In Sumner County, a bid by private citizens to take over a historic home leads to a lawsuit

“Constitutional Republicans” side with private citizens alleging obsolete planning documents are means to forcing greenways on the community

By: - February 1, 2023 6:02 am
Bridal House, built in 1819 by a Revolutionary War veteran, is at the center of a controversy in which private citizens want to take control of the property from the county. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Bridal House, built in 1819 by the son of a Revolutionary War veteran, is at the center of a controversy in which private citizens want to take control of the property from the county. (Photo: John Partipilo)

COTTONTOWN, Tenn. – A Nashville judge has issued a preliminary injunction against Sumner County, preventing local officials from transferring ownership of a publicly-owned historic landmark into private hands. 

Davidson County Chancellor Anne Martin ruled last week that any decision to give away the Bridal House, a 204-year-old log cabin built by early Middle Tennessee settlers, must be left up to the Tennessee Historical Commission. 

Martin’s ruling puts on hold, for now, an increasingly acrimonious dispute over the future of the Bridal House — and five surrounding acres of public property — that has overtaken Sumner County Commission meetings and local Facebook pages since late last year. 

It’s a dispute, longtime residents and elected officials say, that reflects a larger divide that has taken shape in the county between conservative Republicans and “constitutional Republicans” — a political shift that led to a big turnover on the Sumner County Commission in the last election.

All 24 Sumner County Commissioners are Republican, but 14 of 17 commissioners newly elected in the August local election were endorsed by Sumner County Constitutional Republicans. The group’s biblically-based platform includes establishing a Christian foundation for governance and putting a break on growth and development in the county just to the north of Nashville. 

The Constitutional Republicans’ group, which also backed winning school board candidates, has been a key driver of debates over removing books from school libraries and a successful vote to insert the words “Judeo-Christian” into a guiding document for the County Commission’s work.

A land use controversy reflects discord between Republican factions in Sumner County, including a group called Constitutional Republicans, who back a biblically-based platform that includes establishing a Christian foundation for governance.

Constitutional Republican-allied elected officials and residents are now accusing the seven-member board of volunteer historians that manage Bridal House of being involved in efforts to push growth into rural communities. They have suggested the nonprofit that runs the Bridal House has played a role in backdoor deals with the prior Republican-led county administration to bring unwanted greenways — and other Nashville-style development — to rural parts of the county. 

“If we don’t cut the head off this little snake, it’s going to turn into the monster it was bred to become. And so I want to cut off the head,” Commissioner Jeremy Mansfield said during a December commission meeting, speaking in favor of transferring ownership of the Bridal House.

“This is something I see as imperative to stop this gross abuse of eminent domain for greenways with these plans. The only way to stop this is to offload the property out of county hands into private hands,” he said.

The accusation seems outlandish to Jane Wright, who is president of Friends of the Bridal House, the nonprofit that serves as a caretaker to the property. The nonprofit was created in 2018 at the request of former Mayor Anthony Holt after the cabin and land were gifted to the county for public use in its late owner’s will.

Wright and other board members have hosted book readings, organized tours of the quaint, two-story cabin led by docents in period costume, furnished it with loaned antiques, and opened the property to a local Girl Scout troop for its monthly meetings. 

“It’s just so ridiculous,” Wright said. “The Bridal House can develop nothing. We don’t own the property, only manage it.”

Wright, who traces her ancestors back generations in Sumner County, also expressed reservations about handing control of the property to private individuals who lack historical preservation experience. The Bridal House is listed on the Tennessee Historical Register and the National Register of Historic Places and requires period-specific upkeep.

“I don’t know any of these people and I am a member of just about every historical site in the county,” she said. “They have never supported us, so why the interest after all the work we’ve done? I don’t think Sumner County property should be given to anyone.”

A demolition raises alarms

The Bridal House lies in Cottontown, an unincorporated area of about 6,900 in Sumner County. Built in 1819 by Moore Cotton, the son of Cottontown founder and Revolutionary War veteran Thomas Cotton, it is architecturally significant due to its construction from old growth, three-foot-wide logs.

Until last October, it had served as an unassuming community fixture — an occasional site for special events on a green expanse that includes a playground for local and visiting children.

They have never supported us, so why the interest after all the work we’ve done? I don’t think Sumner County property should be given to anyone.

– Jane Wright, president of Friends of the Bridal House

It was then that the arrival of a bulldozer in Cottontown caught the attention of a pair of local residents. Erica and J.K. Brister were caught by surprise when a defunct community center, a building across the street from the Bridal House that had been condemned for months, was razed without community notice.

The couple delved into county planning documents to understand what else might be afoot in Cottontown. What they found caused deep concern:  county planning documents called for future greenways and walking trails through Cottontown along the Bridal House land; so did a plan by the Greater Nashville Regional Council, an advisory group that assists local governments in future planning.

