Those who live along this envied stretch of Highway 31, flanked by U.S. Mint-green pastures and ancient trees full of mockingbird song, know the virtues of stealth. Yankee troops used it here in 1864 to humiliate a Confederate general in a crucial battle.

Last week, the people of Maury County won a different kind of contest. Although their lives will be transformed by it, most never knew they were in a fight -- much less winning it -- until it was over.

They have captured a nationally coveted economic prize -- General Motors Corp.'s $3.5 billion Saturn Corp. complex, which is to produce subcompact cars.

The drama had been unfolding in remarkable secrecy for months. Men and women with briefcases had filtered into the county under assumed names to pore over public records and soak up the atmosphere. Nashville lawyers quietly bought up options on certain properties for a buyer they would not identify.

When it was over, they had written a coda to the lament in the 1963 hit "Detroit City," written by two Nashville songwriters about job-hungry young southern men who caught the bus north: "Lord, how I want to go home."

Tennessee beat Michigan. Now the gravity of Saturn will pull some of those lost children back.

Tennessee beat Texas, a state founded courtesy of Tennesseans, and Kentucky and Pennsylvania and New York. Tennessee beat nearly 1,000 hopeful little places in 37 other states, providing assorted ironies of history and tradition.

So there was a mixture of delight and vindication, awe and apprehension, in the faces of the teachers and drugstore proprietors, farmers and bankers who broke into a chorus of "God Bless America" on a steamy day last week. They packed a community college auditorium in the county seat, Columbia, to welcome the big wheels from General Motors.

The Saturn plant represents the largest single industrial investment in U.S. history. The giant factory complex -- one mile wide by 1 1/2 miles long -- is to be built on about 2,000 acres of cow pastures and cornfields studded with fine old homes and ringed with lush hills. The site is one mile south of Spring Hill (pop. 1,095) and 30 miles south of Nashville.

Saturn puts proud Tennesseans in the middle of another historic battle. The first new GM division since Chevrolet in 1918, the high-tech plant will use a flexible labor-management approach to produce a small car to compete hood to hood with the Japanese. It is expected to generate 20,000 jobs (including plant suppliers), a $200 million annual plant payroll and millions of dollars in state and local tax revenues. The state will spend additional millions building roads, rechanneling water and providing other essentials.

The winner of Saturn "may lay claim to having the nation's premiere business climate," the Detroit Free Press said before last Monday's official announcement.

How did such a triumph settle on a backwater that, according to county road superintendent Junior Holt, is noted for "pretty mules and fast women"?

The competition began officially in January, when GM, the largest corporation in the world, announced creation of Saturn, an independent, wholly owned subsidiary, and said it was looking for a location for a Saturn facility capable of producing 450,000 front-wheel-drive subcompacts a year.

Before long, some governors were engaged in what one Tennessean called high-visibility "groveling" for the project. Newsweek compared Saturn fever to the California gold rush.

Several governors appeared on Phil Donahue's television show to beseech GM to pick their states. Nearly two dozen went to Detroit to offer GM tax breaks, land deals and other inducements collectively worth billions of dollars. Missouri and the city of Chicago put up billboards in downtown Detroit. Boxer Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini and golfer Arnold Palmer were enlisted to push Youngstown, Ohio, and Westmoreland County, Pa., respectively. And Illinois published a comic book portraying Gov. James R. Thompson (R) as a caped superhero fighting "alien" states in his quest for Saturn.

Saturn Corp. President William E. Hoglund said last week that the site-selection machinations "exploded beyond our wildest imaginations," but did not influence the choice.

GM and Tennessee officials are tight-lipped about many details of the selection process, out of respect for the losing states, they say.

Tennessee's young governor, Republican Lamar Alexander, said his administration deliberately kept its pitch low-key, letting the state's attributes speak for themselves.

He did not go to Detroit. GM Chairman Roger Smith told Alexander in a telephone call in February that a trip was not necessary unless he wanted to do it "for political reasons, to make a show for the home folks," an aide to the governor said. But Tennessee's Economic and Community Development commissioner kept GM supplied with hand-delivered updates on the state's business statistics and other information. Former Republican senator Howard H. Baker Jr. and Tennessee's current senators made written pitches to Smith.

