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Franklin is a small-town gem near Nashville

It was Sunday night at the Cork & Cow. Four girlfriends met at the bar to have salads and champagne, and six couples assembled at a long table along the tufted green banquette. My sister and I had spent the day in Nashville and just wanted a bite, so we popped in to share some Brussels sprouts and warm bread. Service took a while, but no one seemed to mind.

The steakhouse is on the corner of Main Street and Fourth Avenue South in Franklin, Tenn. It’s not far from the town square, which is marked by a monument to the Confederate soldier, and across from a toy store that sells little wooden pickup trucks. In recent years, a Starbucks and an Anthropologie have moved in. But it’s like a fantasy of small-town Main Street: brick sidewalks, antique street lamps and well-preserved buildings from the early 1900s.

Franklin is a Southern gem hiding in the shadow of Nashville, less than 20 miles north.

Some call it a suburb of Music City – and plenty of farmland has been developed into subdivisions, strip malls and office plazas – but Franklin is a world away, with a history and culture all its own.

Founded in 1799 and named in honor of Ben Franklin, the town is speckled with American artifacts, from Civil War bullet holes in the side of an outbuilding at the Carter House to a red brick factory with a tall, skinny chimney that produced Magic Chef stoves until 1959.

The 16-block historic downtown and three small residential districts that surround it won National Register of Historic Places status in 1975. It’s the kind of place where names on the slanting gray gravestones in the old cemeteries match the names of today’s prominent businessmen and local track and field stars. Maybe it doesn’t possess Savannah’s sultriness or the pedigree of Charleston, but the tea is just as sweet in the rolling hills of what the people around here call Middle Tennessee.

I never would have found Franklin if it weren’t for my sister, Lizzie. She moved here with her family when her husband was hired as the head of the middle school at Battle Ground Academy, a private day school. By now, I’ve visited often enough to witness the prosperity that is spilling over from Nashville. Big corporations have moved into the area, bringing enough people to support a Whole Foods. And yet the place retains its small-town character.

Once, while the children were in school, we went rummaging around the Second Avenue antiques district, a “district” that’s the size of a postage stamp.

Among the stalls at the Franklin Antique Mall, you can find everything from a circa 1940s fat-man cookie jar to a copper weather vane in the shape of a rooster. Floors are uneven and ceilings are low, but in the warrens it’s possible to find a treasure.

There, up on a high shelf, alongside a couple of wooden buckets, sat a dusty rose pitcher.

“Could I see that, please,” I said to the woman with reading glasses on a chain. “What, darlin’?” That pink pitcher, please. She brought it down, and lo, it was an authentic Russel Wright, from the early ’60s, which I could snap up long before it ended up at the nice new shops in Hudson and Rhinebeck and other bustling towns in the Hudson Valley in New York. The price was $50; I offered $25; the woman made a phone call; sold! for $30. (Later I found one of similar vintage on eBay for a starting bid of $79.95.) My sister was a little embarrassed by my haggling. “She’s visiting from New York City,” said Lizzie to the woman, who went to look for Bubble Wrap.

The flea market is four blocks from the Franklin Theatre. Only a few years ago, the 1937 building was just another small-town theater that had gone out of business. But the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County bought the building and spearheaded an $8.7 million renovation.

“It’s that pixie dust that changes a community,” said Dan Hays, the former head of the International Bluegrass Music Association and now the theater’s director.

The change is obvious at the Frothy Monkey coffeehouse. The late-morning crowd reveals a creative class that’s migrated into town. Small groups hatch plans over muffins, a young couple sports footwear from Isabel Marant and Yohji Yamamoto, and students from the O’More College of Design get Americanos to go.

“It’s the perfect life out here,” said John Hermann, the drummer from Widespread Panic who moved from New York (with a stop in Oxford, Miss.) years ago and is raising a family here. “People are friendly. People have time,” he said. “And everybody’s a songwriter.”

Plenty of the big names who play in Nashville live in Franklin, some out toward Leiper’s Fork. It’s worth taking the 15-minute drive to the village where older folks in Carhartt meet for lunch at the Country Boy Restaurant, and the original Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant sits behind a single gas pump.

Leiper’s Fork would be a time warp except for the housewares shop that sells antique dish cupboards for $1,295, the David Arms Gallery in a converted barn and the sophisticated security systems of the secluded estates.

A few weeks ago, I took a back road through countryside reminiscent of an English landscape, with cows and streams and stone walls and clouds skimming the tops of the trees. Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, as the song goes.

If You Go

Where to Eat

Frothy Monkey, 125 Fifth Ave. S.; (615) 465-6279; frothymonkey.com.

Cork & Cow, 403 Main St.; (615) 538-6021; corkandcow.com. Open for dinner.

Dotson’s Restaurant, 99 E. Main St.; (615) 794-2805. An old-school meat-and-three with first-rate fried chicken.

Gray’s on Main, 332 Main St.; (615) 435-3603; graysonmain.com. A gastro pub in a recently rehabbed old pharmacy that’s good for lunch and has music at night (plus a private club on the top floor).

Where to Stay

In the sprawl, there are any number of chain hotels, from Marriott to Drury. For a more local flavor, try the Jefferson House, from about 1900, in the historic district, with three bedrooms and a leafy garden; from $200 per night with a two-night minimum; (615) 281-0401; vrbo.com/3495690ha.

In Leiper’s Fork, set up at Brigadoon, an enchanted little house built in 1885, appointed with an assured style that might stop Ralph Lauren in his riding boots. It’s comfortable for four; weekend rate, starting Thursday, is $250 per night, plus a $125 cleaning fee; (615) 281-0401; vrbo.com/337233.

What to Do

The historic downtown is compact and best seen on foot. At the visitors’ center on Fourth Avenue North, just off Main Street, pick up a map that covers the town in six walking routes, divided into themes like Historic Homes and Haunts & Headstones. (There’s also an app – and loaner iPads.) For something more bucolic, explore the trails of Harlinsdale Farm, a former Tennessee walking horse compound that’s now a public park.

The Brooklyn Flea has nothing on Franklin’s antiques district at Second Avenue South and South Margin Street. Haven (343 Main St., sanctuaryofstyle.com) sells Helmut Lang trousers and books from Assouline out of an old grocery with original wooden elevator; French’s Boots & Shoes (328 Fifth Ave. North; frenchsbootsandshoes.com) has the latest cowboy boots and secondhand Uggs. Rare Prints Gallery (420 Main St.; rareprintsgallery.com) is as much museum as retailer of old engravings.

The Civil War sites – the Carter House, Lotz House and Carnton Plantation – are eerie reminders of the Battle of Franklin in 1864, one of the bloodiest of the war. The guided tours take time, but you can get admission to all three for $30; carnton.org.