I am hunched over a cup of coffee at the bar at Embers Tavern in Columbia, Tennessee, when Mike sits down next to me. I know his name is Mike because it says so on his work shirt. He looks about 30, has long red hair, a long beard pulled into a point, and round wire-rim glasses — think Trey Anastasio covered in grease. A very attractive bartender came over and handed Mike a beer.
“You work today, Mike?”
“Yeah, I’d have rather been four-wheelin’, though.”
Work for Mike and for most of the folks in this bar is at the General Motors plant just up the Nashville Highway in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Once the home of the famous Saturn Corporation, today the plant makes the Chevy Equinox. In the last few years, after the financial collapse, it was nearly idle and the entire area suffered. Today the plant is humming again, thanks in part to the controversial federal bridge loan to GM. People are back to work. The town is coming back to life.
“Is that really happenin’?” he asks me in a throaty Tennessee twang. I look up at the TV screen above the bar. Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber has his gloves off and is tangled up with Columbus’s enforcer, Jared Boll. “That’s stupid.” He spits in his cup. “They can’t afford to have him in the box.”
On the walls around the TV that’s set to the NHL Network hang banners for Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue. Behind us on the opposite wall, hanging in the shadow of a giant United Auto Workers union flag, are two portraits of a football player with a white uniform and an “18” on his jersey. As Tim McGraw’s “Red Rag Top” faded out, I signaled for the check.
“Is that Peyton Manning?” I ask the waitress when she brings me my bill.
“You bet your sweet ass it is.”
The newspaper headline announcing the plant read “Saturn Comes Down to Earth.” Before the Saturn plant opened in 1990 there were only about a thousand people living in Spring Hill, most of them farming families. For a long time before the plant opened there were rumors about what was happening down on the Haynes Haven horse farm, the 1,100 acres GM bought to build its $3.5 billion plant. Because of all the secrecy surrounding the project, people were concerned there was some kind of shadowy government nuclear project happening. Once they learned in 1985 that the project was the most expensive corporate investment in history, right in their backyards, most of them were relieved. When they learned that the 6,000 jobs in the plant would go to relocating GM workers, mostly from the Midwest, their noses got set firmly out of joint.
“A lot of people in Columbia were anti-GM,” one former GM transplant tells me. “They thought they should have got those jobs.” The Nissan plant in nearby Smyrna opened years before with a mostly local workforce, so naturally the residents of Columbia and Spring Hill thought that Saturn would do the same thing. That’s not how it worked in General Motors, though. Union members had the right to the jobs first, and there was no shortage of members in the Midwest who wanted to work for this “different kind of car company.”
Instead of recruiting from the unemployed ranks of nearby towns, the Saturn plant would create an entirely new town of its own out on the mule farms and loam fields of Williamson and Maury counties — a town of Yankees anxious for a warmer climate, a lower tax rate, and a chance to work under a new union contract.1
The UAW and GM negotiated a brand-new contract to cover the Saturn plant. Many less-senior GM workers who were at risk of layoff in their own plants saw an advantage to relocating to Saturn and being on even footing with every other employee. The company also agreed to a clause guaranteeing no layoffs for the life of the agreement, mirroring a best practice the union saw in European auto labor agreements.
“When we first came here, people would say ‘Are you with Saturn? This town is going to hell,'” says Mike Herron, chairman of UAW Local 1853 in Spring Hill and one of the first GM workers to work at Saturn. “To these people the word ‘union’ meant one of two things: General Sherman or Jimmy Hoffa.”
“Spring Hill didn’t really grow at first,” Mike Dinwiddie, the young and handsome mayor of Spring Hill, says during a break in his day job waiting tables at the Buffalo Wild Wings. “There were still only about 7,000 people who lived in the town when I moved here around 2000.”
Most of the GM families chose instead to live in either Franklin to the north or Columbia to the south. Franklin was a little more affluent, on the upswing with new development. Columbia was an older community, more blue-collar. It was attractive to GM transplants who were looking for rentals and hadn’t yet decided whether or where to buy.
“Spring Hill just didn’t have any housing at the time,” Dinwiddie says. “It didn’t really start to grow until fairly recently.”
Spring Hill’s population is about 29,000 and growing. Dinwiddie attributes that to an abundance of affordable housing in the area, most of which was built to accommodate the families of GM workers. Today, however, Dinwiddie says that more than 75 percent of the population of Spring Hill commutes to Nashville and other cities for work. “A lot of us are transplants still,” Dinwiddie says, “but not all of us come here to work in the plant.” And many of the ones who did, he adds, are now gone.
