On our recent trip to Florida (before the bombardment of snow), I didn’t get to drive much. I couldn’t complain. We were traveling with a college buddy and his wife and it was their car.
So I watched the mile markers and road signs flash by while trying not to get car-sick. But then I eventually used my phone to look up the history of the towns we zoomed by on Interstate 75.
People — even famous ones — can come from hamlets, hollows and a town called Hahira (more on that later).
So here’s a few of my findings as we headed south to the Sunshine State in between the hurricanes.
— We all know that Colonel (Harland) Sanders was born a Hoosier — in Henryville, Indiana — but he lived in a lot of other places, including North Corbin, Kentucky (population 1,727), in the 1930s. That’s where he ran a Shell Oil service station and later opened a restaurant where he developed his KFC fried chicken recipe.
But the Colonel had to survive a shootout before he became famous. A competitor was ticked off at him over the repainting of a sign directing traffic to his station. He took a shot — presumably at Sanders — but killed one of The Colonel’s Shell employees instead. The shooter was convicted of murder and Sanders’ competition was eliminated.
The Harland Sanders Museum and Cafe are located in North Corbin. We didn’t stop, wondering if there still might be gun play in the area.
— Not far off I-75 and close to Williamsburg, Kentucky, was where the little community of Packard once was. It was a coal mining town (population about 400 at one point), which later became a ghost town, but not before one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses, Patricia Neal, was born there in 1926. She won an Oscar for portraying a hassled housekeeper (Paul Newman doing a lot of the hassling) in the 1963 movie “Hud.” But I remember her most for her role in the first “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
We, on the other hand, kept on moving down the highway.
— North of Knoxville, Tennessee, is the little town of Rocky Top (population 1,781), which you might not find on your road map if it’s an old one like mine. It used to be called Coal Creek and then Lake City.
Of course, Rocky Top is also the name of the country tune that the University of Tennessee Volunteers have adopted as their unofficial fight song — some say the best fight song in America (sorry Fighting Irish).
But before the town’s citizens changed its name in 2014, they had to withstand an effort by the song’s copyright owners to keep it from happening. A federal court ruled in favor of Lake City, formerly Coal Creek and now Rocky Top.
Wish that I was on ol’ Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills
Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top
Ain’t no telephone bills
—TV host Deborah Norville was born in Dalton, Georgia (population) 34,285), and Marla Maples, Donald Trump’s second wife, grew up a few miles away in Tunnel Hill (population 963). Maples is five years younger than Norville.
They both gravitated to beauty contests and then the University of Georgia.. I have to wonder if their paths ever crossed and if they eyed each other up as possible competition.
Both still pretty as a peach — a Georgia peach, of course.
— Cordele, Georgia (population 11,147), is the hometown of Tree Rollins, the 7-foot-1 basketball center and prolific shot blocker during his 18 seasons in the NBA. He wasn’t born Tree. His real name is Wayne Monte Rollins.
“We were in front of the school which had been refurbished with new trees and there was this kid we knew and we called him ‘Tiny Man,’ Tree once said. “He told me I looked like on of the trees and the nickname just stuck. But everyone had nicknames back then.”
I think his is one of the great nicknames of all of sports. But then he was also nicknamed The Intimidator during his NBA days. Tree works better for me.
— The little Georgia town of Hahira (population 2,737), just north of Valdosta, produced three recent major league baseball players. They grew up in the same house. That’s because they are brothers. They are the Drews — J.D., Tim and Stephen — and the only trio of brothers to all be first-round draft picks.
While Tim stuck around for a while in the majors as a pitcher, J.D. and Stephen had standout careers and, ironically, both helped the Boston Red Sox to World Series championships — J.D. in 2007 and Stephen in 2013.
Before White Sox fans get on me, I should also point out that their former manager, Jerry Manuel, is also from Hahira.
That’s a lot of talent for one little town. How about a name change to Drews’ Diamond?
— Considering its size, Ocala, Florida (population 64,096), has a lot of famous people with ties to it (including John Travolta). But the most interesting individual for me is Daunte Culpepper, who played 11 years as a quarterback in the NFL and led the league in passing in 2004.
He was born to a single mother, Barbara Henderson, who is the sister of former NFL linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson. While Daunte’s mother was pregnant with him, she was serving time for armed robbery.
So Culpepper was adopted when he was a day old and raised as one of more than 15 children of the late Emma Lewis Culpepper, who worked in the correctional facility where his mother was held.
From a prison birth to a pro career.
At that point, I was dizzy and stopped looking up towns and people. We continued on our way to Naples where, if I’m not mistaken, Judge Judy lives.