Jerry Summers: Monteagle’s most famous visitor
The small community at the highest point of the Cumberland Plateau Memorial about 45 miles from Chattanooga and 90 miles from Nashville on I-24 has an intriguing history. Its citizens reside in the three counties of Middle Tennessee of Grundy, Marion and Franklin.
The founder of the town was John Moffat who first arrived in the area around 1870 and was so impressed with its beauty that he purchased over 1,000 acres. He was a Scottish-Canadian temperance supporter who became an active leader in the city. As a result, the town was originally named “Moffat Station” in his honor. It will later be changed to “Mount Eagle”, then to “Mounteagle”. Eventually, the spelling would become the current municipality known as Monteagle and it would be incorporated under that name in 1962.
Prior to the construction of I-24 as part of the Interstate system, Monteagle was part of the Dixie Highway that connects Chicago, Illinois, to Miami, Florida, as Highway 41.
Due to Monteagle’s elevation at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level before the highway was built, the descent from the top of Cumberland Mountain to the valley below on Highway 41 was considered l ‘one of the most dangerous descents in the country, as many semi-trailer platforms burned their brakes and often escaped the mountainside, resulting in injury, death and loss of cargo. Any truck driver who survived the âDeadman’s Rideâ down the mountain and lived to talk about it has become a part of the region’s tradition and mystique.
With the completion of I-24 and the creation of a few ramps for fleeing trucks, the area’s safety record has improved dramatically.
Part of Monteagle’s rumored history has been the âMabee Houseâ. Whether fact or fiction, this is an entertaining story that places one of the most notorious criminals in American history as having some connection to Monteagle and House Mabee.
Crafted from mountain stone and now a popular and trendy restaurant named High Point, it still has the mysterious aura of its earlier history.
Felicia Irene Mabee was born in Monteagle in 1885 and was the descendant of a poor family who were able to build one of the largest houses in the community. More mystery and intrigue surrounds it and the large stone house is said to have been built on the site of a previous residence which had mountain stone added as an outer layer between 1920 and 1930.
Little has been said about how Irene came to own the house or how financially able she was to drive a big black Cadillac in the years before, during and after the depression.
Monteagle was close to the midway point between Chicago and Miami and would be a good stopover for travelers between these two destinations. There would be times when several large cars would arrive and take a break from the long journey.
Rumors were also circulating that a notorious Chicago gangster had bought the house for Irene, although there was a 15-year age difference between the older woman and the young criminal.
Stories of suspected criminal activity at the house persisted despite the lack of verification. The mountaineers at that time preferred to mind their own business and go their own way.
However, a few rumors are said to have actual contact with the Chicago gangster who was the most successful criminal in the underworld during the Prohibition Era between 1920-1933.
A local barber claimed he had previously been called upon to cut the Chicagoan’s hair.
The most direct rumor came from a local citizen who on a winter’s day came across a large car that had slid over the icy roads prevailing on the mountain and was stuck in a ditch. The car was removed by the Good Samaritan using his team of oxen. When the driver of the car offered to pay for the towing, the team owner refused payment, saying “the mountaineers did not take money to help people in difficulty”. As the big man offered him a cigar and said, âMy name is Al Capone. Call me anytime.
Legends of secret tunnels, moonlit stills and criminal acts are still attached to the stone house of Monteagle.
Whether it’s fact or fiction, they make a great story that adds to the atmosphere at High Point while visitors are enjoying a nice dinner.
Other rumors implicate Al Capone’s presence in the Stone House several times in the years 1920-1931 before serving his time for income tax invasion in Atlanta and Alcatraz and his death in 1947 in Miami at his Palm Island home.
A recently discovered National Register of Historic Places listing form, filed on November 21, 1997, requesting that the Irene Mabee (Gibson) house be listed on the National Register adds further corroboration of the Al Capone connection to the structure now known as name of High Point Restaurant. .
Several interviews with residents of Monteagle during the period 1925-1931 indicate that Capone regularly visited the Mabee House of 1875 when he traveled between Chicago and Miami. There are believed to be existing photos showing “Big Al” in his car being pulled onto Highway 41 from Pelham, Tennessee in the late 1920s when the vehicle broke down, further corroborating the presence of Capone in the area.
A native of Grundy County and a 1960 graduate of the University of the South at Sewanee, Ernie Cheek, refutes Capone’s rumors in their entirety. Ernie claims a knowledgeable relationship with the Mabees but denies any belief in the presence of Chicago’s most notorious criminal on the Cumberland Plateau in Monteagle. The lack of any knowledge of Capone’s stories is also supported by another longtime resident of the area, Jack Baggenstoss.
Author Laurence Bergreen in her novel entitled Capone: The man and the time, (Simon and Schuster, pp. 701) presented the private side of the gangster as being very generous and appreciated outside of his “direct activities and federal law enforcement”.
It is a known fact that Irene Mabee (Gibson) and her mother, Marie, resided in Chicago in the 1920s and may have met the notorious criminal at that time.
It was also said that another famous gangster, John Dillinger in 1925, stayed at the Beersheba Springs Hotel in Grundy County before returning to Chicago and being shot by Elliott Ness and his outgoing G-Men. ‘a cinema.
Both factual and fictional scenarios add much to the mysterious history of the Cumberland Plateau.
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(If you have additional information on any of Mr. Summers’ articles or have any suggestions or ideas on a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at [email protected])