Howard and Sam Dig For Gold in Tennessee


Howard Claude in 2004

Ron and Gidget lived in a trailer park on Nolensville Road in Nashville, Tennessee called Claude Country Village. It was the owner and namesake of Claude Country who introduced me to the Marcinkos. But before I tell you more about Gidget and Ron, I want to set the scene and show you this village where they lived and give you some background that only the owner of the trailer park could give. This is a story about many people but this particular chapter is about two men from Arkansas seeking their fortunes in Tennessee. One was a born-salesman named Howard Claude and the other was founder of a rising star in retailing; a man named Sam Walton.

When I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, I commuted past a large trailer park that most people barely noticed. Virtually invisible to bypassers, the residents lived in mobile homes tucked back in a holler with a bluff behind that overlooked about forty acres of land. I asked many people who drove along Nolensville Road daily, “Have you ever noticed a trailer park near the corner of Old Hickory and Nolensville Road?” They would invariably say, “There’s a trailer park there?”

There was a rumor a big box retailer wanted to buy the land the trailer park sat on, and I wanted to know what would happen to the nearly one hundred residents if they had to move to make way for a new development.

I finally noticed the park in 2004 because I read the Tennessean daily, and the business section was reporting that Walmart was looking for a new location to build a Supercenter. Land in Nashville over the past few decades had become like gold but the terrain is very rocky and hilly and often very difficult and expensive to develop.

Over months of considering different large tracts of land, the news came out that Walmart developers were considering purchase of a mobile home park on Nolensville Road. City Council Member Parker Toler had already made some enemies with his aggressive push for development of a Target and shopping center on a wooded knob near I-65 on Old Hickory. Now he was quoted calling the little trailer park on Nolensville Road a blight, a clear set up for removal and development of this land for a large retailer.

In addition to Claude Country, a bar called Eddie’s Southside Bowery, and a Phase One Used Auto Sales flanked the entrance and were included in the assessment by Toler, that this area was drug and violence infested and needed to be removed and businesses developed and tax base improved.

One day driving by the park I decided to pull in and talk to the owner and find out if the park was indeed for sale. [following the new model of www.wadehodges.com, where readers pay 99 cents to finish a good story, you can tape four quarters to a postcard and mail to me if you want, or just click below and read free].

I turned into the trailer park on a gravel and broken asphalt road between Eddie’s Southside Bowery and Phase One Auto Sales. The road sloped down from the entrance and lay between rows of trailers. The first trailer on the left was labeled “Corporate Headquarters.” To the right was a giant wooden cutout of a whale. I made a mental note to ask about the big cut out whale.

I walked into the Corporate Headquarters of Claude Country and was greeted by a woman receptionist in a Tennessee Titans t-shirt, and I asked for the owner. After a short time a gray-haired man in his 60s bounded down the hallway like he had springs in his shoes, shook my hand heartily and welcomed me back to his small office, a room in the mobile home.

That day I met an entrepreneur, artful salesman, owner and namesake of Claude Country Mobile Home Park: Howard Claude.

I told Mr. Claude why I had come, that I am a writer interested in the sale of land to Walmart and was Walmart calling on him?

He told me to call him Howard.

Howard didn’t hesitate and said, “I’m ready–just show me the money!” He wasn’t concerned to hide his love of the sale or to keep this million dollar sale hush hush until it came to fruition. He was effusive and giddy and happy to talk.

And Howard wasn’t shy about telling more of his life story, which would take more visits over the next year.

And did he ever have a story. As much as I was interested to ask residents about whether or not they liked being called “blight” by a councilman, the story of this land would have to begin with Howard Claude, and he was very willing to give me the backstory.

Howard described the forty arces near the street corner where Old Hickory Boulevard turns into Bell Road, as “scrub,” a harsh adjective that could also describe Howard’s life story. We walked around the park together as he talked.So I stood with Howard on the shoulder of the two-lane road near a historical marker describing in less than one hundred words the life accomplishments of John Bell, the hatchetman of Andrew Jackson for the Indian Removal Act. Howard looked over the fifty trailers, some shiny, some rickety and balancing precariously over eroded little oxbows of Whittemore Branch of Mill Creek, one trailer proudly displayed a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t Laugh, It’s Paid For.”We gazed back over the tangle of undergrowth and weeds and trees and the creek that meandered back toward a wooded rise and rocky bluff, and at once Howard seemed to glimmer with hope of this deal with Walmart while carrying a burden of some scrubbed dreams.

