Researching a Plantation’s Past for New Presentation

Far behind the mansion at Rippavilla Plantation in Spring Hill, this unstable building has for years been believed to be a cabin for enslaved people, but never stated as such with certainty partly because of uses subsequent to Reconstruction. Photo courtesy of Kate Wilson.

From Staff Reports

SPRING HILL, TN — An architectural historian visiting an antebellum plantation here late last year wondered if a building far behind the mansion was originally a dwelling for enslaved people.

“Furthermore,” Rippavilla Inc. Executive Director Kate Wilson reports, “he noted the structure is perhaps the most unstable building on our site and in desperate need of stabilization, without which, it is likely the structure would not survive.”

With an annual operating budget of nearly $275,000, Wilson and a board manage the non-profit organization to preserve Rippavilla Plantation. Its Slave Cabin Restoration Committee meets on the first Wednesday of the month in the mansion at 4 p.m. 

“We reached out to … the African American Heritage Society of Maury County and MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation,” Wilson said. “It is important to us that the African American community in Maury County have a strong voice in the research and interpretation stages of this project. It is, in fact, their story to tell.

“We want to find the names of the enslaved people who lived at Rippavilla,” Wilson said. “We know of 14 individuals but will not stop there.”

Among many questions, the project asks:

• Who are their descendants?

• Where are they now?

• What can archaeology tell us about those who lived here?”

Corn, cotton, hemp, barley, hay, oats, wheat, tobacco, beans, squash, peppers and tomatoes were grown at Rippavilla which probably had peach and apple orchards. Livestock included hogs, sheep, cows, mules and horses.

“We believe there was a row of 12 slave cabins located near the back of the property on what was once known as Cheairs Row,” Wilson said. “We also think there were three cabins near the main house, and living quarters in the back wing of the mansion. Additional evidence of fire pits near one of the fields suggests adjacent living quarters.”

Including the lives of enslaved people when telling stories of plantation life is a growing aspect of American history tourism and Wilson says she hopes “the public will take notice and follow our discoveries.”

In May 2017, Spring Hill’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen accepted from Rippavilla Inc. the donation of Rippavilla Plantation, 98.4 acres and its operational responsibilities. The acquisition fits into the Spring Hill Rising: 2040 Comprehensive Plan for best use of historic properties, preserving the area’s rural character and its cultural history. That includes better programs at Rippavilla to increase its revenue and make it self-sustaining. City support includes appropriations from hotel-motel room rent tax revenue. Acquisition of Rippavilla led to the creation of Spring Hill’s Tourism Council.

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