Driving up to Centennial Sportsplex in Nashville on a Friday night, I’m surprised at how hard it is to find a parking spot. There must be 200 cars in the parking lot. A big crowd for a high school hockey game, I think to myself. Once inside I realize that most of those cars belong to parents there to watch the high school regional swimming and diving finals in the pool. On Rink B, down a dank hallway from the main ice rink packed with young couples skating, a smattering of parents are huddled together in the stands to watch Centennial High School take on Mount Juliet in hockey. There doesn’t appear to be a single student here.
“It’s hard to get students to the game because we have to travel up here to Nashville,” Cynthia Jones explains to me. She and I both drove up from Franklin, where Centennial High is located, to see her son Kendrick play. “Plus there’s a basketball game against Ravenwood tonight.”
Ravenwood is Centennial’s crosstown rival. Together, they are the two biggest high school hockey powerhouses in Tennessee. Despite each school holding multiple hockey championships, getting students up to Nashville to see a match is still a hard sell. Even the parents are splitting their attention. Some of the Centennial hockey moms sitting in front of me keep track of the basketball score on their phones and periodically update the other parents.
Cynthia, like every other person sitting in our section, is decked out in a powder-blue Centennial hockey sweatshirt. You’d have a hard time picking her out of the crowd of blue if not for the fact that she is the only black person in the building. A short woman with a smiley disposition, Cynthia is chatty and eager to brag about her son. She shows me photos of Kendrick on her cell phone. I show her photos of my own son, only 2 years old, up on ice skates for the first time in his life just the week before. She is just beginning to tell me about Kendrick’s first time on skates when someone grabs her shoulder from behind.
“Kendrick just scored!” the parent yells. Cynthia is irritated she missed it. Less than four minutes into the game and her son has already scored on Mount Juliet. The parents around us all pat her on the back.
The Centennial High School Cougars are the no. 1 team in the Greater Nashville Area Scholastic Hockey (GNASH) league right now. Mount Juliet is at the bottom of its division and near the bottom of the league. Mount Juliet is a co-op program, which means it is sharing players and resources with another high school, Rossview, to field a full team. Nine of the 16 teams in the league are co-ops, and none of them is any match for Centennial. By the end of the first period the score is 5-0. The Centennial parents are charitable. I hear a parent yell “Good save!” at Mount Juliet’s goalie on one play. In the second period when Austin Simpson finally scores the first goal for Mount Juliet, the Centennial parents can’t help but cheer.
During the third period the game seems to be well in hand. I see a couple of the moms sitting in front of me pass the time by trying to guess the names of all the NHL teams whose banners hang around the rink — the same rink on which the Nashville Predators practice. A father sitting behind them tries to help. They get stuck on the Sabres.
“That’s Buffalo,” the dad tells them. “Buffalo Sabres.”
“Buffalo? Really? Like New York?”
A hockey mom in Nashville, Tennessee, is surprised to hear that Buffalo, New York, has a professional hockey team. Soon they all get stumped on the Ottawa Senators. One mom whips out her phone to look it up right about the time a big scrap breaks out on the ice.
“Hey! Stop it, Biff!”
“Get it under control, Biff!”
Biff, the referee, has been catching hell from these parents all night long, and right now they are livid that he hasn’t yet wrapped up the players who are fighting on the rink. Eventually Derek Lyle from Centennial clocks someone in the head and Vince Haller from Mount Juliet retaliates by hitting Lyle in the head with his stick. Everyone in the stands goes nuts. Biff gives Haller a match penalty and he’s ejected.
“If Biff wasn’t so lazy and did his job this wouldn’t happen!” yells one of the Centennial parents.
“When you get hit from the front and the back, what do you expect Derek to do?”
“Is it always this physical?” I ask Cynthia.
“This ain’t physical right here!” Cynthia gets animated. “When we play Ravenwood we fill up the penalty boxes. At Ravenwood they train those kids to fight.”
In the summer of 1864 when John Bell Hood was placed in command of the Army of Tennessee, he already had lost a leg and was left with an arm paralyzed; he was fastened to his horse each day like a saddle. He had lost his limbs fighting bravely — some would say with unnecessary carelessness — at Gettysburg and Chickamauga. Jefferson Davis was reluctant to give Hood the command of the Army of Tennessee. At 33, Hood would be the youngest commander on either side of the Civil War. But Davis needed to replace General Joseph Johnston, whom he considered a right chickenshit. Hood had been called many things, even “careless” by Robert E. Lee, but never a chickenshit.
