Chattanooga Magazine: Natural Comforts

Story by Jessica Stone
Photography courtesy of Monteagle Inn

A pleasant fall weekend at the gateway to the Cumberland Plateau has restorative power.

Driving up Monteagle Mountain, the natural beauty of the area is striking in any season. But dig a little deeper, and the Mountain becomes more than just a stop on the way to Nashville or points beyond. It is steeped in history and unique in its heritage.

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It is home to one of the South's most prestigious universities and holds some of the Southeast's most breathtaking views. Visitors can eat at a restaurant once owned by Al Capone, shop at one of many local boutiques and find restorative sleep at one of the quaint bed and breakfasts that dot this serene landscape.

The Monteagle Inn is one such bed and breakfast, located in the heart of Monteagle. The Inn features 13 suites, each tastefully decorated and featuring comfortable beds, cozy sitting areas and private bathrooms. The Inn features a huge veranda with plenty of seating, perfect for an evening sipping wine with friends or enjoying the crisp mountain air with the morning paper. In back of the Inn is a garden teeming with lush vines and eye-popping flowers. Stroll down the stone path to the gazebo where butterflies flutter from the colorful array of flowers or go through the side gate and enter the vegetable garden, where seasonal vegetables are carefully tended to by the Inn's organically trained gardener. These homegrown treats include peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and melons and are used in some of the Inn's signature breakfast dishes including New Orleans Praline French toast and fluffy egg quesadillas.

Leisure travelers are not the only ones who enjoy the hospitality at the Inn. It is also equipped to host meetings, weddings and other special occasions with ease. The 700 square-foot conference room is located behind the Inn and features comfortable seating for 30 and professional audio-visual equipment. The Inn's kitchen staff will also provide catering at the meeting planner's request. The Inn features plenty of common areas and has an expansive yard to serve as a backdrop for a wedding or other memorable event.

"This inn has been a dream come true," says owner Jim Harmon. "It truly is a labor of love. I've met some great people over the years." Harmon, who has owned the Monteagle Inn for seven years, has an appreciation for the history of the Inn, but is also invested in the future. Many of the upgrades he has made and will be making over the next few years show his commitment to the environment. Recycling receptacles encourage guests to recycle their plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Harmon is also overseeing updates to the windows and HVAC systems throughout the Inn in an effort to save energy.

A Natural Beauty

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Venture away from town and take a short drive through Tracy City to the South Cumberland Recreational Area. Natural wonders like Foster Falls and Grundy Lake offer hiking, mountain climbing, fishing, camping, picnicking and boating. There is something for everyone and trails for both beginning and advanced hikers. The entire park consists of 10 distinct areas over 100 square miles and covers more than 17,000 acres. The park has a variety of planned programs including tours, rock climbing/rappelling trips and cultural history activities.

Part of the history of the area can be seen at Grundy Lake. Here, the Lone Rock Coke Ovens are still mostly visible. The small, round holes dot the side of the road into the park. They are built into the side of a hill and were originally used as ovens to convert mined coal into coke in the smelting of iron ore. Convict labor was used for this process until 1896, but the ovens remain as a landmark to that long-gone era.

Aside from taking in the landscape and enjoying nature, there are many activities, shops and restaurants that are unique to the Mountain. Each season here has its own slate of activities that make it unique for a visit—from the Fog Festival in February to the annual Swiss Heritage Festival in July of each year in the small town of Gruetli-Laager. According to Joe Stoker, a descendent of the Stampfli family who settled here in 1869 the festival has grown. "More than 1,000 people come to this unique festival each year," says Stoker. "It's unique in the Southeast, and we get people from all over the United States who come to enjoy the day and research their heritage." The festival is held on the Stampfli family farm and features music from yodeling to bluegrass, farming and craft demonstrations, authentic Swiss food and more. The festival also offers those of Swiss lineage a chance to research their Swiss heritage through maps, scrapbooks and newspaper clippings.

Shopping in Monteagle spans everything from old-time artisan to upscale outfitter and everything in between. Downtown areas on the Mountain are home to boutiques like Lorena's Gifts that feature work by Tennessee artists and B True Ladies Apparel, where shoppers can find rare apparel, jewelry and accessories. Mountain Outfitters offers some of the most well-known and versatile outdoor gear available including hiking, biking and active wear from winter coats to bathing suits. Hallelujah Pottery offers visitors a chance to browse through locally made handcrafted pottery, sculpture and woodwork with demonstrations by local potters given daily.

After shopping, hiking or just taking in the scenery, visitors have many delicious choices when it comes to eating. From the low-key to high society, there is something for every taste on Monteagle.

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High Point Restaurant is a fine dining experience with a notorious past. The 1920s mansion, located on Main Street, is said to have been financed by Al Capone and was originally outfitted with escape hatches and underground tunnels, presumably for transporting liquor in the prohibition days. In 1997 the mansion was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Local legend further states that Al Capone built the home for his mistress from Tennessee, who refused to leave the beauty of her home state. This historic, high-end eatery boasts award-winning fare including steak, seafood, specialty drinks and more.

For a more casual dining experience, Papa Ron's Pizza offers diners a taste of all things Italian from pizza to pasta, calamari to tiramisu, all prepared using fresh ingredients and served in a relaxed, family atmosphere.

No visit to Monteagle Mountain would be complete without a trip to the University of the South, more commonly known as Sewanee University. This highly-ranked liberal arts college was founded by Episcopal clergy and lay people in 1857, but the opening was delayed until 1868 due to the Civil War. What began with nine students and four faculty members now educates about 1,500 students in 35 majors. But it's the campus itself that draws many visitors. Sewanee's All Saints' Chapel is the geographic center of the campus. With its soaring ceilings and ornate stained glass, it's a must-see while there.

The Cumberland Plateau is rich in heritage and natural beauty. The Monteagle-Sewanee area is a prime example of an experience close to home, but with all the relaxing charm of any mountain getaway. From the charm of its inns to the history of its people, visitors will likely never forget the time they spend above the clouds and miles away from the ordinary.
Jessica Stone works in communications for the Tennessee Valley Authority and occasionally writes for Chattanooga Magazine.