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1311 Jones Crossing Rd

Whitwell, TN 37397

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When she was 12 years old, Wanda Jones Cooper, now 66, sat on her Granny Jones' front porch in rural Marion County and studied a pine-covered hill at the back of the family farm.

"I want that hill," Wanda told her grandmother, gesturing at the rise in the distance.

"Baby, a rabbit can't even get through over there," her grandmother said, pointing out the thick underbrush.

"I know," Wanda said. "But I want it anyway. It looks kind of like a Christmas present that hasn't been opened yet."

Now, 54 years later, Cooper lives in a brick house on top of the hill that looks down at the old farmhouse below.

"I've always known where home was," she said wistfully this week, gazing out over the fields where she used to ride a tractor with her grandfather.

In the fullness of time, little Wanda grew up, built the house on the hill and raised a family on what has become known as the Old Jones Farm, which has been in her family since 1898.

The property is located about 30 miles from Chattanooga near Jasper, Tenn. The tall pines on Wanda's hill were significantly thinned in 2011 by a tornado that also ripped the roof off the barn and scattered the horses.

In 2014, Cooper had a vision. She dabbled in making wedding cakes, but found herself loading up her Lincoln SUV to deliver them to far-flung wedding locations such as Valley Head, Ala., and Beersheba Springs, Tenn. Often, the weddings were for young couples who actually live near her home in Marion County.

Cooper thought: Why not convert the family farm into a wedding venue so these people could stay home? More and more couples were skipping traditional church weddings for rustic outdoor locations.

Soon, Cooper remodeled and decorated the barn into a dressing area, kitchen and dance floor. She relocated her horses and built a hillside amphitheater that seats 350. Three years into the project, she is hosting about 30 paid weddings a year.

Last spring, she decided, in a nod to patriotism, to give away a wedding to a deserving military couple. When word spread on Facebook, people in the area stepped forward to donate money, labor and merchandise to the cause.

"The military is my soft spot," Cooper explains. "The whole community volunteered. We had a photographer, a caterer and a hairdresser."

The group chose a Navy couple with kids who wanted to renew their vows after 14 years of marriage.

Brandy Ledesma, a native of Jasper, says she and her husband, Danny, have both seen active duty in the military, and that coming to her hometown to renew their vows was special.

"It meant a lot," she said. "Everyone was so kind and welcoming. And, even though I had just met Wanda, it seemed like I had known her forever."

Later, at the suggestion of Cooper's daughter, the volunteer group decided to widen the circle of winning couples and ended up performing five weddings in two days.

This year, Cooper says she plans to scale back to one wedding. But it will be an excellent affair with a color guard and a uniformed veteran leading the pledge to the flag.

In just one year, Cooper has already banked a bushel of memories.

Thinking back on last summer, she remembers Ledesma jumping up and down and screaming when she found out she'd won.

Another bride trembled and wept with joy when Cooper found her a second-hand wedding dress. Then, there was the wounded male veteran who hugged her tightly and whispered, "You'll never know what this means to us."

Cooper gets a little misty herself telling these stories.

"This is my heart," she says, gesturing around the farm.

If that 12-year-old girl in 1962 could have seen what would eventually happen on her distant hilltop, she would have been pleased.

Consider the "Christmas present" opened.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.