The son of a prosperous cemetery owner and pioneer of mausoleums, Ron Ligon had his own brush with death while studying at Vanderbilt.
After recovering from his battle with tuberculosis, Ligon spent the ensuing years in Europe, visiting Christian shrines. He arrived in Gatlinburg at the age of 23 with a vision of building a motel.
Ligon was sold on the land next to SkyLift Park. But his vision for a hotel gave way to something much more spiritual.
The Gardens opened in August of 1960 with a “Field of Dreams” marketing plan. Ligon did not believe in advertising. In fact, he felt the world was going to come to his door.
“I really went into it with a much nobler idea,” Ligon told the Williamson Herald in 2008.
“We opened the first two days to people in the community. Tourists heard about it too and during those first two days, we had over 10,000 people. I said, ‘God, we did it,'” Ligon said.
“Then we opened to paying customers and we had fewer than 200 people.”
He decided a little marketing might be appropriate.
“I think I helped put Gatlinburg on the map, but you have to remember that when I was going up there in the early days, I had 150 billboards,” Ligon told the Herald.
“There wasn’t really a lot to see and do in Gatlinburg then. The main attraction was the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For a while, Christus Gardens was the second most popular attraction.”
To me, Ligon’s greatest success was getting the feeling right.
I’ve had the pleasure of touring a few of the European sites he likely visited as a young man following his bout with TB.
There is a certain aura, peace and serene tranquility that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a mountain tourism mecca stuck almost directly under a skylift.
What was inside Christus Gardens?
The former museum’s centerpiece was a six-ton slab of marble onto which Jesus’s face was carved.
Ligon found the abandoned piece in a dusty warehouse in Italy – as one does. It was a massive attraction by itself, the Savior’s eyes followed you about the room. If you’re prone to carrying a guilty feeling or two on your conscience, it could be quite disconcerting.
While the marble slab and gardens were amazing, the other exhibits varied significantly in quality. A series of wax figure dioramas portrayed the great stories of the life of Jesus. They weren’t all great.
One reviewer described Satan’s figure as looking like Ming the Merciless – played by Max Von Sydow – from the bizarre 1980 camp classic “Flash Gordon.”
While the exterior and the gardens on quiet days managed an almost sanctuary-like feel, the exhibits based upon the life-size wax figures were decidedly less so.
The displays included narration from the Bible and even some special effects like thunder and lightning during the crucifixion.
Other exhibits included an heirloom Bible collection, ancient coins, furnishings and temple vestments. Massive paintings told the stories of the Bible and Christ.
When did Christus Gardens close? Is it still in Gatlinburg?
Ligon was set to close the Gardens in 2007.
The plan was to move the collection nearer to his home in Franklin. However, a group of investors rallied to bring the collection back as the Christ Museum and Gardens.
That lasted until January 2021 when the facility closed again. The lease was sold to nearby SkyLift Park and the collection was again packed up.
However, that isn’t the end of Ron Ligon’s collection in the Smokies.
What happened to Christus Gardens?
Earlier in the year, TheSmokies.com confirmed plans were afoot to bring the collection to Pigeon Forge at the Biblical Times Dinner Theatre.
Early speculation was that the facility would be open as soon as the end of 2021.
It’s unclear whether the marble carving is included in that collection.
Currently, the site in Gatlinburg is used for parking.
What happened to Ligon?
As of early November 2021, Ligon was still going strong, offering tips for being a proper gentleman on the website YourWilliamson.com.
“The major thing is learning how to be polite and nice and appreciate other people. After that, other things will fall in place,” he said, adding a Bible verse.
“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. – Proverbs 22:6.”
Did you visit Christus Gardens? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.