Together, the demolition of the community center and the documents suggested that Cottontown residents were being kept in the dark about government plans to assert eminent domain over private property to add greenways to their rural area, Erica Brister explained in presentations to the County Commission and informational sheets she later distributed. 

Neither of the Bristers responded to a request for an interview. 

“This is the tell all, tell all document,” Erica Brister told commissioners in a November meeting, referring to the Greater Nashville Regional Council plan. “This is appalling and abusive not only to the land owners but the community.”

The Bristers proposed that the Commission donate the Bridal House, its five acres, the land surrounding the former community center and another adjacent property to their newly formed nonprofit, Cottontown Country Community, a group that Erica Brister said has several hundred local members who wished to manage the properties as a community. 

The new group would maintain the Bridal as a museum and for homeschooling; on adjacent donated land, they would add amenities: a concert space, a pollinator garden, a farmer’s market and space for weddings or other special events.

Brister also told Commissioners she was suspicious about the role of the Friends of the Bridal House nonprofit.

“Friends of…there’s 149 friends of groups in the state. That is manipulative by nature, because how can you be mad at a ‘friends of’ group,” Brister told Commissioners. “Friends of the Bridal House – they’re using them to accomplish this plan.”

Friends of the Bridal House once received an award from the Greater Nashville Regional Council for erecting a playground, but had no other relationship with the group — nor does it have authority to enter into agreements for greenways or any other land changes on the county owned site, Wright said.

Jane Wright, president of Friends of Bridal House, reviewing historical documents. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Jane Wright, president of Friends of Bridal House, reviewing historical documents. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Other local officials noted the years-old planning documents cited by the Bristers are not binding on Sumner County. Commissioner Mark Harrison called them “obsolete.”

 “They’re not tools to force the county to do anything at all,” said Harrison, who opposes ceding the Bridal House – or any public property – to private individuals. 

Harrison, a second generation Republican member of the Commission, said in an interview that he does not see any basis for the idea that any collusion exists between county officials, the Bridal House overseers or others in the county to bring development to Cottontown. 

“I think you will find with them that everything is a conspiracy,” Harrison said. 

Some Cottontown residents have also publicly opposed the efforts led by the Bristers. 

Charlotte Gibbons, who owns the property next door to the Bridal House in Cottontown, adamantly disagrees with the county giving away the Bridal House, or any of the adjacent publicly owned land, to a private group. 

In calls to her representatives, and in speaking before the County Commission in November and December, Gibbons has presented the results of her own background checks on the Bristers’ business interests — which, she said, suspiciously dovetail with the potential uses that the Bristers have suggested for Bridal House.

The couple, who operate their own pest control business, also own Eagle Academy, a homeschooling organization. JK Brister is a musician who might benefit from controlling a local concert venue, Gibbons said. 

Gibbons had few kinds words for the Bristers after the months long dispute that has been marked by angry and accusatory Facebook posts from residents on all sides of the issue. “They demonize everyone,” she told the Lookout. 

And in Facebook posts and community meetings, Gibbons and other Cottontown residents have highlighted the Bristers’ campaign donations to a write-in candidate, backed by the Constitutional Republicans, who now represents Cottontown on the Sumner County Commission. 

That representative, Jamie Teachenor, supports the transfer of the Bridal House into citizens’ hands.  

“When I was elected, citizens made clear they want more citizen control and less government,” Teachenor said in an interview. “They want to protect that property. There’s a lot of worry that things would be done that were against the will of the people of Cottontown.”

According to the lawsuit filed by Friends of the Bridal House in Chancery Court,  the Bristers did not register their new organization until the day after they told Commissioners they had already established it. 

And, according to the lawsuit, IRS documents show it is designated as a for-profit public benefit organization required to pay corporate income taxes — an organization that can both lobby and earn profits.

By December, in response to concerns about the transfer of the Bridal House to an organization that is not a 501c(3) nonprofit, the Sumner County Commissioners instead proposed creating an irrevocable trust led by a member of the Cottontown Country Community group and a member of the Bridal House board, as long as both individuals lived within five miles of the Bridal House.

The Friends of Bridal House nonprofit filed suit in Jan. 18 to stop the transfer. It has also filed a complaint with the Tennessee Historical Commission, alleging that Sumner County Commission’s steps to transfer the historic property is in violation of the state’s Historical Preservation Act.

Under state law, the historical commission has six months decides whether historic property may undergo a change of ownership, according to Tom Lee, the attorney representing the nonprofit.  

Roger Maness, an attorney representing Sumner County in the suit, said the county also has the option to petition the Commission for a waiver, allowing it to transfer ownership of the property. No decision on whether the county will submit a waiver has been made, he said.

Friends of Bridal House Complaint by Anita Wadhwani on Scribd


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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.