There’s a reason the world does not know Howard Claude’s name. Howard failed at what he wanted to do more than anything in life, but he’d bought a piece of land from a man who thought Howard would default on the loan and he’d get his land back. And that land changed his life and the lives of thousands of people.

But this still wasn’t his dream. This wasn’t why he came to Nashville. His father had educated him in a one-room school near Yeager Holler, Arkansas and had taught him how to tell stories and sing and write, and that’s what he’d come to Nashville to do.

If land was all he wanted, he could have stayed in Arkansas. For land’s sake, he could have stayed in Imboden, Arkansas where his father had twelve acres, and he could have a nice piece of land, since his father’s property had been perfectly divided by a paved road that was put there by the forces of greater good and immanent domain.
Howard’s father was angry with the plan to bisect his land. Who wouldn’t be? Why choose his land? Why not put the road along property lines or on public land. His father served notice: “The government better not set foot on my land. Or I’ll shoot the first one that does.”
They built the road through the Claude land and bisected it. From the day they broke ground till the day he died, Howard’s father never spoke a word to former friends and church members he thought colluded with the government and allowed the road to come through his property.
But he never shot anyone. Howard’s father was blind.

Howard had come to Nashville in the booming 1960s, when Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson were making it big, to meet Dolly Parton and write songs and make a million dollars.

A shy boy from Arkansas, the sight or sound of Dolly set Howard squirming and his pulse racing. He wanted more than anything to meet her and personally deliver the songs he’d written for her to sing her way to platinum.

At a performance one night, Dolly spotted Howard in the crowd and winked at him and circled back around to him a few times during the show. Howard winked back, amazed and thrilled. After the show, Howard made his way to the stage where he would meet Dolly for the first time.

She thought he was the producer she’d expected at the show. Infinitely nice, Dolly arranged for a photo of them together, holding twenty-four roses someone else had given her.

“Act like you’re giving me these here roses,” Dolly told Howard.

Howard wanted to tell her about his songs, but everyone in Nashville had songs. Nashville boomed in the late 1960s with hundreds of hopeful artists like Howard Claude.

Then Howard was drafted. His songs weren’t good enough for Nashville, but they were good enough to keep him out of Vietnam. When he reported to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, he had his guitar and saw a sign for an Amateur Contest. He asked his new basic training buddy, Cal, what he was going to do in the contest.

“I dunno,” Cal said, and he uttered this in a way that gave Claude an idea.

“Hey Cal, sit up there and strum this here guitar and act crazy.” He crossed his eyes and had a big crooked smile and strummed a few chords Howard taught him on Wednesday for the Friday contest.

They got some old crazy songs, entered the contest, competing against classic guitarists, opera singers and pianists.

“We won first place.”

And toured in his home state, Arkansas, over to Oklahoma, down to Texas and circled back to Lousiana, where Howard and Cal played for the Fourth Army at Fort Polk in Louisiana, which trained infantry for Vietnam.

Howard returned to Nashville armed with more than just an ability to use a gun and guitar but also with an arsenal of forty new songs. He’d saved enough money to buy a Martin guitar.

“I was going to be the next Bill Anderson or Kris Kristofferson, so I pitched songs and they were accepted everywhere I went—record labels like Sony and Cedarwood—”

The songs were accepted by nice people. They just didn’t buy them and they added to the high pile in the corner of some clerk’s office on Music Row. Howard also tried out for Hee Haw as a “male Minnie Pearl” character he called “Uncle Budel.” The auditioners smiled, shook his hand, said he had a great act. Hee Haw never called him back. Everyone loves you in Nashville, but there are lots of used guitars for sale.

But Howard wasn’t giving up. He had fallen in love with country music as a young boy listening to the Grand Old Opry on the radio.

