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Bonnaroo's hippest grandmas bid goodbye to one of their own

By JESSICA BLISS The Tennessean

MANCHESTER, Tenn. -- Mary Niederhauser loved music, jewelry, and scotch.

And she really loved Bonnaroo.

A veritable social butterfly even in her late 80s, the lifelong Tennessean was so proud of the music festival in her hometown of Manchester.

A few years ago, she invited a small group of friends to join her at the annual event. They became known as the Bonnagrannies.

They were the oldest of Bonnaroovians, all born before 1931. They wore sparkly hats and broad smiles and carried around fold-up chairs that doubled as canes. They posed for pictures with hundreds of young hippies who wished for grandmas just like them.

And Niederhauser, the white-haired spitfire, was their lady in charge.

"We considered her our leader," says 92-year-old Nancy Lee Pitts, one of the four Bonnagrannies.

This year, the Bonnagrannies bid goodbye to that beloved friend.

Niederhauser died in February. She was 86 years old.

"It's just hard to take," Pitts says, her voice quivering with emotion as she remembers the smart and stylish Niederhauser. "She was a very outgoing person. She was always on the go and always ready to do."

The Bonnagrannies friendship began decades ago when their children attended the same Nashville elementary school. But their Bonnaroo adventures began only a few years ago when Niederhauser received free tickets because of her civic work.

A prominent businesswoman in Coffee County, Niederhauser had Tennessee in her soul.

She was born in Sewanee hills. She attended Ward-Belmont Junior College, and the University of Tennessee where she was a Delta Delta Delta sorority member. She graduated from George Peabody College.

In the early 1960s, she was a buyer for Cain-Sloan department store company in Nashville. Then she moved to back to Manchester to follow in her father's footsteps and run Henley's Department Store on the square.

Even in her later years, she kept a condo near midtown in Nashville.

On the days she wasn't kept busy with her Manchester community engagements, which included serving as treasurer and a board member of the Manchester Area Chamber of Commerce, Niederhauser would beeline to her best friends in the city.

"She certainly kept the road hot between Manchester and Nashville," says 90-year-old Alice Ann Barge, who, along with Laddie Neil are the other Bonnagrannies.

"She would play bridge and do community service in both places. She was a stalwart inspirer."

And a social maven.

"We would sit around and do nothing until Mary came to town," Pitts says with a chuckle. "Then she would call and say, 'We are going to out to dinner.' And we would go to her condo and have cocktails and have dinner, usually at Sperry's."

Afterward, they would make a drive downtown to check out the buzz of Lower Broadway. The side trip always came at Niederhauser's request.

Then, one day, Niederhauser had a different idea. Something that seemed a little crazier. She invited her friends to her Manchester home to attend a four-day music festival with 80,000 fans and 150 musical acts.

The first year she took her gals, none of them knew much about it other than her descriptions of "the way all the kids were sleeping on the ground and washing themselves in the fountain," Barge says.

But the minute they walked under the arch and onto the Farm, they were entranced.

They bounced from show to show navigating between the ravers and the rebels, most who were only one-quarter their age. Then, just after midnight, they would return to Niederhauser's Manchester home and talk about the evening fun.

"I have never seen the moon prettier than it was on those nights of Bonnaroo," Barge says whimsically. "It was always full and one night it was red.

"Those are things I will always remember.

"And Mary was the reason."

Niederhauser's civic-duty-earned tickets eventually disappeared, but by then the Bonnagrannies were becoming a local sensation.

So the ladies' grandchildren took to social media to continue the experience. They scored complementary tickets and, eventually, the attention of Red Bull.

By 2015, the Bonnagrannies were Bonnaroo pros, celebrating VIP style with air-conditioned tents and golf carts to carry them from stage to stage so they could see the headliners, including their favorites Elton John and Paul McCartney.

They generated their own celebrity buzz. Finding the women on the grounds -- wearing their bright red #Bonnagrannies shirts -- became like a game of "Where's Waldo" and everyone wanted a picture.

"We were just tickled to death," Niederhauser told The Tennessean in an article about the 2015 experience.

And then last year, it got even better. Just days before the festival, the ladies met with Red Bull representatives to talk about their trip to Manchester, shoot some video and experience the energy drink together.

And one of the 2016 headliners, country rocker Chris Stapleton, invited them on stage to watch his set, and then to his tent to eat barbecue afterward.

The segment on the women is now on Red Bull TV in anticipation of this year's event.

Watching it is a lovely and lively reminder of a dear departed friend, the ladies say.

The Bonnagrannies don't believe they will make it to Bonnaroo this year, it just wouldn't feel right without Niederhauser, they say. But they still feel her joy around them.

Niederhauser had a beautiful garden and she loved flowers.

She gave Barge a bunch of lilies of the valley and peppermint to plant.

This year is the first time they have bloomed. They are thriving.

"I'll always think of her every time I pick a flower or pinch the mint," Barge says.

"We certainly have some sweet memories."

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