In the beginning, Captain Tom Ryman was a boozer, a bettor and a man a few steps short of God.
Ryman owned a fleet of riverboats that mainly transported goods and whiskey on the Cumberland River. His steamers also provided first-class travel in the area. Ryman served the finest food, distilled water and alcohol on board.
In 1884, Ryman made a large bet that Grover Cleveland would win the presidential election. Ryman was influenced by local gamblers to continue to bet on this 1884 election, and he couldn’t say no as more bets arrived.
By election time, Ryman had waged his entire fortune — including his stately house on the hill near the Cumberland River.
Fortunately for Ryman and the city of Nashville, Grover Cleveland won the presidency. And Ryman, who would later reflect that he had spent “a good part of his life serving the devil,” would put his money to good use.
In 1885, a traveling minister stopped in Nashville for a series of sermons and tent revivals. Ryman and his rowdy friends were part of the thousands in attendance under a big tent downtown. Ryman was present not to listen to the sermon but to heckle and mock.
But instead of disrupting the service, he found himself moved by the words, and he converted to Christianity. He thought it was unfortunate that Nashville did not have a large permanent place for preachers of the gospel, and so he decided to build such a facility.
To show he was a changed man post-conversion, Ryman went down to the dock where his boats were, reduced all the bars on his ships to kindling, and dumped gallons of whiskey from his steamboats into the Cumberland River. He painted Bible quotations where the bars once were.
Ryman selected a site on Fifth Avenue, a few blocks from his office overlooking the Cumberland, for his new building. In his report to donors, Ryman said, “this building is an ornament, not only to the city, but to the state, and when completed as it should be it will certainly be a pride to all of us.”
Ryman hired Nashville’s most famous architect, W.C. Smith — later the architect of Nashville’s Parthenon. He wanted the new building to hold large audiences indoors, where all citizens regardless of social class or religious affiliation could hear the gospel. The new hall would also become the largest convention facility in the South, seating more than 6,000 people.
When the Gospel Tabernacle was near completion in 1892, Ryman was disappointed. He remarked on the “unfinished and crude state of the interior, which at present is provided with only rough seats, and the walls are undressed.” Interestingly, the exposed walls and wooden church pews are now part of the character of the world-famous auditorium.
Desperate to raise the money needed, Ryman spent $25 for names and addresses of 5,000 millionaires. He paid another $110 for postage and mailing to ask these people for money. The millionaire campaign failed, and Ryman changed architects a month later, selecting Hugh C. Thompson, who designed the famous brick gothic structure with the soaring roofline.
The Union Gospel Tabernacle opened in 1893 and later became known as the Ryman Auditorium, after the Rev. Sam Jones asked attendees of Tom Ryman’s 1904 funeral to stand if they agreed that the building should be named for its visionary. Thousands rose to their feet.
Over the years, the Ryman has hosted Teddy Roosevelt, John Phillip Sousa, Marian Anderson, Bob Hope and many others. It was the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.
Today, the Opry plays at the Ryman seasonally, and the rock, pop and country acts that also perform there consider the Ryman hallowed ground.
David Ewing is a ninth generation Nashvillian. He practices law at Rudy, Wood & Winstead and can be reached at email@example.com