On the western brow of Lookout Mountain, overlooking the sweeping valley below, is Mentone, once a fashionable and popular vacation retreat. Two of the large and once bustling old hotels remain as silent and nostalgic reminders of a time when the "summer people" came in throngs by train to Valley Head, and were carried by horse-drawn carriages, and later by automobiles, to these hotels or to their summer homes where they could rest or play in a pleasant atmosphere.
Mentone was founded by John Mason, a native of New York City, who, as a young man, joined the United States Cavalry and was sent to the Middle West. His parents were interested in the opening of the Oregon territory, but they were city people, comfortably well-to-do, and did not care to face the hardships of a transcontinental trip by wagon and so, instead, they set sail from New York planning to reach Oregon by ship around Cape Horn. Young John expected to join his family later in Oregon, but he received the news that the ship and passengers had been lost, which was the fate of many vessels rounding the treacherous cape.
John Mason decided to remain in the Middle West and settle in Iowa. He proved to be a good businessman, and in time became moderately wealthy. During this period, however, his health began to fail, and believing in the curative value of fresh air and pure water, he traveled extensively to find these resources, and eventually reached Lookout Mountain about twelve miles north of what is now Mentone. He remained there several months, was restored to good health and returned to Iowa. His health began to fail again, so he returned to the mountain and once more regained his strength. Whereupon he traveled back to Iowa, sold his holdings and returned to Lookout Mountain with his family in 1870. He settled in the area of Moon Lake and lived there until his death at the age of 92 in 1911.
Mason wanted others to enjoy the benefits of mountain life and was instrumental in bringing in settlers from distant places. He would tell the newcomers, "Do not come with the expectation of making a fortune, but if your fortune is already made, it is the most wonderful place in the world to live."
Among these early settlers was Dr. John E. Purdon, a retired British Army Surgeon. Dr. Purdon, in turn, encouraged young Englishmen to come and live with him while he taught them how to farm. At least three young men did come, but the venture failed because of one flaw in Dr. Purdon's plan: he knew nothing about farming.
The Purdons lived across the DeSoto River (the West Fork of Little River) from the Masons and were later joined by relatives, the Thomas F. Sproules, a titled Irish family driven out of Ireland during an uprising. The Purdons left Mentone, but the Sproules lived out their lives there and received an annual income from the revenues of their Irish home.
Others came from Maine, among them: Mr. and Mrs. Horatio Libby and their son Ralph, Mr. and Mrs. Alvares Tylers and Gene Tyler. All of these remained except the Alvares Tylers.
Edward Mason was the eldest son of John Mason. His father owned many acres of land all around Mentone so Edward decided to survey streets, name them and build a summer resort. Frank Caldwell came from Ohio, it is thought, to investigate Edward's plans for the building of a hotel on the brow of the mountain. He found the plans quite feasible, and the hotel construction was soon begun.
Caldwell was boarding with the Masons during the construction, and at a meal one day he remarked that the hotel was progressing toward completion, and the town proper was laid out, but that it still had no name. Alice Mason, John's only daughter, said that she had just been reading an article about "Queen Victoria Vacationing at Mentone" (Menton), France. Mentone means "Musical Mountain Spring," and because this was a fairly accurate description on the grounds on which their hotel was being erected, Caldwell agreed that this was a very suitable name for the town, so before the end of the meal the names Mentone and Mentone Springs Hotel came into being.
The Mentone Springs Hotel was a popular and fashionable summer hotel during the 1880's and 90's and on into the turn of the century. Its popularity gradually declined however, and it eventually closed its doors.
Many of those who visited the hotel during its active life later built homes and cottages forming a summer colony. Other hotels were built as well as several business buildings. The first store in the area, built near what is now DeSoto Lodge was operated for many years by Harry Gillette, a stepson of John Mason.
