle won the homecoming queen title. The talent-hunt winners were Bobby Ballard, Johnny King, and a quartet of two harmonica players, Paul Griffith and Carl Morgan, accompanied by Charles Durham and a Mr. Whitehead on guitars.
At the matinee performance on Wednesday, Foster "Pap" Adams, editor of The Berea Citizen, welcomed the stars and introduced them. Then followed a program such as had never been seen in Berea. Later in the show, "Pap" presented to the entertainers framed "City Of Berea" Citations of Appreciation. He was assisted by Berea's mayor, John L. Gay, and the homecoming queen. Hand woven stoles and ties from Churchill weavers were also presented to the stars.
Bill Haley and his wife, Hazel, one of the Texas Blue Bonnets, were first on the program, singing individually and together.
Roland Gaines and super guitarist, Billy Keith Williams, from KMOX in St. Louis followed the Haleys.
Ernie Lee Cornelison displayed his ability to keep things moving with his songs and jokes. He sang several favorites and was considered to be one of the top performers.
Jimmy Skinner, song writer and singer, was accompanied by Ray Lunsford of Brod-head. They were accompanied on several numbers by Preston McDaniels on the bass fiddle.
The above named stars were Bereans by birth but the Renfro Valley folks who were honored by Berea were Bereans by choice. They were introduced by John Lair. Slim Miller kept not only the audience laughing but also displayed his talent on the fiddle. The Coon Creek Girls sang several songs and Jerry Byrd sang a song accompanied by the Coon Creek Girls.
Red Foley was the last performer on the program. He sang several requests and several numbers for which he was famous for such as Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy. Red brought with him the Jordanaires Quartet and his background musicians from his show on the Grand Ole Opry. Red agreed with all the other stars that the Homecoming Festival should be an annual affair.
The second Homecoming Festival was held in Indian Fort Theater, which was totally packed for all of the two day performances. Red Foley brought his son-in-law, Pat Boone, as a guest entertainer. Other guests included Grandpa Jones and Ramona, Stringbean, Anita Carter, Old Joe Clark, Pete Stamper, and Skeeter Davis.
Skeeter called me on the morning of the star performance shows and asked if she could be on the show. I told her to come on down. She drove from northern Kentucky to my home and spent her time there waiting for the matinee. At the two shows, she got with the Nashville stars and was soon in Nashville creating another successful career. Her first claim to fame was with the Davis Sisters, but this show which came to a tragic end with the death of one of the group.
Starting with the third Homecoming in 1953, we invited a different Nashville star to wrap up the shows as the last act. The invitations were enthusiastically accepted by most of them, and they arrived in their busses filled with other performers and background musicians. Since the Homecoming had become a famous civic project, the performers donated their time and talents.
The most gratifying thing that came to me from the festival was the formation of the Renfro Ramblers from winners of the talent-hunt shows. I got the group a daily radio show on WRVK, Renfro Valley, and they filled in on the Saturday Night Barn Dance when John Lair's performers were out of town. I wrote, directed, and was master of ceremonies for the show. I also sometimes played guitar or bass and sang in a quartet. I drove many miles each month selling commercial time for the shows. I also booked shows for them in schools and clubs to give them further experience and recognition.
One winner of the talent-hunt show who was not a member of the Ramblers was a Berea College student by the name of Billy Ed Wheeler, who was a singer and song-writer. He later went to Nashville and did well. On the evening of July 15, 2000, I watched the country music's top 100 duets show on CMT. Billy Ed's song, I'm Going To Jackson, written many years ago came in fourth in the top 100.
The talent that was discovered on the talent hunt show was amazing. Gene Slone from Jackson County, Darryl Edister from Berea, and Rudolph Thomas of Springfield were instrumental guitarists who had the amazing talents of Billy Keith Williams. Gean Slone went on to Nashville to a very successful career playing lead guitar for Don Gibson, George Hamilton, and Skeeter Davis. He is now retired and lives in Ormond Beach, Florida. He recently called me to talk about the old times. He told me about the money he made in Nashville. My only reply was something like, "You certainly could not have made that kind of money in Jackson County."
Red Foley had two daughters, Shirley and Betty. Shirley married Pat Boone, and Betty married Bentley Cummins who later owned a multi-million dollar chain of restaurants. Betty was a member of the Renfro Ramblers who later had her own show on WLW Cincinnati. She also sometimes sang with the Coon Creek Girls.
Renfro Rambler membership fluctuated, but the regulars included Harold French, a highly talented singer, and the Begley Sisters Trio (Jewel Robinson, Sue, and Janet Begley), Billy Ray, steel guitar player from Lancaster; plus many others who sat in with the group from time to time.
Time passes on and so do people. The entertainers passed away one by one. Even members of the Ramblers began passing on. Some were Harold French, Betty Foley, Rudy Thomas, Jewell Robinson, and Billy Ray. With this speedy attrition, the festival continued for a period of 15 years and came to a natural end.
I am the only survivor of the Lions Club group that put this fabulous celebration together. I am 84 years old and I am truly blessed.
Dr. David B. Settles, 105 Coveside Court, Georgetown, KY 40324, shares these photos with our readers.
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