In the fall of 1864 Nashville was occupied by the Union Army, but only by about 8,000 men. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee was 30,000 strong and moving toward Nashville. Hood knew that there were another 30,000 Union soldiers coming toward Nashville from the south up the Columbia Turnpike — where the Nashville Highway is today — which connects Columbia to Spring Hill. Hood advanced on Spring Hill, knowing if he could get to the turnpike and cut off the advancing Union soldiers, he’d stand a good chance of winning back Nashville and staving off defeat of the Confederacy.
Hood’s advance divisions managed to get ahead of the Union forces in Spring Hill, while Confederate artillery units were behind them south of Columbia. He had the Union flanked. Hood himself set up camp at the Absalom Thompson house south and east of the Rippavilla Plantation. There are rumors of Hood at this point in the war being hopelessly addicted to opium, a drug he took to relieve the pain from his war injuries. They say he had been up since three o’clock the previous morning. Whatever Hood’s state of mind, the decisions he would make or not make in the 24 hours of November 29, 1864, would be disastrous. They may have even brought about the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War.
After the fight the Centennial parents are a lot less charitable to Mount Juliet. When Stephen Hardin scores Centennial’s ninth goal, one of the moms in the front row spins around and proudly announces, “We just mercied this game, y’all.”
Just then Kendrick loses the puck right in front of the Mount Juliet goal. They push it down and score their third goal. Mount Juliet’s fans cheer like they just won the game. The Centennial parents are pissed they won’t get a skunk; the charitable mood of the first period is a distant memory.
Kendrick seems irritated at his error. On the next play he gets the Mount Juliet forward up against the boards in the corner and starts digging for the puck. He gets right underneath the kid and lifts him up enough to make room to slide his stick underneath his opponent’s body and scoop the puck out. He takes it and skates the entire length of the rink, pushing well ahead of everyone and never looking back for someone to pass to. He skates fast, with purpose, and the smaller Mount Juliet defender, let alone Kendrick’s teammates, can barely keep up with him. The parents don’t ask him to pass. They cheer him on. “Go Kendrick!” they shout. I overhear one of the moms behind me say, “He skates like an in-line skater.” For a Southern-fried hockey mom, her eye for technique is awfully astute.
Kendrick Jones was born in 1996 in Williamson County, Tennessee, to Kenny and Cynthia Jones. Kenny and Cynthia were part of the first wave of GM families to relocate to Spring Hill in 1990.
“At first I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do it,” Kenny tells me. “Up in Michigan you hear a lot of stories about how prejudiced people are in the South.” Kenny had plenty of reason to be concerned. The town where he and Cynthia would rent an apartment that first year, Columbia, was the scene of violent race riots and near-lynchings as recently as 1946. For most of that year they kept one foot in and one foot out, driving 10 hours each way every weekend to go back to Michigan and see their families.
Tennessee eventually grew on them. The area was booming and there was tons of cheap real estate in new developments around the plant. The couple bought a house in nearby Franklin, settled in, and set to making a family. Soon enough, Kendrick was born.
“I started taking him to Southern Ice when he was real little because when I was little that’s what we used to do,” Cynthia says. “Go pond skating and stuff like that.”
Southern Ice, now known as A-Game Sportsplex, was a single-sheet ice rink in Franklin. Cynthia enrolled Kendrick in figure skating when he was only 5 years old. He was a natural skater and excelled, but he was taken in by ice hockey. Before he turned 6 he was begging his mother to let him try hockey.
“I wouldn’t let him,” Cynthia tells me.
“Because it was too rough?”
“Because it was too expensive!”
Kenny found out about a youth in-line hockey league that had formed down at the UAW union hall. He signed Kendrick up.
“I didn’t know anything about hockey,” Kenny says. “I didn’t grow up watching that sport. I didn’t know the rules or anything. But a lot of guys at the plant were really into hockey, so they had this league for their kids.”
Drive north from Embers Tavern on the Nashville Highway, past the former Saturn plant, past the Haynes Haven horse farm, past the Rippavilla Plantation and Mule Farm — eventually the white picket fence ends and you’ll find yourself in the center of Spring Hill. Take a left at the first major intersection you come to and you’ll be on Stephen P. Yokich Parkway,2 where on your left you’ll see the United Auto Workers Local 1853 union hall.
Once called Town Center Parkway, the street was renamed in honor of Stephen P. Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers from 1994 to 2002.
An enormous facility on nearly 13 acres of land, the local is one of the most immaculate buildings in town. Where it once housed an Olympic-size pool, there’s an enormous fitness center. There’s an indoor basketball court with a bright yellow UAW logo at half court. There’s an exquisite banquet hall where every weekend a new couple is married beneath the UAW union wheel. Out in back, beneath an electronic scoreboard and bleachers, I expected to see a football field. I find an inline hockey rink instead. If people in Maury County had never seen a union hall before, they sure as hell couldn’t have seen many hockey rinks.