“I just had to be a star. I wanted it so bad I could taste the stardust in my mouth. I wasn’t musically talented or gifted along those lines, so I said, well, I can be a disc jockey.”

“I walked the streets for hours looking in the music shops and trying to stay out of bars and dreamed of being discovered as a songwriter in Music City.”

Until then, Howard needed income.

“I was a newspaper distribution specialist for the Newspaper Corporation of America, which was the Tennessean & Banner newspaper.”

That’s Howard’s own way of describing his job title at that point: Paperboy.

Howard lived in a flat on the east side and threw newspapers on doorsteps announcing the arrival of the newest stars, and he’d sing and practice his Uncle Budel routine while he walked, sachel over his head with newspapers in front and back. The job did not provide enough income or inspiration for young Howard. So one day he walked from the bus station to Music Row where he’d hoped to land his songs, then he walked back downtown and into one of the biggest radio stations east of the Mississippi—WLAC in Nashville, a fifty thousand watt station.

“I’m ready to be a disc jockey and play country music,” he told the producer.

He sized Claude up quickly, shook his hand and said, “W.C.’s my name. I produce the show and manage the disk jockeys.”

“I majored in speech in college,” Claude said.

“Well, then you won’t have trouble with four letters – say the call letters for me,” W.C. said.

“Sure,” he said, and Howard craned his neck up like a rooster and said in a high pitched Ozark voice, “W . . . L . . . A . . . C!”

“Deeper,” W.C. said.

“So I furrowed my brow, put my chin on my chest and said, ‘W . . . L . . . A . . . C in Nashville!'”

His face twitched and he took off his black rim glasses and said, “No, deeper, like this,” and he belted out “W . . . L . . . A . . . C” as if he’d swallowed a talking bullfrog and he was just opening his mouth to let it speak.

Claude tried to wipe the look of marvel off my face. He shifted on his feet, clenched my fists, dropped his chin and brow again but this time pooched

“W . . . L . . . A . . . C . . . 50,000 watts of power in Nashville!” And he said Nashville with flourish, holding the “sh” a little longer. He could just see himself in the sound booth saying those call letters.

Like the record companies, W.C. was really nice. Everyone Nashville was nice. They never called back.

Still, Howard wouldn’t give up. He was the first in his family to go to college. So folks back home expected big things from the boy who would make it big in Nashville. He found work where he could, writing good and bad poems into songs that would be churned into records and returned to the poet, all for $6.75 from Publishers Audition Tapes. Howard also worked for a book publisher for $34.20 a week, managing to save enough money to buy my first Martin guitar, a radio, and a television. I was ready for the world.

While Claude could act crazy on stage, in person he had been painfully shy around girls, and even stole away to his room whenever people came to his childhood home. Whenever he saw a girl he was secretly madly in love with, he’d wheel around and head the other way. Once when a group of friends went to the Belmont Nursing School to pick up girls, he stayed in the car. Some of the girls wanted to meet this new boy but when they got out to the parked car, they could only see him like a quiet caged animal through the car windows.

Howard had locked the car doors.

Howard’s friends persisted and set him up with a girl named Linda. They dated, and they were soon married. Before the ink on the marriage certificate dried, somewhere around the time a bottle flew across the room narrowly missing his head, God began speaking to Howard.

“This was Linda’s only way of communication—throwing things.”

The milk on the wall said they needed more income.

A man named Malcolm Barrett taught Howard about the gold mine of real estate. He struck out in Southeast Nashville to find the right vein. He still had his paper route and collected from his newspaper customers while trying to drum up business for his new real estate venture and got more raised eyebrows and shut doors than he got leads. Something about throwing papers and selling property didn’t mix.

In Belle Meade, during one of his door to door ventures, a woman invited him inside like a wind was to his back and her fist was full of his shirt. She had something on her mind and her whole body and soul coursed with “a love affair” she wanted to share with Howard.

When he learned of her intent, he decided he had his own intentions as well. So he set out to straightened her out. He told her how she could get baptized and start worshipping in the right church.

