Courtesy Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.
This aerial view shows the land when Elvis owned it. A fleet of cars is parked outside of Elvis and Priscilla's "Honeymoon Cottage."
On a recent Saturday in July, just before sunrise, the sky began to shift its hue as the first hints of light crawled over the edge of the earth. I was driving south on Highway 301, wanting to re-enact, as best I could, a moment Elvis Presley experienced in that same early hour of a winter morning in 1967. Crossing over Goodman Road between Horn Lake and Walls, Mississippi, puffs of gray clouds against brightening cobalt overhead, I spotted it. Set maybe a mile beyond the road to the east, a towering white cross came into view, nearly hidden by the lush, green boughs of surrounding trees. In front of it, a cluster of geese crowded around a lake as serene as the gently rolling hills on which it sat.
On this day, there was no “For Sale” sign posted on the property, but when Elvis and his crew drove by in February 1967, heading north on Highway 301 — back to Memphis — after a late-night horse-buying excursion, there was. Then, a hundred head of Santa Gertrudis cattle grazed along the sprawling, pristine field. Stables were situated near a quaint farmhouse that faced (a not-heavily-traveled) Goodman Road. It was Twinkletown Farm. And Elvis had a vision. When Elvis had a vision, there was no stopping him.
A Mystical Mississippi Retreat
The week before my sunrise journey, I spoke with Jerry Schilling — a member of Elvis’ entourage, the Memphis Mafia, and author of Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley — on the phone from his home in West Hollywood Hills (a house Elvis gave him in 1974). I told him I’d known about the Circle G Ranch for 20 years; my mother moved us to Horn Lake in 1996, and the locals had all sorts of stories about Elvis’ ranch days.
Rumors swirled that Elvis lost his wedding band in the pasture while horseback riding and that it has been out there ever since, waiting to be found by some lucky treasure-hunter. Folks said Elvis had built, by hand, the bridge that crosses over the lake. And a brick barbecue pit on the ranch’s southern end, which at one time featured the initials “EP” on its edges (the “P” has been chiseled away, over time, by fans, but the “E” remains), was said to have been a gathering place for Elvis and his friends.
For those who’ve heard the stories, the thought of the King of Rock-and-Roll spending time in this small Mississippi town riding horses, having barbecues, and staying in a modest farmhouse has always lended to Circle G’s sense of mysticism. “You brought up a wonderful word: mystical,” Jerry says. “I think that was the first impression Elvis had about that ranch.”
Elvis’ horse-buying binge began a few months earlier with an idea to purchase a horse for Priscilla for Christmas. He’d asked Jerry, over breakfast at Graceland, if he’d mind if he also purchased a horse for Jerry’s girlfriend, Sandy, so the two of them could ride together. Jerry agreed it was a fine idea, and they set out looking for horses, with Jerry trying out each potential purchase. Elvis didn’t ride much at the time because “the horses ran away with him,” Jerry says.
Soon, Elvis began cleaning up Graceland’s then unused barn, and Jerry explains what happened next: “As was the nature of Elvis wanting to share his prosperity and good fortune with his friends — and with everybody — we ended up getting 20 or so horses.” Elvis would eventually acquire his own horse, Rising Sun, which he’d ride often, at Graceland, and later, at Circle G.
On that February morning in 1967, during “Elvis hours” (2 or 3 a.m.), Alan Fortas (another member of the Memphis Mafia), Elvis, Priscilla, Sandy, and Jerry had driven out to Lennox Farms in a double-cab pickup truck to purchase a Tennessee Walking Horse for Elvis’ father, Vernon. “We’re driving back to Graceland, and it’s dawn, and Elvis sees this beautiful white cross overlooking this lake,” Jerry says. Elvis told Alan to pull over.
“I know it was mystical to him because this was a time when Elvis was doing a lot of spiritual reading.”
Elvis had Alan knock on the door of the farmhouse right then and there. The property’s owner, Jack Adams, who also owned the Twinkletown Airport in Walls, asked $437,000 for the house, cattle, farm equipment, and 160 acres of land. Elvis wasn’t one to negotiate or wait for anything he wanted. He agreed to the price, and within a day or so, his crew began moving in. It was rechristened the Circle G Ranch (“G” for Graceland, according to most accounts, though some say the “G” was for Elvis’ mother, Gladys).