“Oh yeah, this rink was pretty controversial.” Mike Herron, chairman of UAW Local 1853, shows me the rink one Saturday afternoon. A teenage boy practices slapshots by himself as we walk around the rink talking.
“A lot of our members said, ‘Why are you spending our dues money on this? We don’t need this.’ But we wanted to build a different kind of union hall. We wanted this to be a hub for the community, a place that our members used, that was a part of their lives. And the fact was, a lot of our members loved hockey.”
Norm Jenks was one of those members. Originally from Michigan, he was one of the first group of UAW members who came to open the Saturn plant in 1989. “When the plant first opened, we had a big influx of families with young kids,” he tells me. “A lot of those kids had been playing hockey in their home states when their parents moved their families down here. The only place to play hockey around here was Centennial Sportsplex way up in Nashville. We got the union to build this in-line rink at the union hall so our kids could play.”
Within the decade after the first Saturn rolled off the assembly line the NHL started looking for cities in which to put their expansion franchises. Nashville badly wanted one. The NHL granted a group of businessmen in Nashville a franchise on the stipulation that they sell 12,000 season tickets by a certain date.
“The owners who took a risk, starting a hockey league in the middle of the South in an area where people hadn’t grown up with the game, they knew what they were doing when they came here,” Herron explains. “They knew there were so many people moving to the area from Pittsburgh, Michigan, Chicago, all of these hockey towns. They reached out here first.”
Both the Saturn Corporation and Local 1853 agreed to promote season-ticket sales among the plant workforce and in the community. They had no problem hitting their mark. In 1998 the Nashville Predators debuted on the ice.3
The relationship between Local 1853 and the Predators continued through the team’s early years. Stu Grimson and Steve Sullivan each came out to the in-line rink at the union hall to make appearances at games and to put on clinics.
For years the team’s fans called themselves “Preda-Wings” — they were Predators fans until the Red Wings came to town. But the popularity of the sport and the Predators has grown beyond the enclave of Midwestern transplants. “Now it’s catching on,” says Herron. “People like the game. You go to Predator games now and they throw the catfish on the ice.” The catfish thing is an homage to the Detroit tradition of throwing a dead octopus on the ice.4 “When I first saw that I thought, That is just sweet! That is the Southern version!”
To be fair, many other cities have adopted the “Legend of the Octopus” tradition, but often only when playing the Red Wings. From lobsters to sharks to even ducks, the NHL has seen its fair share of animal carcasses thrown on the ice.
“When the Predators came to town, all my kids wanted to do was play hockey,” says John Feeney, president of GNASH. “I was always a football guy growing up. My kids were never interested in football. It wasn’t fast enough. It wasn’t challenging enough. Just a lot of standing around.”
The addition of an NHL team in Nashville sparked interest in hockey across central Tennessee. Already the interest in youth hockey in Williamson County was enough to warrant the opening of Southern Ice in Franklin. By the time the Predators came around, hockey enthusiasts like Saturn employee Jean Latreille had already worked to install additional sheets of ice at Southern Ice so they could expand the number of youth hockey teams. Once there was enough demand for youth hockey around the area to warrant an interscholastic league, GNASH was born.
“You have to understand,” Feeney explains, “that even with the addition of new sheets in Williamson County there are still only four sheets of ice for every kid from Nashville to Columbia to play on.” This meant that the area GNASH schools often had to practice together on the same ice at the same time. “They loved the sport more than they loved their own teams. It wasn’t so competitive back then.”
Today Jenks’s son Corey plays forward for the co-op program Independence-Summit. Jenks has been a booster of youth hockey since Corey was a little boy, and has been involved in high school hockey from the very start. “We got a program started at Page High School early on; they had a lot of transplant GM families with kids there. That team won the GNASH cup in its very first year.”
The Chili’s on Columbia Avenue in Franklin has a full parking lot despite it being seven o’clock in the morning. The Centennial Cougars hockey club is holding a fund-raiser pancake breakfast the morning after the victory over Mount Juliet. There are far more parents and students at this fund-raiser than were at the game the night before. “I hated to miss the game,” Doug Jones, the father of Bennett Jones, tells me. Doug opted to attend the basketball game. On this early morning he’s decked out in Centennial Cougar hockey gear, lest anyone question his allegiances. He’s gossiping with other parents about Leigh Webb, the recently installed principal at Centennial.
