Frank Mars got fabulously wealthy selling his Milky Way candy bars during the Great Depression, a twist of irony since he’d gone bankrupt a couple of times before striking it rich.
His profits built a massive 2,800-acre farm in Giles County that bore the candy bar’s name, saving the county, just an hour south of Nashville, from the Depression.
However, Mars died four years into it at 50, never fully enjoying the 21-room manor house and the farm he built there.
Had Mars lived longer, there’s no telling how big Milky Way Farms could have become beyond the vast sheep, cattle or horse breeding and training operations that produced a Kentucky Derby winner in 1940.
Now, decades later, South Carolina developer Charles Ausburn is attempting to make 1,100 acres of the original property as grand as it once was and again an economic gem for the county.
This time around, though, Ausburn will take years to build out the 750 home sites around a signature golf course now under construction that carries Senior PGA Tour Champion Jay Haas' name.
Ausburn envisions a commercial village for public use, and he is developing the property while attempting to preserve as many of the old structures on the property as possible and protect as many trees as possible.
That could pose a challenge for Ausburn, who is insistent on it and has taken steps to learn the property’s history, including interviewing family members of former workers on the farm, and incorporate that into the development.
"This will be the last project I'll ever do," said Ausburn, 61, who will live on the property. "I'm not in a hurry to get out."
Historic preservationists can be the toughest critics and opponents of development involving historic property. The property has been on the National Registry of Historic Places since 1984.
However, in this case, Patrick McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, likes what he’s heard about Ausburn’s effort so far.
“I think they are very much on the right track,” Patrick McIntyre said. He added that recognizing historic attributes adds value and is “a very progressive way to go about it.”
Of course, Giles County officials are thrilled at what's happening at Milky Way Farms.
Dan Speer, Pulaski's mayor and executive director of the Giles County Economic Development Commission, said the development could generate more jobs in the county through support services.
"I have no doubt in my mind that it will be a first-class operation," Speer said.
First time around
Mars Inc.’s involvement in Middle Tennessee has come full circle.
Last year, Mars bought Doane Pet Care and Mars Petcare moved its headquarters to Franklin this summer. It looks like it will be a longer relationship with Middle Tennessee than the first time around for Mars.
Frank Mars started buying up Giles County farms in 1930 and hired 935 people to scrape rock off the land and use the rock in constructing barns and other structures on the property. Some of the barns were made of wood.
In addition to being the largest employer, Mars kept the local bank in business and an auto dealership. He moved his company’s sales and marketing office into downtown Nashville in the Bennie Dillon building, now condominiums.
In all, Mars constructed 30 barns, 70 cottages and the large manor house. The manor house was the second one for Mars. The first had burned and he built the second of stone.
Mars raised prized sheep, cattle, horses and mules and quickly became a showplace.
When he died of kidney failure his wife Ethel managed the farm. In 1940, the farm’s Gallahadion won the Kentucky Derby.
But bright moments soon faded.
Ethel Mars became ill a few years later and moved back to the Midwest. She took her husband’s remains back with her. She died in 1945 and the farm was sold instead of staying in the Mars family.
Restoration efforts difficult
The property was parceled out through sales but apparently many structures weren’t torn down out of reverence to what Mars had done for Giles County.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t keep them up the way they should have,” Pulaski Mayor Speer said.
Several barns were intact and still in use such as the horse barn that had wrought iron chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
Efforts were made of the years. A couple bought manor house and the central part of the property in the mid-1990s and turned it into a corporate retreat. They did restoration work on the manor house and other structures but ran out of steam when the husband died several years ago.
The wood-constructed barns have partially fallen in on themselves in places or totally collapsed. Stone walls are all that stand of several old barns, particularly the old sheep barn that conforms to the terrain’s curve.
Those stone walls will remain standing as development progresses. “Those walls to me, that’s like artwork over the property,” Speer said.
Now Ausburn has paid $10 million over the last year to assemble the properties but can't say how much it will cost to develop because he isn’t sure.
He and the 35 or so people he has employed continue to uncover hidden artifacts on the property that give them new ideas, such as an elaborate bird bath that was once part of garden near the manor house.
"In the long haul, the price of the property won't be that big a deal," Ausburn said.
Ausburn has started developing the first 39 lots of the 750 home sites. He said nine of the lots have been sold, one to a band member of 1980s and early 1990s hit country band Restless Heart.
Several more lots are under contract. Local builder Brindley Construction has nearly completed construction on a show house on one lot.
Drawing buyers in
Those lots sell for $300,000 to $500,000 each and at a minimum are an acre and a half. Houses will be more clustered on other parts of the property. He said buyers have come from Virginia and California looking at the property, typically buyers interested in a second home location that later would become a retirement location.
Ausburn plans to construct a 21-unit condominium on the foundation of a former colt barn. The condo building's design has been modeled on the colt barn.
He plans to revive the property's equestrian past. Homeowners will be able to keep their horses in the barns and ride them around the property.
The racetrack is still intact that Mars had built for training racehorses and pacers and is modeled after Churchill Downs. Ausburn plans to put that to use as well and build a polo field on the infield.
Mars' manor house will serve as a clubhouse for the homeowners and provide guest rooms for their visitors. It won't be changed much at all other than to install a new kitchen for an upscale restaurant.
"We're keeping it totally intact," Ausburn said. "We don't see any reason to want to change it."
When asked about design standards for the houses, Ausburn said “traditional.” Pressed on what that means, he said, “When I describe it, I say a house that looked good 100 years ago, looks good today and will look good in 100 years.”
He added, “We don’t want to be brick boxes.”