Step Back in Time at Buttonwillow Plantation

September 1, 2007

By Morgan Hardy

Buttonwillow Plantation, history

On a rough one-lane road alongside the Smoky Mountains, Steve Gipson finally found his nirvana – a perfect location for his dream home.

Building a home in the foothills surrounding Whitwell – a small town in Marion County – literally required Gipson to carve his place in the side of the mountain. Most would have seen the spot as only a hardscrabble building site that might be more trouble than it’s worth, but Gipson saw a Civil War plantation house – a place where he, his wife, Allison, and their family could look down over civilization below, yet still be a good bit away from it.

I just wanted to get in the middle of my own property and hide,” Gipson says. “There are no convenience stores or anything like that up here.”

Nowadays, people who pass by the three-story manor called Buttonwillow Plantation can see his vision in reality. And it’s impressive.

Built from timber cut from the site, the home truly represents Civil War heritage – even down to its price. Gipson explains that Buttonwillow Plantation was built to represent a Civil War-era family with an average income level of $6,000 to $8,000 a year. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot of money until you consider that the average house during that time cost $50.

To create such a historically accurate home requires a great deal of patience and a deep interest in this time period – both of which Gipson has. “It’s just been this way since I was a little kid. I guess I was just born this way,” he says. “I like to say that in school I never really studied any history past Reconstruction.”

A former cartoonist and comedian, Gipson would often travel to do his caricatures and comedy, and he would visit historic Civil War sites to get a feel for the era. He also has learned a lot from his other hobby – Civil War re-enactments. A few examples of his research are evident in details in the home.

Buttonwillow Plantation, history

All of the wallcovering designs are accurate to the time period, and furniture, decorative items and small touches add to the feel.

The greatest contributions to the décor are not from authentic period pieces – it’d take a big budget to accomplish that.

Allison is a master craftsman when it comes to creating accurate reproductions. She is responsible for many of the home’s details, such as the bedroom furnishings and curtains, which have been carefully made not only with period design but also materials. She also hand-carves Civil War reproduction dolls and sews the doll’s period clothing. Even more impressive is that her talents come naturally.

The funny thing is, I’ve never had any sort of formal training,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but Santa Claus brought me a crafting kit every year. It’s always been like that; if I had a piece of paper, I had to draw on it.”

Coming up on the house, there are few clues to give away that you’re not in the 1860s. There’s siding instead of clapboard on the house, but Gipson says this concession to modern life, understandably, is by necessity.

Everything else, though, from an outhouse to guineas and chickens milling around in the bushes, is spot-on Civil War. Gipson wouldn’t have it any other way.

He hid all the trappings of modern life: A mock stone well hides a 200-foot garden hose, and what looks like an old shed is really a two-car garage.

Much of the dining room is modeled after that of the Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville, with period wall coverings and light switches hidden beneath paintings or wall hangings that flip up. Electrical outlets are likewise hidden.

In the kitchen, the sink is a basin with a spigot operated by a foot pump. The refrigerator is hidden behind cabinet doors.

The “living room” is a bit of an anachronism – the term wasn’t introduced until 1912 – but inside, there’s a television hidden from view and even a speaker system integrated into the room.

It’s important to them, Gipson says, that everything be as close to the ideal as possible.

Civil War Dinner Theater
The Gipsons used to host tours of their home at Christmas, but now their time is dominated by the popular Civil War dinner theater that they opened five years ago. Click here for more information.

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  1. Blake says:

    I’m a bit confused by the opening sentence of this article. Whitwell and Marion County are no where near the Smokey Mountains. Whitwell is in the beautiful Sequatchie Valley, which runs 120 miles long, NE to SW, carved into the Cumberland Plateau. Its a beautiful place, but its 100 to 200 miles, or more, from the Smokies. Most attractions near Whitwell are located Chattanooga, a 30 minute drive away. A beautiful state park, Fall Creek Falls State Park, is just north of Whitwell. It is located near Pikeville and Spencer, TN. on the plateau. None of these are near the Smokies. Its a 3-4 hour drive to the Smokies from there. Someone needs a Geography lesson!

  2. Dan Helmboldt says:


    Its your old Greeley Colorado mall man! I dreamed about you last night for some strange reason. Don’t even remember what it was about now but thought I’d better check into it and make sure you’re alive and well and still hiding in TN!!

    You’d told me about your home but I’d never seen pictures of it. WOW! As my 1864 English teacher once said: “You done good!”

    Hope all is well

    Dan Helmboldt