“I just hope she supports hockey more than they have in the past.”
“How do you mean?” he’s asked.
“Just come to one game!”
Hockey is not a part of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, or TSSAA, and therefore receives no funds from the school. It is considered a club sport, which is why GNASH is the governing body for all the teams. This means that every school’s club has to raise all the money to pay for equipment, ice time, travel, coaching salaries, and GNASH dues and fees themselves. Pancake breakfasts like the one at Chili’s this morning are a regular occurrence by necessity.
I sit down to eat pancakes with Mark Layne, Centennial’s head coach. The night before at the Mount Juliet game he and his assistant coaches cut an impressive profile decked out in suits and ties. He held court outside the locker room after the game to talk to players’ parents, as composed and confident as an NHL coach. This morning he is far more casual in his Cougars sweatshirt. I ask him about the history of hockey in the area.
“The pioneers of our sport built the rink at Southern Ice.” It’s immediately clear to me that Layne’s accent is authentically Southern. He’s no transplant, he’s a preacher’s son from right here in middle Tennessee. “Jean Latreille, he was very instrumental in starting youth hockey here in middle Tennessee. He played, his two boys played. He used his two hands to physically build that rink for his boys and the other kids to play on.”
Jean Latreille is from Canada but moved to Williamson County by way of Michigan as part of the original migration of General Motors employees who opened the Saturn plant. Latreille had hockey in his blood, and he and his family bled hockey.
“You’d walk by his station on the assembly line,” one former Saturn worker tells me, “and there was this big photo of his kid on the ice with his helmet off, blood just pouring down his forehead onto his face. He was proud of that.”
Latreille, who passed away last December after a battle with brain cancer, was instrumental in growing the sport in the region: starting and coaching youth leagues, housing traveling players in his home, eventually becoming the president of the Junior Predators, the youth organization of the Nashville Predators. Of all his achievements, his most lasting may end up being the creation of the Centennial Cougars hockey dynasty. The first hockey coach at Centennial, Latreille coached them to two GNASH cups and a state championship, a winning tradition that Mark Layne is trying to continue.
“Kids want to play hockey because we’re successful,” Coach Layne explains. “The football team is OK this year, but in past years hasn’t been so good. We have a winning program, so even kids who don’t know hockey are curious about it.” This curiosity helped spread youth hockey across the county beyond the GM families. As more native Tennessean kids got interested in the sport, their parents naturally followed suit.
Even Coach Layne’s indoctrination into hockey came at the urging of his own son. “He had been playing baseball but it was boring to him,” Layne says. “He wanted to play hockey. I took him to the rink to see if he could skate and he could. So we signed him up on a house team when he was 10 years old.”
House teams were peewee teams that played in a youth league at Southern Ice, now A-Game Sportsplex. The addition of a new sheet of ice plus the expansion of youth leagues has led house teams to replace in-line leagues as the primary way young people get started in hockey in Tennessee.
Mark Layne’s son’s first hockey coach at A-Game was the financial guru and radio host Dave Ramsey. Ramsey’s son and Layne’s son were the same age and played together, and Ramsey recruited Layne to be team manager. “I knew nothing about hockey,” Layne confesses, “but since my son was invested in the game I wanted to learn as much as I could for him.”
Eventually Ramsey’s celebrity grew and he spent more and more time on the road, leaving the coaching duties to Layne. “I had to get a pair of skates and learn how to skate,” he laughs. Layne sought advice from Darren Turcotte, who was still living in the area after retiring from the NHL. Turcotte taught Layne about coaching and dealing with kids and parents. By the time Layne stepped up to coach the dynastic Centennial Cougars, he’d had quite a celebrated mentorship in peewee hockey.
Coach Layne’s path into the sport is not at all uncommon, and is probably becoming more popular among parents of young kids in the area. “The kids are teaching the parents,” Layne says. Just look at Cynthia Jones or Doug Jones, he points out. “There is a presence of hockey here in Williamson County. Every school has a team. Either on their own or co-op with another school.” Hockey is growing in popularity, and Centennial is kicking butt.
It was not always so.
Saturn employees faced layoffs for the first time in 2004 when the UAW agreed to a new contract that brought Saturn labor back under the GM umbrella in exchange for significant financial investment in the plant and a 10-year commitment to keep it open. Then, in 2008, when the financial crisis crippled the U.S. economy, the auto industry was particularly hard-hit — perhaps nowhere more so than Spring Hill.
