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Graceland, Before Elvis

By Michael Lollar
Source: Memphis Commercial Appeal
January 20, 2009 - 6:01:09 PM

Elvis Presley Video Graceland before Elvis Pop Up Window (04:45) Narated by Ruth Cobb.

Ruth Cobb is one of the few people outside Elvis Presley's family to visit the upstairs of Graceland. It was before it opened as a tourist attraction, and Cobb, who lived there before Elvis, soon learned her old upstairs bedroom had been turned into a music room. She had grown up at Graceland as an only child. When she married Charles Cobb, they remained at Graceland with her parents at first while Ruth toured the country as part of a professional harp ensemble. Her father, Dr. Thomas Moore, was a prominent surgeon and urologist. Her mother, Ruth Brown Moore, was a volunteer who enjoyed club work and became president of the Tennessee Association of Garden Clubs.

Cobb visited in 1967 at the invitation of Elvis' grandmother, and later when the Presley family planned to turn the home into a tourist attraction. It reminded Cobb of her own music career and left her slightly quizzical about a few decorating changes. We did not have a jungle room growing up', she says. There was also no fabric on the ceiling of the billiard room in her day. 'We didn't have a billiard room', she says.

Other distinctive touches added during Elvis' ownership of Graceland drew little attention from Cobb, but there was one: 'Elvis didn't like the chandelier we had in the dining room. It came from New Orleans.

They built Graceland in 1939, naming it for Ruth's great aunt, Grace Toof, who had left the farm to Ruth's grandmother. The grandmother divided her 520-acre farm into three parts, leaving it to her three children. Two of them sold their shares to Ruth's father.

The house on 20 acres began as what Ruth Cobb calls 'just a comfortable country home'. It would become as familiar to America as Tara, Scarlett O'Hara's home in 'Gone With the Wind', and it would rival Monticello, Mount Vernon and other once-private homes among the biggest tourist attractions in the country.

There, Ruth's father taught her to shoot well enough that she once downed three geese with a single shot.

He also taught her to fish in a 25-acre man made lake behind the house. But her first love was music.

Ruth played the piano, but she loved the harp, studying, then touring with one of the world's leading harpists, Carlos Salzedo. Her favorite music was classical, but Ruth says she liked all music from country to Elvis' music. 'I wasn't really crazy about his music, but my mother marveled at his hymns', she says. When her mother decided the property was more than she wanted to keep up, she asked Ruth and Charles if they would like to stay. 'We just didn't have time to take care of a big house', says Charles. 'It cost $1,000 a month to keep it up. The yard alone was like trying to take care of a golf course. We had a yard man who worked two to three days a week'.

When the property was put up for sale, Ruth said there were three potential buyers -- Sears Roebuck Co.; a private party who wanted to turn it into an exclusive restaurant, and Elvis. By then, most of the surrounding land had been sold to developers for a subdivision, and the lake behind the house had been drained.

Ruth says a church, Graceland Christian Church, wanted to buy 5 acres on the northwest corner of the property. Sears and the restaurant interests did not want to split the 5 acres off for the church, but Elvis said he would be glad to have a church next door, she says.

That helped seal the deal. Elvis bought the property for $102,000 in 1957.

When the church next door, Graceland Christian Church, eventually decided to move, the Presley family bought back the land and turned the church into the headquarters of Elvis Presley Enterprises.

Charles met Elvis during the closing on the sale of Graceland, but Ruth never met him. She has since returned to Graceland as a tourist with her grandchildren. 'I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it didn't feel like home', she says.

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