SPRING HILL, Tenn. - Rippavilla, a stately antebellum estate in Middle Tennessee, has witnessed its share of history. A key moment in the Civil War played out in its parlor, and a turning point in the American auto industry occurred across the street.
Perhaps this eventful past prepared the estate's overseers for the latest episode in this town's running rivalry between the Old and New South:
Whether to grow mule heads in the cornfield.
To raise money for the financially strapped estate last year, its managers groomed a cornfield behind the house into an 8-acre labyrinth in the shape of two mule heads, a nod to the area's heritage as a mule-trading hub. Hundreds paid $8 to go through the maze, which took about two hours to negotiate.
The maze raised about $6,000 for the estate, but when it came time to plant it again this spring, a heated debate broke out among county officials, the estate's paid director and the estate's board. Was growing the maze again worth the effort? Would it lose its appeal the second time around? Was the maze too, well, hokey a gimmick for an elegant Greek revival estate?
"It's real controversial," says estate supervisor Madie Davidson during a reporter's recent visit. "Some people think it's wrong to do something like that at a historic site; others think it's a good way to raise money."
The guardians of other historic properties around the country also face the perennial problem of how to raise the necessary funds. But Rippavilla's situation is unusual: It happens to be on the grounds of a giant automobile plant.
Spring Hill is where General Motors Corp. decided 19 years ago to build the plant that would house Saturn, the new line conceived as GM's counter to Japanese carmakers. GM swept into the small town of 1,400 with all the fanfare of an extraterrestrial landing, building a $1.7 billion plant in the middle of the rolling farm fields on the edge of town.
Tom T. Hall, a local writer, captured the shock of the plant's arrival - the facility was the first in a string of new car plants in the South - in his 1990 novel, Spring Hill, Tennessee. A fictional journalist reporting on the opening remarks that local residents thought Saturn referred either to the planet or to "the Roman God of agriculture. They figured the god would have more business here on this fertile land than General Motors."
Making the contrast with its Old South surroundings more striking was the plant's New Age air: Saturn was to exemplify cutting-edge engineering, environmental friendliness and a novel approach to labor relations, with control shared by GM and the United Auto Workers.
As part of this approach, the plant was tucked within the folds of rolling fields so that it is barely visible from nearby Rippavilla. Still, Saturn's arrival transformed the town, about 30 miles south of Nashville. The population has exploded to more than 12,000, with new subdivisions spreading across fields once populated only by cows.
Large shopping plazas are appended to the town's tiny commercial center. Tax revenues and philanthropy from Saturn and its 6,800 employees, many of whom were laid-off GM workers from other states, have fueled the construction of gleaming schools and town offices.
"This is a spot of ground I've known all my life," says Joe Roberson, a Maury County commissioner and member of the Rippavilla board. "It's not the way it was when I was a boy."
The changes also reached Rippavilla, which was built in the early 1850s by plantation owner Nathaniel Cheairs, a descendant of French Huguenot immigrants. The house sits on the 2,400 acres that Saturn leased from the county industrial board. After its last residents moved out in 1994, Saturn subleased the house and 10 acres around it to the county so the estate could be turned into a tourist attraction.
The company and UAW donated $100,000 each to restore the house, and in 1997 it opened to visitors. Its features include four Corinthian columns, walls three bricks thick, a grand central staircase and more than a dozen original furnishings returned by Cheairs descendants.
The house's history is equally compelling. Cheairs spent much of the Civil War as an aide to legendary Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, not counting three stints as a Union prisoner of war. While he was gone, Cheairs' house played host to a crucial November 1864 war council between Forrest and Gen. John Bell Hood, Confederate commander in Tennessee.
In an inexplicable bungling, the Confederates had just let Union troops slip past to Nashville on a key resupply mission. At the Rippavilla meeting, Hood made the fateful decision to chase them and attack them head-on in nearby Franklin - a battle where the Confederates suffered 7,000 casualties in what historians see as a finishing blow to the South.