Jerry Summers: Monteagle's Most Notorious Visitor

Monday, October 25, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The little community at the high point of the Cumberland Plateau Memorial about 45 miles from Chattanooga and 90 miles from Nashville on interstate I-24 has an intriguing history.  Its citizens reside in the three Middle Tennessee counties of Grundy, Marion and Franklin.

            The founder of the town was John Moffat who first came to the area around 1870 and was so impressed with its beauty that he purchased over 1,000 acres.  He was a Scottish-Canadian temperance believer who became an active leader in the town.  As a result, the town was originally named “Moffat Station” in his honor.  It would later be changed to “Mount Eagle” and then to “Mounteagle.”  Eventually, the spelling would become the present municipality known as Monteagle and it would be incorporated under that name in 1962.

            Prior to I-24 being built as part of the Interstate system, Monteagle was part of the Dixie Highway which runs from Chicago, Illinois, to Miami, Florida, as Highway 41.

            Due to the elevation of Monteagle being close to 2,000 feet above sea level prior to the construction of the freeway, the downward trip from the top of the Cumberland Mountain to the valley below on 41 was considered one of the most dangerous descents in the country as many of the tractor trailer rigs would burn out their brakes and often run off the side of the mountain, resulting in injury, death and loss of cargo.  Any truck driver who survived the “Deadman’s Ride” down the mountain and lived to tell about it became part of the lore and mystique of the area.

            With the completion of I-24 and the creation of some runaway truck ramps, the safety record of the area has drastically improved.

            A part of the rumored history of Monteagle has been the “Mabee House”.  Whether fact or fiction, it makes an entertaining tale that places one of the most notorious criminals in the history of America as having a tie to Monteagle and the Mabee House.

            Made of mountain stone and now a popular and fashionable restaurant named High Point, it still possesses the mysterious aura of its earlier history.

            Felicia Irene Mabee was born in Monteagle in 1885 and was a descendant of a poor family who was able to build one of the largest homes in the community.  More mystery and intrigue surrounds it and the big rock house is alleged to have been constructed on the site of a previous residence that had mountain stone added as an outside layer sometime between 1920 and 1930.

            Little has ever been told about how Irene came into ownership of the house or how she was financially able to drive a big black Cadillac during the years before, during and after the depression.

            Monteagle was close to the halfway point between Chicago and Miami and would be a good stop for travelers between those two destinations.  There would be times when several large cars would arrive and take a respite from the long journey.

            Rumors also existed that a notorious gangster from Chicago bought the house for Irene although there was an age difference of 15 years between the older woman and the young criminal.

            Tales of alleged criminal activity at the house persisted in spite of lack of verification.  Mountain folks during this time preferred to mind their own business and go their own way.

            However, a couple of rumors supposedly have some actual contact with the Chicago mobster who was the most successful criminal in the underworld during the Prohibition Era between 1920-1933.

            A local barber claimed that he had one time been called upon to cut the Chicagoan’s hair.

            The most direct rumor came from a local citizen who, one winter day, came upon a big car that had slid off the icy roads that prevail on the mountain and was stuck in a ditch.  The car was pulled out by the Good Samaritan using his team of oxen.  When the driver of the car offered to pay for the tow, the owner of the team declined payment saying that “the mountain people didn’t take money for helping folks in trouble.”  Whereas the big man offered him a cigar and said, “My name is Al Capone.

Call on me at any time.”

            Legends of secret tunnels, moonshine stills and acts of criminal activity still are attached to the stone house in Monteagle.

            Whether fact or fiction, they make a good story that adds to the atmosphere at High Point while visitors enjoy a good dinner.

            Other rumors involve the presence of Al Capone on several occasions at the stone house in the 1920-1931 years prior to serving his income tax invasion sentence in Atlanta and Alcatraz and his death in 1947 in Miami at his home on Palm Island. 

            A recently discovered National Registry of Historic Places Registration Form filed on November 21, 1997, asking that the Irene Mabee (Gibson) House be placed on the national registry adds some additional corroboration of the Al Capone connection to the structure now known as High Point Restaurant.

            Several interviews of Monteagle residents during the period of 1925-1931 indicate that Capone visited the 1875 Mabee home on a regular basis when he was traveling between Chicago and Miami.  Allegedly there are existing photos showing “Big Al’ in his car being pulled up Highway 41 from Pelham, Tennessee, in the late 1920’s when the vehicle broke down showing further corroboration of Capone’s presence in the area.

            Grundy County native and 1960 graduate of the University of the South at Sewanee, Ernie Cheek, refutes the Capone rumors in their entirety.  Ernie claims a knowledgeable relationship with the Mabees but disavows any belief in the presence of Chicago’s most notorious criminal on the Cumberland Plateau at Monteagle.  The absence of any knowledge of the Capone stories is also supported by another lifelong resident of the area, Jack Baggenstoss.

            Author Laurence Bergreen in his novel entitled Capone:  The Man and the Era, (Simon and Schuster, pp. 701) presented the private side of the gangster as being very generous and well-liked outside of his “direct business and federal law enforcement.”

            It is a known fact that Irene Mabee (Gibson) and her mother, Marie, were residents of Chicago during the 1920’s and could have met the notorious criminal during that era.

            It has also been rumored that another famous gangster, John Dillinger in 1925, had stayed at the Beersheba Springs Hotel in Grundy County prior to him returning to Chicago and being gunned down by Elliott Ness and his G-Men coming out of a movie theater.

            Both of the fact or fiction scenarios add much to the mysterious history of the Cumberland Plateau.

 

 * * *

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)

Al Capone
Al Capone

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