“For two hours we sat and she shared her love affair with the Lord,” Howard said. She was a charismatic praying woman who’d married a Jewish man and was bringing her son up in Jewish ways out of respect to her husband. But Howard wanted what she had, wanted the Holy Ghost she seemed to possess in abundance.

“How can I get what you’ve got?”

“I’ll pray for you.”

“How can I find someone in my church that has the spirit like you do?”

“You’ll find someone. God will show you.”

Two weeks later Howard found Don Finto, who welcomed him and taught him about the Lord like the woman did in Belle Meade, until Howard’s and Linda’s marriage went under the influence of a force they felt they could not control.

On his way back home, most of the money collected, it happened again.

For a second time in his newspaper delivery career, a gang of boys tackled Howard and pushed his face into the pavement, and stole his money pouch.

Bruised and bleeding, Howard opened the front door and Linda met him there.

“Honey, the Lord told me to get out of the paper business. I’m going to sell real estate full time.”

“Well, you’re not sellin’ nothin’ now.”

The next day Howard sold four houses.

But more money didn’t make Linda happier and Howard didn’t know how to otherwise. By now the toxin of the marriage had leaked profusely into their five-year-old daughter’s space and she was becoming emotionally despondent.

“Mommy, why are you hitting daddy? Why do you throw things?”

At that point Howard knew something had to change. He wasn’t going to bring his daughter up like this. They tried separating. They talked to their church group about it. George Andrews was an elder at Howard’s church, and he said the couple should go home and turn off the television, just communicate, be a family.

If there weren’t enough issues already, the television now became another one. Howard wanted the marriage to work, but he wondered if Linda really did. Still, if it took turning off the television to save the marriage, even if it meant missing his favorite Hee Haw variety show that was produced in Nashville, that he’d tried out for and was never called back, then so be it. Linda meanwhile had told a group from church, “I know what to do, I just don’t do it.”

Howard returned home from selling tidy homes to lovely families, and his elder’s advice was on his mind. Linda was watching television.

“Honey, we made a commitment—”

“Nothin’s going to work out anyway. It don’t matter.”

Divorce was uncommon in Nashville in the 1970s. So when word got around they were getting divorced, the church sprung into action. Don Finto saw Howard at the hardware store and asked what he thought he was doing getting divorced, said the church wouldn’t stand for that, said he has to walk in someone else’s shoes to understand. He’d bought Linda enough shoes, felt he’d walked in them long enough to know it was hopeless. One friend told him to hide the word of God in his heart, another said he just hadn’t received the baptism of the Holy Spirit yet.

Howard asked the man to pray for him. But then in 1981 they got divorced.

Howard failed his dream to write songs for Dolly. He failed to play at the Ryman Auditorium or on Hee Haw and made not one cent of the million dollars with one of his own songs. He’d hoped to return to Imboden, Arkansas a country music star. Maybe he’d try his hand at sad sack lose your lover songs. But he couldn’t bring himself to write sad songs. He carried Norman Vincent Peale quotes in his pocket and would read them everyday to stay optimistic.

He was so optimistic in 1981, that he bought a piece of scrub land in South Nashville with a few increasingly popular modular homes.

“They are not mobile homes. They are not trailers. They are modular homes.”

Howard pitched the trailers, the land and the newly developed mobile home lot hook ups as if talking about resort property.

Music City did not call his name, but the land of Nashville was calling to him. A voice was calling to him out of the wilderness of a rocky marriage to a place where Mill Creek flowed with great investment potential. He figured a store like Kuhn’s, with twelve locations in the area, would buy the land someday and build another store, and then the modulars could be easily moved. That same year, Walmart bought out all the Kuhn’s in Nashville.

Walmart was being led by founder and fellow Arkansasan. A man named Sam Walton.

In 1981, when Howard Claude bought the scrub land and opened Claude Country Village, Walmart had just broken the $1 billion barrier for sales and had three hundred stores, but the board was cautiously considering a move that could catapult the retailer into a national company.

Or it could bankrupt them.