As the village grew, a number of prominent people established summer homes there including the Wright family and Miss Martha Berry, the famed founder of Berry Schools of Rome, Georgia. Some descendants of these early families still live in the vicinity, including the family of Ralph Libby (direct descendants of the well-known Libby Packers and Glass Manufacturers) and three granddaughters of John Mason, the daughters of Alice Mason and Samuel O'Rear. These sole survivors of the Mason family are Mrs. Ethel O. Davenport, Miss Winifred Ruth O'Rear, Mrs. Paul Whitehead and son, James, Hope Davenport and Mrs. W. Paul White.
The grand old days of the summer hotels of Mentone have passed, but another kind of summer activity has replaced them. Each spring hundreds of boys and girls from all over America, and the Southeast in particular, converge on more than a dozen camps to enjoy the open-air life. These camps include Alpine Lodge, Cherokee, Lookout Mountain, Cloudmont, Valley View Ranch, Ponderosa, DeSoto, Shady Grove, Laney, Juliette Low, Skyline, and Comer, a huge camp owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America. This camp can accommodate several thousand scouts at one time.
The Mentone area has had its share of interesting and colorful characters. Colonel Milford W. Howard, who was a politician, lawyer, actor, writer and visionary, developed the area around River Park. He publicized this area which lies along Little River (DeSoto River) in the vicinity of Alpine Lodge on the west side of the River. Howard was also instrumental in the development of DeSoto State Park, and in River Park he constructed a church known as Howard's Chapel, one end of which is formed by a huge boulder. At Colonel Howard's death, his body was cremated and his ashes were placed within this great rock.
Tribute to another man of national prominence from Mentone is found in the following excerpt by Congressman Tom Bevill taken from the United States Congressional Record, Vol. 116, No. 82, dated Thursday, May 21, 1970, page H4716, and titled, "Alabama's Allgood":
Mr. Bevill: Mr. Speaker, occasionally we in America are blessed with the services of men, who by their vision, hard work, and love of country, leave a valuable legacy for future generations. Such a man is Miles C. Allgood, the most distinguished Congressman, of Mentone, Alabama...As Representative to the United States Congress from this district for many years, Mr. Allgood is the man who first got President Roosevelt interested in coming to Alabama to see the possibilities of what is now the Tennessee Valley Authority. He rode with the President in his private car, pointing out the potential spots for developing hydroelectric power, which has brought prosperity to this whole region. In future histories, it will be pointed out that by creating TVA in this area, Congressman Allgood did more than any other man to introduce and develop hydroelectric power in America. He was chairman of the committee which provided for the great Boulder Dam. Also, he made the speech on the site of the present Boulder Dam that turned the tide of committee opinion in favor of its construction.(Mr. Allgood served in Congress from 1922 until 1934.)
East of Mentone near the Georgia state line lie the remains of the old Lake LaHousage Hotel. This 180-room hotel was the dream of a group of investors from Florida who came to Lookout Mountain in 1924. They realized the possibilities of a resort in this picturesque setting along the eastern fork of Little River, and they formed the Lookout Mountain Development Company with H. H. Pounds as President. A stone dam was constructed across the river in 1924 forming a beautiful lake, but the dam was washed away in November of the same year and was rebuilt. The project was engineered by a Mr. Hall, and Blue Strickland was foreman of the rock work.
The Depression of 1929 struck before the great quarried sandstone building was completed, and the company went into receivership. The property was taken back by the original owners, Dr. Chapman and Dr. Chaney of Lindale, Georgia. Although the hotel was never completed, it was used by the government as a convalescent home for World War I Veterans and later as a campground for C.C.C. boys who were building DeSoto State Park during the 1930's.
As a special place, Mentone qualifies naturally! It simply has everything good you'd expect to find in a mountain environment -- clean streams; lush fragrant flora; unobstructed vistas; cool temperatures; and a certain peacefulness so hard to find nowadays. The air here is clear and crisp. There are no flashing neon signs -- no shopping malls -- no traffic jams. There's almost nothing to remind you of the city. Streets (more like lanes) are narrow and twisting paths of little resistance, with cottages tucked here and there.
Mentone Alabama: A History
By Zora Shay Strayhorn