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The Berrien County Chamber of Commerce delivers sweet memories at awards banquet

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The Berrien County Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual awards banquet on Tuesday evening at Nashville United Methodist Church's Family Life Center in Nashville, Ga. While all 200 tickets were sold out, inclement weather spearheaded by the chilly remnants of a polar vortex along the eastern seaboard significantly reduced the crowd size.

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A satisfactory dinner topped off with ham, baked potato, green bean casserole, and a choice of either red velvet or chocolate cake left patrons eagerly anticipating the arrival of LaDonna Gatlin, best known as the youngest sibling of country troubadour Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.

An in-demand motivational speaker, author, and singer, Gatlin was in town to perform and discuss her hardscrabble upbringing in West Texas along with some humorous anecdotes about becoming a grandmother in a premier adult active community.

After overcoming consternation regarding whether she could catch her Atlanta flight back home to Texas, she agreed to a wide-ranging interview, recalling her early years spent touring with her brothers, brazenly attending the World's Fair and performing to a packed crowd, why she left her brothers on the cusp of worldwide fame, whether she might consider reuniting with them, and the day she met Elvis Presley. Click on the link to read the entire scoop along with a mini review of Gatlin's Nashville engagement.

Outgoing Chamber of Commerce Chairman Paul Hamilton, a distinguished lawyer who was chomping at the bit to leave town for an extended skiing vacation, and Executive Director Crissy Staley presided over the remainder of the awards-studded evening.

Industry of the Year (Dupont Pine Products), Agribusiness of the Year (AgGeorgia Farm Credit), Business of the Year (Ray's Mill Pond Cafe), Entrepreneur of the Year (Little Duck Farms), and the Community Service Award (VFW Post 5978) were then presented in a timely fashion. The winners of the annual awards are voted on by the entire Chamber of Commerce membership. A press release obtained from Staley details each recognition below.

  • Industry of the Year: Dupont Pine Products

The Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Industry of the Year was awarded to Dupont Pine Products. The business purchased the Hubert Moore Lumber Company in Alapaha one year ago. Since that purchase, the plant has grown from 35 employees to 85 employees and two shifts. Dupont is the second largest private employer in Berrien County. It produces boards and timbers in a variety of sizes. They also supply decking boards and cross arms. Dupont Pine Products is in the process of expanding by adding another dry kiln to their Alapaha facility. Since becoming a part of the Berrien County community, Dupont has also teamed up with several local organizations including the FFA and the Alapaha Station Celebration.

  • Agri-Business of the Year: AgGeorgia Farm Credit

The Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Agri-Business of the Year is AgGeorgia Farm Credit. Agriculture is both Berrien County and the state's number one industry. AgGeorgia Farm Credit was established in 1916 and is a borrower-owned lending company chartered to serve the needs of agriculture producers. Farmers and ranchers, like any other business, need access to capital, and AgGeorgia has been that dependable source in the county. In 2013 AgGeorgia launched its Farm Credit Express program which provided equipment financing options at participating local dealerships. AgGeorgia gives back to the local community by supporting youth livestock shows, school sports programs, sponsors extension meetings and the local FFA Chapter’s Presidents Award.

  • Business of the Year: Ray’s Mill Pond Café

The Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year is Ray’s Mill Pond Café which celebrated 50 years in business in 2013. In 1963 the business could only hold 30 people – now they can comfortably seat 245 with six separate dining rooms. Located in Ray City, the restaurant remains a quintessential Berrien County dining tradition. Ray’s Mill Pond has 35 employees and is still family owned and operated. It is a favorite of Moody Air Force Base and draws visitors from across South Georgia and beyond. Ray’s Mill Pond uses catfish from Lake Okeechobee, Fla., and cooks them in cholesterol free oil. Ray’s Mill Pond has supported numerous local charities and sports teams throughout its impressive history.