Walmart founder, Sam Walton, his brother Bud Walton, and the Kuhn brothers were acquaintances and adhered to a retail gentleman’s agreement to stay out of one another’s territories. Walmart expanded in all directions out of headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas and built new stores along spokes of distribution hubs in Arkansas and Texas. But no Walmart stores existed in the Southeast United States, past the Arkansas-Tennessee line, where Nashville-based Kuhn Brothers Stores operated nearly one hundred stores going out like a wagon wheel from Nashville.

Walmart, on the other hand, operated in a similar wagon wheel approach out of Bentonville, Arkansas, and had expanded into Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, and had made its first major acquisition in the north, sixteen Mohr Value stores in Michigan and Illinois.

But a strong impulse drove the two companies to cross the DMZ at the Tennessee-Arkansas border. Walmart opened a store in Jackson, Tennessee. Kuhn’s opened stores in Blytheville and Helena, both in Arkansas.

The retailers were in deep, but the Kuhn’s retreated to the east with a new acquisition in the Carolinas that would be their last before looking for buy out. The asking price in 1980, according to the Wall Street Journal, was $17 million. But then the Walmart board dragged their feet, and the price fell to $7 million by December 1981 when Walmart finally purchased the company and its ninety-two stores.

Walmart got a big value and moved into Nashville and ninety-two stores across the Southeast. The $7 million would have been a good price for the twelve Nashville Kuhn’s Big K stores alone. Big K was king in Nashville. But the Kuhn’s stores were too small for Walmart’s sales goals and company’s new venture into metropolitan areas. The business model had been to stay in small towns, where forty percent of the population of the United States lived in 1962 when Walmart was founded by Sam Walton.

At a time when Walmart built stores in small towns, Nashville became one of the first cities the retailer expanded into in order to tap new markets. Walmart entered Nashville to dominate the discount retail market of the city. In 1988, Walmart built their first Nashville store from the ground up and moved from one of the old Kuhn’s Big K locations they’d purchased to a new nearly double-sized eighty-two thousand square feet store at the corner of Nolensville Road and Old Hickory Boulevard, just down the street from Claude Country.

By contrast, in Texas in 1986, Walmart opened stores called Hypermart USA that spanned more than two hundred thousand square feet, modeled after France-based Carrefour Hypermarts. But the stores were too big, too overwhelming for customers, and Hypermarts were closed or converted into Supercenters. Hypermarts were defunct and Supercenters were built in the range of one hundred twenty-five thousand square feet. The first Walmart Supercenter opened in Washington, Missouri in 1988. It had four hundred fifty employees and 129,900 square feet of retail space.

In 1990, the company’s stock split one hundred percent for the ninth time. Walmart grew exponentially in most every way and became in that year the highest grossing retailer in the United States. By the mid-nineties, Walmart operated nearly one hundred stores in Mexico and more than one hundred in Canada, and the number had exceeded one thousand five hundred stores in the United States.

After Sam Walton died in 1992, the company’s “Made in America” slogan faded, and customers began to worry that products were increasingly imported from China, that Walmart’s continued expansion and unprecedented growth would lead to jobs exported to other nations. Walmart’s growth into new states, acquisition of tens of thousands of acres of land worried small business owners. Walmart’s market share soared for groceries. That concerned grocery industry competitors and unions, since Walmart had no union employees and had more bargaining power with employees over wages.

Meanwhile, Claude Country residents like Ron and Gidget shopped at the Walmart, some worked in the nearby store, the first one Walmart built from scratch in Nashville. Some Claude Country residents considered the one mile round trip walk and visit to Walmart as the little entertainment they could afford. Tommy Gulley carried his son, Bobby, to Walmart. Stricken with cerebral palsy, even the short walk to Walmart proved too difficult for Bobby, but he loved going to the store with his dad.

