Jerry Summers: Beersheba Springs - Mountain Resort

Saturday, June 6, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

In 1833 Beersheba Porter Cain discovered a chalybeate (mineral spring waters containing iron salts) spring in the mountainous region of Grundy County outside of Altamont, Tennessee.

The little village that was above Collins River Valley would become incorporated in 1839 and would function as a summer hotel and included log cabins to escape the summer heat below and to avoid various diseases.

The purchase of the property in 1854 by Louisiana slave trader Colonel John Armfield led to a period of development that included a luxurious hotel that would accommodate 400 guests. Armfield brought upwards of 100 slaves to upgrade the property and build the buildings.

The resort added ice houses, billiard rooms, and bowling alleys.

Armfield also planted many shade and fruit trees during this period and imported musicians from New Orleans to perform at the dances held on the premises. French chefs were also imported from Louisiana to provide fine cuisine for the guests.

Armfield also tried to induce two Bishops in the Episcopal Church to consider the area as a possible location for the University of the South to educate Episcopal youth.

During the Civil War the property was sold to Northern investors. From the wooden observatory at the front of the hotel skirmishes between Confederate and Union troops in the valley below could be observed.

Two homes were built for Bishop James Otey and Leonidas Polk of Louisiana who would be instrumental in the selection of the site for the university. Unfortunately, the Sewanee Mining Company offered 10,000 free acres of land outside of Monteagle which was accepted in 1857 and the location was confirmed at a meeting of the Sewanee Board of Trustees in Beersheba.

During the Civil War the residents were constantly harassed by federal forces and bushwhackers (homeless ex-soldiers) who plundered, pillaged, and robbed whenever they could. Surprisingly, all of the property remained intact in spite of raids by the federals and outlaws.

On September 20, 1871, Armfield died and the resort went through many up and down periods. The isolation of the location and substandard roads was always a problem but the resort still remained an attractive destination because of its beauty.

Various routes have been built to make the area more accessible. Roads to Chattanooga, Gruetli, and McMinnville were connected during the post-Civil War period. The Dixie Highway (U.S. 41) constructed during the 1920’s from Chicago to Florida was one of the first steps to provide accessibility to the area.

In 1926 Tennessee Highway 56 was built up the mountain to Beersheba. Unfortunately, the blasting put an end to the mineral springs which originally created the resort. The Great Depression and the loss of the springs negatively affected the property and it was bought and sold several times.

Although better roads to the resort were now available, the post-Depression recovery in 1939-1941 did not revive Beersheba Springs. However, several additional famous visitors have stayed at the resort over the years. Prior to his presidency, Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth president of the United States, stayed at Beersheba Springs. In 1840 Tennessee Governor and future president James Polk held a political rally at the location.

In 1934 an individual who identified himself as Boshee Bouch was a short time resident. In reality he was Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger. He got along with the residents who helped him dig a well on his property, which contained a simple cabin. Others sold him vegetables while he was at Beersheba Springs prior to Dillinger being shot and killed by the FBI in July of 1934 in Chicago.

After years of neglect the property and facilities were bought for $3,000 by the Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Church to be used as retreat grounds in November 1941.

The Methodists have maintained ownership since that time and have continuously upgraded and improved the premises. Over the years, all of the modern convenience of electricity, water, telephone, and even wireless access have been added as well as complete modernization of the buildings and cabins.

In 1955 Beersheba Springs was incorporated as a town with 4.9 square miles of territory and a city manager-council form of government.

Since 1967 the community has hosted the Beersheba Springs Arts and Craft Festival each year on the fourth weekend in August and it usually has over 200 vendors and is attended by thousands of visitors.

In 1980 the historic district of the town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The history of this quaint and beautiful place has been preserved by the combining of three articles by Herschel Gower, Carl Elkins, and Ann Hale Trout covering the earliest days of its existence through 2010.

Googling Beersheba Springs on your computer will provide the reader with a wealth of data and inspire them to take a scenic trip to this historical part of Grundy County.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

The Beersheba Springs Hotel in 1913
The Beersheba Springs Hotel in 1913

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