  • Entrepreneur of the Year: Little Duck Farms

The Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year is Little Duck Farms. The company has expanded their local footprint from a small on-farm retail store to a stand-alone gift shop located in the Register pecan building just outside of Ray City. Owned and operated by Jeff and Alan Dorsey, Little Duck specializes in shelled and in-shell pecans from single pound bags to truck loads. It also offers gift baskets filled with Georgia-grown products. When Little Duck Farms launched its website in 2009, they received 11 online orders. Four scant years later, they received well over 500. In addition to pecans, Little Duck Farms also offers grass-fed meats. Their farm is Animal Welfare Approved and American Grass Fed Approved. The business reduced costs by shelling nuts themselves instead of having the process done out of county. Jeff was mentioned in the latest edition of Georgia Pecan Magazine by entomologist Bill Goff as having one of the few orchards in the state free of disease.

  • Community Service Award: VFW Post 5978

The Berrien County Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award was presented to the Berrien County VFW Post 5978. Comprised of 497 members, they have been awarded the honor of All American post for the last three consecutive years. The VFW supports Berrien County in a variety of ways. Their Saturday night dances bring hundreds of people to the community on a weekly basis. The VFW also sponsors several local scholarship opportunities including the Voice of Democracy and Patriot Pen programs. The VFW provides transportation free of charge for local veterans to the VA hospital in Lake City, Fla. Members of Post 5978 regularly support local sports teams and events. For further information, visit the chamber's official Facebook.

DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! A 10-image slideshow taken by noted photographer Wenda Gaile Bailey preserves the banquet-awards ceremony in vivid detail and can be found at the top of this article. Otherwise... retired Alapaha Fire Chief Steve Brown has risked his life on multiple occasions. In a wide-ranging interview, the resilient gentleman shed much light on his distinguished career. Shortly after his family moved to the quaint South Georgia community and settled near the town’s railroad tracks in the early ‘60s, one early morning at 4 a.m. his father was awakened by the whistle of an approaching train. Walking into their small living room, he soon realized the house was on fire. "Walk A Mile In His Shoes..." delivers the rest of his inspiring, sometimes cautionary tale.

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Further Reading: When Tifton, Ga., native Cyndi Thomson entered the public consciousness in 2001, she arrived with a bang. Her debut single, "What I Really Meant To Say," topped the country music charts, an unheard of accomplishment. After she voluntarily decided to give up her burgeoning career, Thomson quietly returned as a hit songwriter in 2006, penning Gary Allan's "Life Ain't Always Beautiful." Since then, she has largely remained out of the limelight. In a colorful review of a rare concert in her hometown, Thomson delivers plenty of unfiltered truths, including hilarious anecdotes about her encounters with Dolly Parton and Martina McBride in separate Nashville bathrooms!

Exclusive Interview: Rodney Dillard was the lead singer of '60s bluegrass-folk-rock band The Dillards, better known to classic television buffs as one quarter of the hillbilly Darling Family on the beloved Andy Griffith Show. He granted a heartfelt interview with this writer regarding his long and winding path to becoming a born-again Christian. Dillard originally grew up in a Baptist church in Salem, Mo. But the bright lights of show biz beckoned, and he lived the rock and roll lifestyle in Los Angeles for decades. In essence, he followed the example of the prodigal son, attempting to run away from God. For the rest of the story, visit "The Christian Walk: Rodney's Life-Changing Experience."

Exclusive Interview No. 2: John Denver will forever be remembered as the consummate singer-songwriter. The radio friendly, environmentally conscious entertainer possesses an incredible body of work with such landmark recordings as "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Back Home Again," "Rocky Mountain High," "Annie's Song," and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," all staples of early '70s AM radio. Denver's final pianist, Chris Nole, recently agreed to revisit his memorable relationship with the singer on the commemoration of his 70th birthday. Stick around as Nole discusses how he came to join Denver's band, what it was like to have a single rehearsal and then debut in front of thousands of fans, Denver's homespun sense of humor, whether the singer had any pre-show superstitions, their final conversation, and much more.

Exclusive Interview No. 3: Still a towering icon decades after his death, John Wayne is the genuine cowboy. Burly character actor Gregg Palmer appeared in an impressive six films with the Duke. By far, "Big Jake" contains Palmer's best work with the legendary actor. In it, the 6'4", 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens his grandson's life with near deadly results. In the words of fan Tom Horton, Palmer was one of the nastiest bastards to ever fight Wayne. In a just released two-part interview (Part One is "The Man Who Killed John Wayne's Dog..."), the gentle giant relives his friendship with Wayne and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.

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