Rev. Samuel Jones was born in Alabama in 1847. He studied law, but eventually found his calling as a preacher in the south. In March of 1885, Jones came to Nashville to meet with the heads of all the city’s churches about hosting a gathering that summer.
“He’s an interesting guy in that he was a reformed alcoholic himself,” said Joshua Bronnenberg, museum and tours manager of the Ryman Auditorium. “He believed baseball, bicycles, billiards, dance halls, low-cut dresses were evil, but above all others, alcohol. He referred to bars as ‘Hell’s recruiting rooms.’”
That summer, Jones returned to Nashville for a multi-day tent revival. Most welcomed Jones, but the local riverboat liner Tom Ryman wanted the man out of his city. Ryman sold alcohol on is steamboats and the Reverend’s sermons could cut into his business.
“All we do know is that [Ryman] did go and he heard Same Jones preach and it changed him,” said Bronnenberg. “It changed his outlook on life and he wanted to build a proper place for Evangelicals like Sam Jones to give their sermons.”
Ryman immediately helped secure funds for a 250 seat temperance hall near the city’s wharf, but he wanted to do more. By 1892, Nashville’s Union Gospel Tabernacle provided a large, enclosed venue for Jones and others to speak.
Although the tabernacle could host large gatherings, it was still too small for some of the biggest crowds. When a reunion of former Confederate soldiers was to be held in Nashville, Ryman and city leaders worked to make the place hold even larger crowds.
“They didn’t think the building could accommodate the numbers they were expecting,” said Bronnenberg. “The city and the board raised $10,000, and they constructed the balcony.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about the Rymanis that it is the birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry.
“They had four homes before they got here, and before the Opry got here, we had a ton of events,” said Bronnenberg.
For more than 30 years, the Ryman was home to the Opry, but in 1974, the more than 80-year-old building didn’t have the amenities of newer sites. The long-running show left for a new facility across town.
The building sat in limbo for 19 years, but eventually rennovations were made, events graced the stage, and in 1999, the Grand Old Opry returned and makes an appearance every winter season.