Stretching out looking eastward towards the rolling hills of northern Tennessee the sun slowly peaks its glowing round face over the horizon. Out of sight but audibly nearby cows can be heard waking from their peaceful sleep as crickets fill the air with a breathe of new life. Atop one of the highest peaks in eyesight the sun seems to kiss the top of the hill before all others. Making sure to grace all those who have emerged from their slumber to start their day early.
It’s 5:45am in Christiana Tennessee and Tom Maddox is making his early rounds. He wakes at this time almost every morning; every weekday that is. He emerges from his trailer with keys in hand and drives to pick up his neighbors, or should I say residents, so that he can take them to work. You see it’s Tom’s responsibility to take these people to work, and it always has been. Not for money or for fame but out of the pure willingness to help those who need it.
Tom Maddox, a.k.a. “Hippie”, you see, has quite the reputation around these parts. He’s easy to pick out of a crowd. Not only for his long dreaded hair and buttoned hat but also for his downright southern character and charm. A former traveler himself Hippie, along with his wife Jeanie, known as Mama, have owned their property, Hippie Hill, for nearly 15 years.
Legally classified by Rutherford County as a “transient commune” Hippie Hill has become a place for weary travelers, homeless, and those looking for a temporary resting place. What started as a far distant dream has since become a reality for Hippie and Mama; albeit, a dream 15 years in the making and one that didn’t come without its fair share of battles and conflict.
The Maddox's property, Hippie Hill, as its name would suggest, has drawn its fair share of harsh criticism from the general public over the years. From looting to drug and alcohol abuse the Hill has faced it all. Some of it true, some not. Despite the criticism the couple continues to build on what they started 15 years ago in the rural countryside of Christiana. Providing a safe haven for men, women, and children from any background that are looking for a second chance. Or just a chance to get away.
“We started watching the kids out on the streets and we saw a lot of them hungry and we was actually getting out food and feeding them,” Hippie said. “We always said if we owned a piece of land this is what we were gonna do.”
While on the Hill all meals are provided for. Just one of the many crucial things Hippie, Mama, and the permanent residents of the Hill do to help out those in need. Formerly a homeless man himself Hippie understands what a full meal and a place to lay your head at night can do for your overall happiness.
Hippies’ travels have taken him all over the United States. As a boy growing up in rural Tennessee Hippie left early on to see the world around him; from California to Arkansas to Texas and everywhere in between. While riding with a biker gang in Texas Hippie met his wife, Jeanie, and the two have been together ever since.
“We was in Arlington, Texas. I took her down with me to the streets and introduced her to a lot of folks,” Hippie said. “She’s been tagging with me ever since.”
Hippie, age 53 years young, has seen his fair share of trials and attributes much of the Hill to the lessons he has learned in his past life prior to owning the piece of property. During his younger years, while traveling with the bike gang Hippie talks about a period when he was addicted to hard drugs. While the addiction was fun for a time Hippie quickly managed to quit cold turkey after seeing the effect it had on himself, his wife, and the people around him.
The couple eagerly traveled all over the United States living the nomadic lifestyle that so many of the current occupants of Hippie Hill strive for. That sense of freedom that can only be accomplished when one strips themselves of all worldly possessions and relies on the kindness of the open road to treat them accordingly.
While traveling and living from house to house and state to state the couple would have three children. The first of which, a girl, died unexpectedly while still only months old. The second, also named Tom, died at age four from a terrible spider bite wound that the couple would have a tough time dealing with.
“To see Tommy die of a spider bite it was like whoa that hit me pretty hard,” Hippie said. “So I don’t really talk about Tom.”
The couple’s third child, a girl, is Rose, now 20 years old. A free spirit just like her parents Hippie often jokes about the similarities between his daughter and wife.
"She's meaner than the devil just like her momma," Hippie said with a smile.
The couple has seen it all and is quick to point out that the struggles they have gone through have only made them stronger. Much of what they have learned traces right back to their philosophy at Hippie Hill. No drugs. No hard alcohol. No fighting. Free meals. All if people are willing to cooperate and make a conscious effort to make the Hill a better place and one that lives up to its’ mantra of treating others with respect.
Hippie and Mama surround themselves with good vibes and even better people. Sure there have been missteps along the way. Such as the fire in 2010 that burnt down the communes’ only kitchen and bathhouse forcing residents to eat in the elements during a harsh winter. Even in their darkest of times they always extend a helping hand to those that make their way to the Hill. Always quick to point out if someone is out of line or needs to be taken down a notch.
“With the kids and with the environment that I have they need guidance,” Hippie said. “If it wasn’t for me they would forget to eat and just want to party.”
There have been times when extra measures are taken and people get out of hand. Forcing Hippie to kick them out of Hippie Hill. But he is always quick to forgive and provide a second chance. Given that people make a change. He in many ways is their mentor. A person that kids, young and old, can look up to for guidance and support when many of them have never had it.
The Hill is home to kids from ages 18 to 65 and all colors of the rainbow. All are welcome to visit Hippie Hill. Heck, you can even live there if need be. Sure, there are things that go wrong and it isn’t always perfect. But what Tom and Jeanie Maddox have done is nothing short of a miracle. They have stuck true to their guns and built a place that will last longer than themselves; truly a judgment free zone that will stand the test of time amongst the rolling hills of the scenic Tennessee countryside. A far away dream that has since become each other’s reality.
A place to lay their heads and a place to call home.
So if you’re ever traveling down I-65 through Nashville make sure to take a detour on I-24 East to Chattanooga till’ you come upon exit 97.
If you listen close enough, driving through what locals call the Holler, you might just hear those lovable hippies playing their bluegrass tunes throughout the open air without a care in the world other than the present time and the friends that they are surrounded by.
So stop in, make a friend or two, and make sure to say hey to Mama and Hippie Maddox. They’ll be glad you stopped by. With arms wide open and a plate of food waiting inside.
Wandering lost afraid and alone
I came to this place I now call home
A place of beauty safety and rest
The sense of family I like the best
On our hill we live free
Without the happening of society
- Donna Farrar, former Hippie Hill resident