GRATIS — The Village of Gratis celebrated it’s 200th birthday this past weekend, beginning with a parade on Saturday, June 10.
The two-day celebration featured contests, food, and a speech by Donnie Lewis, tour manager of Peter Frampton.
The parade featured floats from organizations including: Preble County Honor Guard, Gratis Fire and EMS, Grand Marshal Lewis, 1967 Sesquicentennial King Darrell Friend, 1967 Sesquicentennial Queen Martha Zimmerman Davis, Preble County Council on Aging’s 2017 Prom King and Queen Gene Sandlin and Pam Hines, the Preble Shawnee High School Arrows, participants from the bike and car show, the Preble County Republican Party, the First Brethren Church, and more.
Following the parade, the opening speech was given by Grand Marshal Lewis. He was introduced by Dwanye Reynolds.
Reynolds said, “It was at Gratis Junior High that I first met Donnie Lewis. It was where we brought West Elkton, Camden, and Gratis together all in one place to join in our junior high education. It was where I first met Donnie and I saw him from afar and I said, ‘There goes another white haired guy with glasses, maybe me and him can pal up.’
“As our school years went and as we moved along, we went into high school, collectively Donnie has been one of the most stable friends anyone could ask for. He’s been friends with everybody that he has come into contact with and I’ve never heard him say a bad thing about anybody, nor have I heard anybody say a bad thing about him. That says a lot about his character and that says a lot about his hometown roots here in Gratis.”
Reynolds continued to share that Lewis started out wanting to be a veterinarian, but felt a “yearning” to be a musician. Lewis left the area in the 1980s, where he eventually became a drummer for the band the Mid South Boys in Tennessee. He got other opportunities to work behind the scenes with bands, running them and touring with them.
He got the mentorship of George Ritchie, the husband of Tammy Wynette.
“Moving on, Donnie [Lewis] took over the Tammy Wynette tour,” Reynolds said. “He then moved to Trisha Yearwood, and he was with her for over a decade. He was also part of the World Garth Brooks tour, he has also attended the White House four times, and he has also been part of the winter Olympics. He has also participated in the Oscars, toured all 50 states and 23 countries around the world. The whole time the artists put their complete trust in this man to put on the best show he can.
“For those of you who have been fortunate to see one of the shows that this man puts on, it’s phenomenal.”
Currently, Lewis works as Peter Frampton’s tour manager, as he has for the past 14 years.
Before Lewis began to speak he urged Reynolds to lead the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to the village.
Lewis thanked the mayor and the Gratis Bicentennial Committee for all the work they put into the celebration.
“I’m so proud of Gratis, you have no idea,” Lewis said. “As I came in late last night, there was no on here but myself and my car. Walking around and seeing the sign, ‘Founded 1817,’ Robin told me that they just found that sign in a storage area. I love that sign. This, for me, has turned absolutely full circle. Never in a million years when I walked these streets during the carnivals that they had in Gratis each year, would I realize I would be up here, but the full circle part is where this young lady is over in the red over here. Just above in that window, that’s where I was raised the first four years of my life.
“I was a resident of Gratis for 21 years and very proud to call myself from Gratis. When I’ve done interviews before, in trade magazines for music magazines and TV shows, they ask me where I’m from. I don’t say Dayton, I don’t say Cincinnati, I don’t say Middletown, I say, ‘I’m from Gratis, Ohio and I’m very proud of it.’”
He continued, “When I was asked here to speak for a few moments, I had no idea what I was going to speak on and I have spoken all over the world to entrepreneurs and music students and had a blast doing that and I do it so easily. When they asked me to do it here I said, ‘No, are you kidding me? Some of those people know me.’ So you guys made me a nervous wreck today. I’ve been practicing this hour upon hour, but I’m going to throw the notes out the widow and say what’s on my heart and what’s on my mind today.
“Dwayne [Reynolds] introduced me as Peter Frampton’s tour manager, there is one thing I would like to correct. If you followed me around for one day, you would suddenly realize that my title should be Peter Frampton’s executive baby sitter, because that is what I do. It’s been fun over the years. But I want to talk a little bit about the history of Gratis. Now, I could stay here all day and tell you things I know about Gratis and things people have told me today and in the past, but I’m just going to hit on a couple things.
“When you realize that 1817 was so long ago, James Monroe was the president of the United States when Gratis was turned into a village. That’s amazing. If you look back in history, there were only three presidents before that when Gratis became a village. That was Madison, Jefferson, and Washington. Four presidents and then this little town became a village. That’s amazing to me.
“Mississippi was the 20th state, became in the same month a state that Gratis became a little town. Gratis was created and became a village before 31 states were states. Just to give you an idea of how far back our history goes.
“I think a lot about Gratis and when I’m watching my favorite TV show, Mayberry R.F.D. Andy Griffith,” Lewis said. “To be realistic, town of Gratis, you know what? If the producers would of come to Gratis back then they would have said, ‘Forget Mayberry R.F.D. this needs to be either a reality city or a city like Mayberry R.F.D.’”
“Three things happened in Gratis that were very instrumental to my music career,” Lewis continued. “Does anybody know Trisha Yearwood? When I got the call to work for Trisha Yearwood, I was sitting in my mom’s kitchen. I’m a prankster and people at school and churches knew that. I thought that this lady was getting me back. I get the phone and she said, ‘Is this Donnie?’ I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ She said, ‘This is Trisha Yearwood.’ I said, click. She calls back five minutes and said, ‘Do no hang up the phone, this is really Trisha Yearwood I met you on the Tammy Wynette Tour, we’re getting ready to lose our tour manager, interested in knowing if you are interested in auditioning for the job?’
“I said, ‘If this is really Trisha Yearwood, I think I would be the craziest person on the planet if I did not come and interview.’ I went to Nashville, seven other people interviewed for the job. Somehow, someway, probably because I had some amazing teachers, I got the job as Trisha Yearwood’s tour manager and was on the Garth Brooks World Tour for two years and with Trisha Yearwood for 11 years — and I was in little tiny Gratis, Ohio when I got the call.”
He finished, “And last but not least, it’s really cool that there’s a little dot on the map that runs between 503, 122, and 725. It’s a little tiny village that’s been around for a couple hundred years, tomorrow. And I can say happy birthday and most importantly I am glad that I am from the great community of Gratis, Ohio!”
The two-day celebration also featured music by Bad Men on a Mission & Tall Paul Boyd, Thumb Up, Lexi Dawn, Worley Boys, James Mathes, and Thankful Hearts. In addition to the music, there were numerous food vendors and attractions throughout the celebration.
There were raffles, souvenirs available, a dunk tank sponsored by Shell, bouncy houses, a photo booth, face painting and hair chalk, a cornhole tournament, cutest baby contest, longest beard contest, a pie auction, and a birthday cake.
One of the big attractions to the celebration was the opening of a time capsule left over from the Gratis Sesquicentennial. Lewis read a note from the capsule as the Bicentennial explored the contents. The items from the capsule will be on display at the Gratis Library for the rest of the month.
The committee is planning on closing the capsule in the fall.
Reach Kelsey Kimbler at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @KKimbler_RH