General Motors, as a condition to secure federal loans to stay afloat, agreed to end the Saturn brand. The company also agreed to put a portion of the company into a liquidation corporation to sell off. Rumors were flying around Spring Hill that their plant would be liquidated. Once the company killed the Saturn brand there was suddenly “excess capacity” in the two plants that manufactured Saturn products: Spring Hill and Lansing, Michigan. GM decided to move the Traverse, the car they had been making in the Spring Hill plant since they had scrapped Saturn, to the plant in Lansing to get that plant back up to three shifts.
“The question being asked down here was, why that plant and not this plant?” Mike Herron told me. “I think the answer is obvious. The elected officials up there in Michigan were very supportive of GM.”
During the congressional battle over whether to give GM the bridge loans it needed to survive the economic collapse, one of the corporation’s most vocal opponents was the newly elected Republican senator from Tennessee, Bob Corker. The UAW members who lived in and around Spring Hill were stunned. How could he not support this, they wondered, when it was vital to thousands of jobs in his state?
In February 2009 General Motors announced plans to lay off 47,000 workers nationwide and to close five plants. They hadn’t yet announced which five plants would close when Senator Corker traveled to Columbia, Tennessee, to speak at a public meeting about the economy. When he got there Mike Herron and a room full of auto workers were waiting for him. Herron stood up at the meeting and took Corker on for not supporting General Motors. Herron was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “We’re deeply disappointed in Senator Corker — that’s the official statement. But actually my members want to choke him.”
Congress eventually approved the loans to GM despite Senator Corker’s objections, but Herron and Spring Hill mayor Dinwiddie feared that GM would end up rewarding the states that helped it secure the loans rather than aiding the states that turned their backs on it. After GM moved the Traverse to the Lansing facility, the Spring Hill facility nearly went idle. “At one point there was well under a thousand people working in the plant,” says Herron.5
No small thing considering these negotiations were for a national agreement that covered every GM plant in the country, including those that were slated to shut down. There were a lot of reasons the UAW would want to prioritize keeping the Spring Hill plant running, not the least of which was an ongoing organizing effort at Nissan. The Spring Hill plant is the UAW’s largest beachhead in the South. At the event in Spring Hill announcing the deal to bring the Equinox to the plant, Senator Corker gave a speech. He was booed by the crowd. He responded by saying, “I think everyone knows we’ve had our differences in the past. And I can tell today that’s fine with you, and it’s fine with me.”
From 2008 until 2010, the area went through hard times. The idling of the plant had a ripple effect on business across the region. Unemployment in the area reached 17 percent almost overnight. The GM workers who were laid off had a difficult decision to make: take a job at a GM facility in another state or stay here and tread water making far less money at another job, like at the Nissan plant in Smyrna. Most of the workers chose to take GM jobs in other states, leaving their families behind to wait for them.
“I have union meetings here, and it’s attended by spouses of people who are now working at 12 different plants across the country,” says Herron. “They get up on the mic and ask, ‘Can you tell me when my husband gets to come home?'”
One of those spouses left behind was Cynthia Jones. After Kenny was laid off almost three years ago, he took a position at a GM facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He took the family to Indiana to see if they wanted to relocate. They weren’t impressed.
“I don’t like it either, to be honest,” Kenny Jones tells me on the phone from Indiana. He’s still working up there, separated from his wife and boys until he retires or his number comes up to return to Spring Hill, whichever comes first. “The people aren’t friendly at all.” Kendrick wasn’t excited about going to the all-white school district in Fort Wayne, either, Kenny adds. When I ask him how it was any different from the mostly white school Kendrick attends in Tennessee, Kenny says, “It’s a lot different down there. Those people treat us like family.”
“We could have gone with him, but I’m really shy,” Kendrick says to me over pancakes at the team fund-raiser at Chili’s. He’s very friendly, soft-spoken, more wiry than I imagined when seeing him in his pads. “I don’t really like meeting new people. I wish I was like that, but I’m always nervous people will look at me different because not a lot of black people play hockey.” When Kendrick and his family were considering the move, he checked out the hockey scene in Indiana and was impressed. “It’s true I’d have more opportunities for hockey there, but dad says Tennessee is a better place to raise a family.”
Mark Layne’s team at Centennial was fortunate to keep Kendrick, but not every GM family at Centennial was willing or able to split up the family the way the Jones family did. Before the plant shut down, he says, “I had four goalies: a senior, a junior, and two freshmen.” The parents of the two freshmen goalies worked for GM, and both families relocated to Kansas City. “I ended up having only one goalie the next year,” Layne says. The Cougars finished in eighth place in their division that year, next to last. In fact, during all the years the plant was idle, Centennial never finished better than fourth in the regular season.