Jerry had become friends with Elvis in 1954 over a game of football in Guthrie Park in North Memphis. He’s since had a hand in several Elvis-related projects, most recently the 2016 film Elvis & Nixon, and is currently producing, along with Priscilla, a four-hour HBO special (due out next year) that will highlight Elvis’ strengths as a music producer. “He was really the most underrated producer in rock-and-roll history,” Jerry says.
You can hear in his tone, in his measured responses, that he adored Elvis. To him, Elvis was more than the superstar the world swooned over; he was his best friend. In the years leading up to his purchase of the ranch, Elvis’ schedule was heavily focused on film; he starred in 21 feature films released between 1960 and 1967. When they happened upon the ranch, Jerry was 25 and Elvis was 32, and what Elvis envisioned for the place would, for a brief time, bring them and the rest of the group together in a way that the trips to Hollywood movie sets never quite did.
“He was unhappy with his movie career at the time,” Jerry says. “And he was very much searching for what his purpose in life was, and why he had this fame and what he should do with that.” Elvis was reading everything from the Bible to the Quran to Eastern philosophies. He studied Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi and became a member of the Self-Realization Fellowship, which Jerry says is “actually a beautiful thing that encompasses all religions.”
The 1960s also saw the rise of the commune. While Elvis wasn’t a hippie, he liked the idea of people gathering together and living together. He’d already moved several friends — including Jerry — into Graceland, and as lavish as the mansion’s accommodations were, it was a bit cramped for his entourage and their girlfriends and horses. The ranch would allow time in nature, together, away from the pressures of Hollywood and superstardom.
An Expensive (But Worthy) Endeavor
Soon after the purchase of Circle G, Elvis stocked the stables with 40 horses and began buying mobile homes (from Jerry’s memory: for Alan Fortas, Elvis’ cousin Billy Smith and his wife Jo, Stevie and Larry Geller, Joanie and Joe Esposito, Richard Davis, and Jerry and Sandy). He also bought El Caminos or Ranchero trucks (some branded with a Circle G logo) for everyone to get around the expansive country landscape, tractors, and all sorts of gear for their newfound country lifestyle. Within a few weeks, Elvis had spent nearly a million dollars. “It was a beautiful idea and it was really well-meant,” Jerry says. “But I think it went out of hand. The spending started costing more than the ranch.”
In his book, Jerry wrote about that time, “Just before we began our horse-buying spree, Elvis had been sent the script for his next film, Clambake, which had every indication of being his lousiest production yet. I know it just bothered the hell out of him — his music was being messed with, his once-promising film career had been turned into a joke, and he didn’t see any way out. . . . The idea of turning a ranch into a refuge for himself had to be appealing.”
“It wasn’t about Elvis, the star. It was about sharing friendships. On a more realistic, simple, loving basis — being off the road, being away from Hollywood, just getting down to the bare essentials.”
— Jerry Schilling
And after the initial spending binge was over, it did turn into the peaceful, communal refuge Elvis intended. On May 1, 1967, Elvis and Priscilla were married in Las Vegas. Jerry and Sandy were married six weeks before. After the wedding, “We did a trip to the Bahamas,” Jerry says, “but I would say the honeymoon, for Elvis and Priscilla and also for Sandy and I, was really at the ranch.”
Jerry recalls target shooting, frog hunts, and picnics near the lake — “a lot of nice, easygoing, outdoorsy moments.” Along with those who had trailers on the property, other members of Elvis’ core group — including Red West, Marty Lacker, and Mike Keaton — spent a lot of time at Circle G riding horses.
Mike McGregor, a professional horseman and saddler, cared for and trained the horses. Jerry’s home movies show Mike doing tricks on Elvis’ horse, standing on the saddle. And Jerry remembers “these little horses that Colonel [Parker, Elvis’ manager] sent Elvis — like Shetland ponies — and me and Richard Davis were trying to stay on them, riding them bareback and falling. We had a lot of fun.”
It wouldn’t be long before diehard fans found out about the ranch and showed up in scores to get a glimpse of the star, just as they had at Graceland. Elvis had a 10-foot-high fence erected for privacy. Still, time spent on the ranch was special, perhaps especially for Elvis’ new bride. “He was in that little house with Priscilla, and it was the first time in her relationship with Elvis that she and Elvis lived in a place by themselves; granted, in this walled-off ranch, but in Hollywood and in Graceland, everybody’s in the house and everybody’s living there,” Jerry says.