Meanwhile, GM fed economic data from the competing states into a computer, seeking to assess the effect that location would have on the plant's operating costs over the next 15 years.

Hoglund and the site-selection committee closeted themselves for four days in April to review 50 file drawers of data on 1,000 sites in 38 states, he said. They first looked at the business climate of each state and only later began to consider competing sites within each.

That same month, at a United Way dinner in Memphis, Alexander pulled Smith aside and tried a new bait. "U.S. automakers have been saying that if they could ever get the Japanese on a level playing field, we could beat them. Well, they have a level playing field here in Tennessee," the governor said he told the GM chairman.

Alexander was referring to the presence of a Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. plant, representing Japan's largest overseas investment ($800 million thus far), at Smyrna, Tenn., 45 miles from the Maury County site chosen for Saturn. The Smyrna plant makes the top-selling U.S. "import," the Sentra.

Alexander said he figured that the Nissan gambit would prove to be "the hook or the kiss of death" for Tennessee in the Saturn competition.

Throughout the spring, Saturn officials, using assumed names, descended on Maury (pronounced "Murray") County, scouring land records and newspapers for information, said Marilyn Nix of GM's in-house realty company, Argonaut.

In late April or early May, GM's general counsel contacted Nashville attorney Maclin Davis and asked him to buy options on about 4,000 acres near Spring Hill. Davis' firm had done similar work for Nissan.

"We weren't authorized to tell anybody anything about it until last Monday afternoon," Davis said, "not even our wives."

Five of the firm's 40 lawyers and three secretaries knew about the deal at the time, he said. Davis did not tell the landowners that his client was GM until after the options were signed, he said.

The land GM was interested in was owned by a few well-off individuals, including an insurance executive and a lawyer from Nashville and the daughter of the now-deceased founder of Nashville-based Capitol Airways.

Davis would not reveal the price paid for the land but said the figure mentioned by another source, "at least" $7 million, was in the ballpark.

About half the acreage is on the old Haynes Haven farm. The mansion, with its six-columned portico, was last rebuilt in 1938 in the antebellum style of earlier houses on the site. It has been used for debutantes' "coming-out" parties. Its luxurious stone stables once housed famous Tennessee walking horses whose nearby graves are noted with historical markers.

The news that the site was a possible choice for Saturn was broken by the Nashville Tennessean in early June, based on information from one of the landowners.

By July 25, news reports had declared the site the winner, and GM officials were flashing their corporate identification cards and openly asking for housing information, an ecstatic Columbia real estate agent said.

The national news media began to arrive in helicopters, buses and vans. Camera crews seemed to take root along Spring Hill's Main Street.

Farm land that would have sold for $1,000 an acre is reportedly bringing $5,000 and more. Lois Watkins, who bought the homey Cedar Inn restaurant on Main Street for $20,000 in November, said she has been offered $65,000 for it.

Someone wondered whether the sleepy Duck River here might suffer the fate of Cleveland's Cuyahoga, which once got so polluted it caught fire.

What cinched it for Maury County? Flinty-eyed GM officials cite location, which affects shipping costs, as the largest single factor. Population shifts have put Tennessee near the center of Saturn's target market: young urban professionals living primarily in the Northeast, Southeast and Southwest. The county also has a favorable tax structure; the required abundance of water, electricity and highways, a significant auto supply industry and other resources.

But Tennesseans prefer to emphasize intangibles: good schools (Kentucky reportedly was nixed for neglecting education), devotion to the work ethic and the area's "quality of life" -- something GM officials have vowed not to destroy.

The state's business-friendly climate is embodied in a comment by county historian Polly Warren. She expressed sadness that the beauty of Haynes Haven farm has to be sacrificed to the Saturn plant but added, "I would think our forefathers who worked so hard to build up this area would be disappointed if we didn't accept it."