If it’s true that Centennial’s fortunes are intertwined with the plant’s, then Coach Layne may have UAW president Bob King to thank for his season. King and the other leaders of the union chose to make the reopening of the Spring Hill plant a demand in their national contract negotiations. They succeeded in winning a commitment from GM to make the Chevy Equinox in Spring Hill, adding almost 2,000 jobs back to the plant.6
“This year we have three goalies,” Coach Layne grins. The team is in first place. “We’ve got a good chance to represent Tennessee at the national championships this year.”
“What’s amazing to me,” says Herron, “is that the success curve of the Centennial hockey program has been the success curve of our plant. There’s a direct relationship.”
Today Herron is upbeat and busy. The union hall is full of life again. “We are training new UAW members in this plant. We just hired 250 new people off the street.” With 1,700 people back to work now, Herron feels optimistic about the future of Spring Hill. “We’re just scratching the capabilities of this facility. The upside is tremendous.” As he shows me around he bounds from person to person, pressing flesh with the members there to work out in the gym or on their way out from a class. His cell phone never stops ringing with calls from members, and he takes every call. His ringtone, without irony, is “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Drive east of the union hall on Saturn Parkway and go south on Kedron Road past dozens of oak trees that look like they’re at least a hundred years old, and there in a wide clearing you’ll find the modest subdivision where Bill and Peggy Brandau live. I visit them one Sunday afternoon to talk to them about their 11-year-old son, Noah. Noah greets me at the door, just home from hockey practice, his Predators hat pulled down snugly to his eyes.
If there’s any family that exemplifies the future of this uniquely hybrid Southern community, it’s the Brandaus. Neither of them works at the plant. Bill works in IT, Peggy at a local school. Both of them moved to Spring Hill from the Midwest on the heels of family members who worked at the plant.
Peggy moved to Columbia in 1990 from Ohio right out of high school when her father transferred from his plant to avoid a layoff. Bill wasn’t an auto worker, but his brother was. After Bill’s brother took a transfer here to the Saturn plant, Bill’s family relocated from Chicago to Tennessee to follow him, leaving Bill all alone. On a trip down South to visit his family, he happened to meet Peggy. The two began a long-distance relationship that ended with Bill moving to Spring Hill and getting down on one knee.
“Spring Hill didn’t even have a stoplight when we bought our house,” Bill tells me as we sit down in their kitchen. “None of these houses existed. They were building up.”
“A lot of Columbia residents were upset about Saturn coming here and taking over; people from the north coming down,” Peggy says. “My sister was a junior in high school when we moved here and she had to go to high school in Columbia, and it was really hard for her.”
I ask them if they still experience animosity from the native Tennesseans in the area. “I see it once in a while,” Bill says. “Mostly you’ll hear some of the people, like, around Columbia, talking about ‘them people with the car jobs.'”
“I don’t feel that now as much as it was in the ’90s,” says Peggy.
“People concentrated on the car plant jobs. The car plant creates 10 jobs for one guy on the line.” As Bill gets more defensive he grows more animated. His thick Chicago accent comes on stronger. “People started realizing that, and they saw this place was good for this area.”
“People liked the area so much they moved their in-laws, the grandparents — that just made it bigger here,” Peggy says. Her voice is less Midwestern, with even a hint of a twang.
After getting married and buying a house, Bill and Peggy eventually had a son, Noah. Like any new father, Bill was eager to introduce his son to sports. The only problem was, the sport Bill knew was hockey.
“I played hockey my entire life. When I first got down here there was no hockey nowhere.”
By the time Noah was 4 years old, the hockey scene in the area had boomed and Bill and Peggy were toting Noah to Predators games. “Pretty soon he wanted to learn to skate,” Bill beams. “I started teaching him.” As soon as Noah was up and steady on his skates, his parents signed him up for hockey at A-Game Sportsplex. He showed instant promise.
“He didn’t know I was a goalie,” brags Bill. “But every time he was on the ice, he’d always want to be in front of the goal. And in termites7 they don’t let them have goalies.”
AA and AAA once referred more to the size of the community or the league; now these distinctions have more to do with skill level, since so many elite players are willing and able to travel to compete.
“They’d pull him out, he’d go right back,” Peggy laughs.
The Brandaus put Noah in travel hockey. He plays in an AA league. His New Year’s resolution is to make AAA.8 To that end, the Brandaus have enlisted the help of former hockey pro and L.A. Kings draftee Brad Guzda for two hours of goalie coaching a week — on top of Noah’s other practice commitments. “The coaches just coach him, they don’t teach him how to be a goalie. They just put him in there and tell him to put his hand up,” Bill says. “I was a goalie, but we’re past the point of what I can teach him.”