The Marcinkos, the Gulleys, the Hallers, and forty other families in Claude Country relied on Walmart for cheaper products than they could find anywhere else. They liked Walmart and believed in the promise plastered across he from of the store: “Low prices” and the slogan below the company logo that read, “Always low prices. Always.” Walmart gave Claude Country residents income surplus. No one has ever proved someone is happier because of the presence of a carnival in the area or because they are educated or not, or because they are rich or poor. No one has a yardstick to measure happiness. But people do things that make themselves happier, and the action of choosing Walmart at least shows people thought shopping there would make them happier and save them money. And perhaps it did. They need the Walmart more than many Brentwood residents who fear the increasingly mixed ethnic corridor along Nolensville Road from the trailer park to downtown Nashville, and they warn newcomers not to shop at the Walmart or Krogers at night. They complain, saying the store jams products in too little space and they must compete for parking spaces and too few lines are open and they force customers to crowd in to lines with unsavory people. They shop at Target.

The retailer anchored a large shopping area at the corner of Nolensville and Old Hickory. For more than two decades Walmart did not sell perishable groceries at this location. Residents would get discount items at Walmart and their groceries at Kroger across the street.

Howard had missed his big chance to sell his property quickly in the 1980s to one of the most aggressive businesses to land in Nashville. Walmart was rapidly expanding and purchased thousands of acres of land across the United States.

So Howard focused on business at Claude Country, filling the property with modular homes and residents like Ron and Gidget Marcinko. Trailers were the perfect solution for occupying investment property because income was collected against the mortgage while trailers could be quickly moved after a sale of the property.

Like Howard Claude, Nashville wanted to make it big in the country music industry, but in order to get on the map, they had to deal in real estate. Real estate boomed in Nashville in the early 1980s, until the Tax Act of 1986 reduced investor interest in property and precipitated the Savings and Loan crisis. Nashville was changing rapidly in the eighties and nineties during the tenure of Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen. Coming from medical administration background, his attention turned to the run down Metro General Hospital in Nashville—he shut it down and opened a 17,000-seat arena that cost $170 million, $70 million over budget. The National Hockey League came to town and so did the National Football league.

Nashville is one of the South’s oldest cities and land has been bought and sold and assessed for taxes for more than two hundred years. Thomas Hutchins was famous for his twenty-two yard chain-the length of a cricket pitch-with which he laid out cities on the frontier. In 1768 he surveyed present day downtown Nashville at a salt deposit near Mill Creek and the Cumberland River, a place called Lick Branch.

Hutchin’s chain was important because measured land could be sold, bought, possessed.

Nations occupied lands, tribes passed through or worked the land, but the idea of individual ownership and permanent possession of land was as new as the nation. Up to that time, in most of the world, individual ownership of land was inconceivable.

“Individuals could certainly own the use of land . . . but it could not be owned as a house or a bed or a pig was owned. The span of one life was too brief to possess the earth that continued forever. . . . This was the magic that Hutchins would introduce into the western lands, the transformation of the wilderness into property.”

Howard certainly felt the power of owning property, enjoyed the money, and his drug of choice was the surge of adrenaline from closing a land deal. He always had another project in mind the money could fund.

But his investment wrapped itself around his leg then his heart and whole body and nearly pulled him under like a sea monster. Why get involved in the lives of his tenants who paid rent for the spaces to lash down their trailers? Just take the $57 a month for the lot multiplied times one hundred, pay the mortgage of $1,000, and pocket the $4,700 difference or reinvest it. No worries, no hassles. Why get involved?

Why meet a homeless couple in Burger King and offer the man a maintenance job only to find out he’s a bisexual psychotic cross-dresser? Why tell Tommy Gulley he’ll “set him up for life, as long as he’s willing to work”?

This was no standard investment property, no plot of land to be flipped. The tentacles wrapped slowly up his body, until his life and the park’s life were inseparable. His insatiable desire to help people, and to make money doing it, met the insatiable need for homeless, transitioning, working people in Nashville to find affordable furnished all bills paid places to rent weekly. Hundreds came and went, but a handful of renters became buyers of their own trailers who anchored them down and had they owned a saw and a gun would have sawed off the hitch and shot out the tires and called Claude Country Village home.

Howard had failed his musical dreams, and his marriage failed. So he bought a trailer park. The reason the world does not know Howard Claude’s name is because he failed at his big musical dream. But what Howard did manage to do over the next twenty-five years was to carve a community out of scrub land that became home to people like Ron and Gidget Marcinko.