By LYDIA BERGLAR
As a veteran of the Vietnam War, Jerry Harris has spent much of his life working through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While PTSD remains a daily reality for Harris, he’s found some relief by rescuing animals, using poetry as therapy, enjoying music, working with his hands at Hicks Hollow Farm, and surrounding himself with community at the Hicks Hollow Music Barn.
Harris was born on Sand Mountain and spent his youth in Lookout Valley, Tenn. before heading to the jungles of Vietnam in 1969. After many years of wrestling with PTSD, he decided to buy 15 acres of land in Dade County on Hicks Hollow Road. In 2017, he purchased what would eventually become a rescue farm and a music venue.
Harris’ daughter, Heather Hanzelik, joined as a co-owner in the venture. She said, “We decided that animals would be really helpful for PTSD. We both love animals, so we wanted to provide sanctuary for animals that need it. Early on, we spent so much time building the fencing around the entire property. It was such an incredible project to do with my father.”
They primarily take in farm animals such as pigs, donkeys, and horses, but they also seek to care for the land. Hanzelik explained, “A lot of hummingbirds and bees have started to come through here. We wanted to promote that growth, so we’ve added a variety of plants that are good for the bees to pollinate and that the hummingbirds like. We’ve documented about 230 different species of plants in just a small area of the property.”
Then, work on the music barn began. Once the building was ready, Harris started Friday night karaoke. From 6-10 p.m. with a $5.00 door fee, these nights are open to anyone.
Additionally, Seth David Coley, an aspiring county musician, hosts an open mic night on the second Saturday of each month. These nights are also from 6-10 p.m. While free, donations are requested to cover expenses.
Coley explained, “I was talking to people who wanted to do a picking barn/family night thing, and I thought, ‘Well shoot, Jerry’s got a good place. Let’s go down there.’ January 2023 was the first month. That first night, we had over 100 people come.”
Coley spent some time in Nashville before returning to the Chattanooga area. He currently performs with his band, the Rabbit Valley Boys. He said, “I’d like to make a living out of country music.”
Hanzelik added that karaoke and the picking nights attract people of all ages. “Spending time with any of the people in this room is really a gift. People can bring food, snacks, and drinks.” The barn is also available to rent out for events.
Coley’s grandfather, Jimmy Coley, has been friends with Harris since high school and is another regular face at the farm. He also served in the Vietnam War and found that one-on-one counseling and a group counseling/accountability group helped his PTSD.
He said, “I’ve had about 20 years of readjustment counselors at the veteran center in Chattanooga which is a real good program for guys to get in. Jerry took a different route. He’s built this by hand and put a lot of love and care into it.”
Jimmy continued, “PTSD is something that never goes away. You live with it 24/7, but you can choose whether or not to let it live rent free in your mind and your life. You replace it, like Jerry’s done here, with different stuff.”
Harris added, “Staying busy helps counter the problems we have. I don’t drink, Jimmy doesn’t drink, and I don’t take any medicine. Shrinks and things like that can help to an extent, maybe 10% to help you along, but you have to do the rest. It’s like how everyone has to put on their own shoes and clothes; nobody’s going to be able to do it for you.”
With the help of his life partner of 30 years, Margaret Jackson, Harris recreated his story in poetic form when they put together a book of poetry. Jackson, a member of the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga’s English department for many years, found that poetry was therapeutic for Harris’ PTSD. As he shared about his experience of PTSD, Jackson put together a poetry collection capturing his thoughts and feelings.
Harris also co-wrote a song, “Young Jerry Old Jerry” through the non-profit Freedom Sings USA. It can be listened to at www.freedomsingsusa.org/music/freedom-sings-usa-volume-i.
Harris said, “When soldiers are fighting, you have to drop the emotional part and it’s all about acting quickly. It builds up, and eventually, the feelings come back to you. When I started coming out of PTSD, everything was about me, thinking, ‘I got all these problems, and the hell with everybody else,’ Where I stand now, it’s about everybody and all the other combat soldiers.”
Several years ago, the farm hosted a haunted event in October. Hanzelik recalled, “That was a lot of fun. We created a trail back in the woods. A lot of people loved the event, but paying for animatronics, actors, haunted house insurance, and a food license was financially staggering.”
While the haunted farm won’t be returning this year, it might one day be feasible again. For now, the plan is to continue the music venue. Hanzelik said, “Allowing this to be a place for people to create, share feelings, relax, enjoy music – we want to keep that for sure.”
To stay up-to-date on the Hicks Hollow Music Barn, you can request to join the Facebook group “Hicks Hollow Picking Barn,” visit www.hickshollowfarm.com, or call Jerry Harris at 423-364-2785. You can also follow Seth David Coley on Facebook to keep up with his musical adventure.