Nashville Of North Revisited

Film tells story of Buck Lake Ranch

This appeared in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette - December 7, 2008

There are scads of great anecdotes in the new documentary Buck Lake Ranch: Nashville of the North, but my favorite has to do with Tex Ritter.

The movie cowboy and singer performed on the vertiginous outdoor stage of that country music park near Angola back when Ritter’s son, John, was just a lad.

Somehow they managed to get Ritter’s horse, White Cloud, onstage, and while the steed was waiting in the wings, he took a cue of a more elemental nature and emptied his bladder right then and there, dousing a popcorn machine below decks in the process.

Buck Lake’s cantankerous co-owner, Harry Smythe, subsequently berated Ritter.

“How could you let him do that?” Smythe asked.

“Mr. Smythe,” Ritter allegedly replied. “If White Cloud could tell me when he has to relieve himself, do you think I’d be performing here?”

Smythe recognized a snappy and dispute-snapping comeback when he heard one.

It may be true that most current residents of northeast Indiana have no idea what Buck Lake Ranch was (and still is, to a certain extent). Mike VanBuren’s documentary should clear things up.

From its opening in 1947 to the start of its decline in the mid-’70s, Buck Lake Ranch played host to the giants of country music, newcomers who would become giants and hayseeds who would soon embrace rock ’n’ roll and leave the farms and fiddles far behind.

Throw the occasional jazz, Hollywood and comedy legend in there, and you have a venue that earned as many bragging rights as Memorial Coliseum has, but did it with a lot less concrete.

Loretta Lynn, Ray Price, the Everly Brothers, Gene Autry, Bill Haley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, actors Mickey Rooney and Michael Landon, and comedians the Three Stooges all appeared and performed there.

Longtime Kalamazoo resident VanBuren says he first traveled to Buck Lake to see Merle Haggard in 1971 when he was 18. VanBuren says he fell in love with the place.

“I went to a couple other shows in the early ’70s,” he says. “Then I would drive near there, and I always found myself taking that detour off I-69. I watched it fall into disrepair and then it closed, and then I noticed it was open again. I asked (current owner Carl Unger) if someone had ever done a history of the place and he said no one had.”

As communication manager at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, VanBuren had helped make a few short-form documentaries, but he’d never gone it alone and gone long. But he felt so strongly about the project that he went out and bought $18,000 worth of high-end digital filming and editing equipment.

VanBuren started his research at the museum at Buck Lake Ranch where he found many historic photos and posters. The museum had some archival footage of Granny Harper performing at the ranch, and the former members of the Red Birds (Fort Wayne residents Patty Corbett and Joe Taylor) had film of other artists.

Buck Lake Ranch: Nashville of the North features rare celluloid of stage patter from Porter Waggoner, the Lennon Sisters, Autry and the Everlys.

VanBuren conducted new interviews about Buck Lake with Lynn, Bill Anderson, Price, Jimmy Dickens, Connie Smith and Marty Stuart.

VanBuren says he initially intended to interview Stuart about his Electric Barnyard Tour, which paid tribute to the halcyon days of Buck Lake Ranch and music parks of its ilk. But he subsequently discovered that Stuart is a bit of a historian on the subject.

“The big surprise when I got into the interview was how much he knew about country music parks,” he says. “He knew what a really valuable role they played in the history of country music. And he was able to speak in real tight sound bites, which is great for the editing process.”

Many hours’ worth of beautiful-sounding audio from Buck Lake concerts were provided by the ranch’s former recording engineer, Perry Stauffer. VanBuren says Stauffer died in a nursing home in late November.

Speaking of the Red Birds, a whole chapter of the documentary is devoted to that celebrated area act, which was employed as the house band at Buck Lake Ranch for many years.

Some of the documentary’s more lively memories are recounted by the irrepressible Taylor.

Taylor has much to say, with affection, about Smythe, who was a bit of a tough nut.

Eleanor and Harry Smythe created a summer entertainment empire up there, with trout fishing, lake cruises, carnival rides and a buffet restaurant, in addition to music.

Harry Smythe knew how to make the place profitable and that sometimes meant behaving in a less than perfectly courteous manner.

Buck Lake Ranch is a shadow of its former self these days because country music and society have changed so much.

“You can’t charge enough for tickets down there to cover the artists’ fees,” VanBuren says. “And rural America isn’t what it once was.”

“It’s too bad,” he says. “It’s a great place.”

VanBuren says if more people knew what Buck Lake Ranch was, they’d be more concerned about what Buck Lake is.

“When I went down there in 1971, it got into my heart, and I never forgot about the place,” he says. “Somebody ought to preserve this.”

Hopefully, VanBuren is only the first of those somebodies: He plans a book on Buck Lake Ranch next.

Copies of Buck Lake Ranch: Nashville of the North, at $19.95 a piece, is available at

By Steve Penhollow

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