High school players.
If Noah succeeds at making AAA this year, the travel commitments will be such that Peggy will need to quit her job. It’s worth it, they tell me. “We were told by some coaches that if you’re serious about hockey, you need to be playing AAA by high school or you’re always going to be a recreational player,” Bill says. “It’s what Noah wants,” Peggy adds.
Noah concurs. “I want to play in the NHL.” He grins. He’s got a bit of a Tennessee accent. “I know that’s what every kid says. But I really think it’s possible.” I ask him why he thinks it’s realistic. “There’s hockey here,” he answers. “I see midgets9 playing hockey. I see adults playing hockey. I see tons of kids playing. I see NHL players on the rink when we are practicing. I’ve seen the Predators’ locker rooms, facilities.”
Atlanta is the largest city in the South. Huntsville, Alabama, has had a hockey scene grow around the air and space industry there. Much like in Spring Hill, there are a lot of Northern transplants in the Huntsville area.
It says something about hockey’s growth in Tennessee that a young player like Noah and his parents could see a clear path to professional-level hockey. Today the Southern AAA league, the Thunder, has three major hubs: Atlanta, Huntsville, and now Nashville.10 Mark Layne’s star player and Kendrick’s teammate, Aaron O’Neill, is perhaps the best high school hockey player in middle Tennessee. His family relocated to Franklin from South Carolina when he was 13 years old so that he could pursue AAA hockey. It still has a long way to go before it has anything close to the kind of hockey community that exists in similarly sized communities in the Midwest and on the East Coast, but right now Williamson County feels like the hockey capital of the South.
There are currently almost 1,900, according to General Motors.
I point out to the Brandaus that they’ve lived in Tennessee longer than either of them lived in the Midwest. Do they feel like Southerners now? Peggy says yes, without a doubt. Bill isn’t so sure.
“This entire area is people from other places.” He starts pointing out the houses in the subdivision where automotive transplant families live. “General Motors, General Motors We’ve probably made a bigger impact on the culture down here than they’ve made on us,” he says.
I look across the kitchen table at Noah. “And what about you? Do you feel like a Southerner?”
“I was born here.” He smiles, wide and wise.
Major General William B. Bate, a future governor of Tennessee and United States Senator, was commanding a division for Major General Benjamin Cheatham when he came upon a group of Union soldiers on the Columbia Pike. He reported this to Cheatham, who assumed they were just the rear flank of the Cumberland Army, with whom Cheatham’s divisions had been skirmishing all day. In fact, they were the vanguard of the Army of Ohio, a 30,000-person-strong regiment that was cut off from the rest of the Union Army and had only the Columbia Turnpike as a means of escape.
John Bell Hood spent most of November 29 sitting on a log near a pond. He had fallen off his horse on the way to the Absalom Thompson house and had aggravated his amputated leg. He ate a big dinner, imbibed, and set to bed early. Meanwhile his commanders at Spring Hill were confused about all the conflicting orders they had received. They sent word to Hood that they needed clarification. As they waited, they set up camp, not 300 yards from the Columbia Turnpike, and bivouacked for the night.
As the Army of the Ohio crept along the pike in the darkness that night, they could see the lights of the Tennessee army’s campfires. Said one Union soldier, “It was like treading upon the thin crust covering a smoldering volcano. At any moment this line of soldiers might spring to their feet The fires of the enemy’s camp were so near to me that I could almost throw a stone into them from the pike.” More than 20,000 Union soldiers quietly escaped certain defeat as the weary Confederate soldiers slept.
The next day at the Battle of Franklin, the Union Army would lose 189 men, the Tennessee army 6,652, almost entirely destroyed as a fighting force. John Bell Hood knew he had blown the best opportunity the Confederacy would have to weaken the Union forces. He knew the war was all but lost.
On my way back from the Brandaus I stop at Rippavilla and walk across the battlefield where the Battle of Spring Hill was fought. It’s a crisp winter day; the ground is firm and the trees in the distance are all bare. I end up at the clearing near the highway where the Confederate Army once slept by their fires as the Union Army tiptoed past. Looking down toward the east I can follow Rutherford Creek almost all the way to the Brandaus’ house, the water spilling into pools that have never been cold enough to ice over, never been skated on once in hundreds of years. Looking south out at the Nashville Highway I see where the Union Army made their escape, down from Embers Tavern all the way up 20 miles north to Centennial High. There on the horizon in front of me I take in the sight of the imposing plant, smoke billowing from its stacks, so near to me I can almost throw a stone into it from the pike.