In Priscilla’s book, Elvis and Me, she reminisced about the ranch and its unassuming farmhouse, which upon first sight, “I pictured us saddling our own horses and riding in the early evening or at dusk. My picture was of us alone, without an entourage,” she wrote. But Elvis saw it as the best of both worlds. He could hang with the group when he wanted and have his alone time with Priscilla — the couple moved out of the house (which became known as the “Honeymoon Cottage”) and into one of the mobile homes, where, she wrote, “It turned out to be very romantic. I loved playing house. I personally washed all his clothes, along with the towels and sheets, and took pride in ironing his shirts and rolling up his socks the way my mother had taught me. Here was an opportunity to take care of him myself. No maids or housekeepers to pamper us.”
During the spring of 1967, they’d sometimes spend weeks at a time on the ranch. Priscilla recalled leaving for Los Angeles, so Elvis could do pre-production work for Speedway — shortly after finding out she was pregnant with Lisa Marie — but returning to the ranch for Christmas for horseback riding, snowball fights, and hayrides. Of those early Circle G days, she wrote, “He was having a ball, and there were days he didn’t even want to take time out to eat — he’d walk around with a loaf of bread under his arm in case hunger pangs struck.”
With all the fun on the farm, the potlucks, and the picnics — “something that’s so un-Elvis” — Jerry says, the Circle G “became a beautiful place.” One day, when Priscilla was pregnant (“If you do the math, you can see how happy those honeymoon ranch times were,” Jerry wrote), she, Elvis, Jerry, and Sandy were out horseback riding and came upon a cow giving birth. “It was amazing,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like that. It was like we were in the Wild Wild West.”
Experiences like that gave Elvis something he couldn’t have gotten elsewhere. It wasn’t about Elvis, the star. It was about sharing friendships, Jerry says, “on a more realistic, simple, loving basis — being off the road, being away from Hollywood, just getting down to the bare essentials. I think it was one of the times that Elvis enjoyed just being a human being. It was a great time in our lives.”
As with all good things, the days at the Circle G came to a close, after about a year. The ranch, while it played a very important part in Elvis’ life, Jerry says, “had gone through its cycle.” It had also caused a bit of a financial crisis, and Elvis had movie contracts to fulfill (he averaged about $1 million per feature film at that time). In 1968, ranch visits were few and far between, with Alan Fortas overseeing it in its last days. After some time on the market, the ranch sold in May 1969 to the North Mississippi Gun Club for $440,000.
As for Circle G rumors, old photos prove the “EP” barbecue pit was there when Elvis owned it. Both Jerry and George Klein (another close friend of Elvis and now a disc jockey on SiriusXM’s Elvis Radio Live from Graceland) remember Elvis losing a ring on the grounds. Klein even recalls going out with metal detectors searching for it, but whether or not it was ever found, is unknown. And the bridge? Well, sorry folks, Elvis didn’t build it. It was there, and “part of the original beauty,” Jerry says, when the group stumbled upon it. The cross had been erected by a previous owner, who put it there for one of two very different reasons, according to online accounts: Either it was placed in memory of the owner’s daughter who’d drowned in the lake, or used as a beacon for aircraft traveling to the nearby Twinkletown Airport.
Whatever the reason, that cross drew Elvis to a place and time that, though fleeting, was cherished by all involved. Not just because of the gifts — trucks, trailers, and horses — but because of the bonds that grew between everyone who was a part of it.
“Elvis knew how to make people happy, and he wanted to make people happy. He appreciated, so much, his success and that’s why it was so important to him [when] the career was not being as special as it should be, such as [with] Clambake.
“It’s such a deep, many-layered story,” Jerry says. “The whole life of individuality, the birth of rock-and-roll, courage to do what you felt against all odds — he really dared to be different. And he was sensitive at the same time. What I loved about Elvis, he wasn’t the guy in a lot of the movies just walking around singing a song smiling all the time. He could do that and he was a lot of fun, but he was also a very thinking type of person, a very searching type of person.
“There’s a reason why, after all these years, we’re still talking about him.”
To read about the future of the Circle G Ranch, click here.