In the fall of 1919, the world of one of Lebanon’s most popular citizens came crashing down.
While picnicking, the children of David and Elizabeth Mitchell sipped water from a local spring and came down with typhoid fever. Their mother tended to their health, and they recovered but Elizabeth contacted the fever and succumbed three days later on Sept. 13. She was 42.
The evening she died, Mitchell telephoned undertaker Claude Seagraves and asked him to come to the house and embalm the body. Mitchell greeted Seagraves at the door and told him to remove his shoes, thus the mortician did his job in his socks.
Elizabeth Mitchell died in her upstairs bedroom. It was said that her grieving husband never entered that room again nor did he sleep in the house after her death, although he would return at times in the dead of night to work in his library and leave before sunrise.
The room supposedly was left untouched for 16 years, and Elizabeth’s comb and hairbrush remained on her dressing table, still holding strands of her hair.
Mitchell makes, loses two fortunes
After his mate’s death, Mitchell turned the care of his children over to his in-laws, the Smiths. According to the 1920 U.S. Federal Census, he, his children and in-laws lived on Coles Ferry Pike, no longer inhabiting the big house on West Main. It seems the businessman left Lebanon abruptly in 1922 or 1923, but before departing, due to bankruptcy proceedings, he deeded the mansion to his offspring for $1.
In 1923 the Smiths and their two grandkids relocated to Bradenton, Fla. Mitchell went West and stayed with a friend from Lebanon, Sam Doak, who owned a profitable gold mine.
The mansion was practically abandoned for seven years, but in 1930 Dr. O.N. Smith and his wife, who were friends to the Mitchell family, got permission to live in it for a short time after their house burned down.
There also were uninvited guests. A few years before the structure was bought by Castle Heights Military Academy, two visitors explored the house. One of them commented later, “It was a sad picture. We remember dresses hanging in the closets in the upper floor that actually fell apart when touched, bath fixtures that fell from the wall when you entered, deep-velvet carpets eaten by moths and mice until they were only a patchwork of bygone days.”
Mitchell is believed to have been deep in debt when he left Lebanon. The brilliant businessman evidently made his second fortune in cattle, minerals and lumber out West and reportedly later made good on the debts he left behind.
Goobers invade the big house
From the mid-1930s to the mid-1980s, the Mitchell House became a home again, only this time for young Castle Heights students, nicknamed goobers.
“They had cadets housed on the first two floors. On the second floor were four rooms and an enclosed room for house mothers. There were some triple bunks in one room that slept 15 to 20,” recollected Castle Heights archivist and alum Rob Hosier.
“As a day student in the seventh grade, I dressed for P.E. in the attic that had lockers up there,” said Hosier, whose father taught at the school.
He mentioned that the Castle Heights Memorial Garden, located on the West Lawn of the Mitchell House, holds engraved brick pavers with the names of every graduate from 1905 to 1986 as well as those who would have graduated in 1987.
Brooklyn boy loved Heights home
There may be no Heightsman who more cherishes his memories of residing in the Mitchell House than Lebanon, Ky., lawyer Ted Lavit, a Brooklyn native who started his Heights education in the second grade in 1946 and graduated in 1957.
“I lived upstairs facing Highway 70 (West Main Street) all those years. I remember when I was very small. We had bedtime stories downstairs by the fireplace in the library, and we had house mothers who lived there,” reminisced Lavit.
“There was a large glass enclosure in the hallway where they had a housemother who was there for us if there was something we needed to be done, like making arrangements for us or getting new shoes or clothes sewed. She was right there at the ready for us.”
Lavit recalled hearing music lessons going on downstairs taught by Mrs. Stroud Gwynn, while Ma Kremer gave singing lessons to the glee club and May Gregory Rousseau offered public speaking lessons.
“We ate downstairs. The food was always good. We had a dietician, Mrs. Eskew. There were two dining rooms and two massive doors that they would open and have announcements after each meal,” he said.
“We were scattered throughout the second floor. They were large rooms with probably 30 to 35 bunks. There was a lot of roughhousing upstairs, like a bunch of monkeys. A few boys would get homesick. I never got homesick. … We drilled every day with Marine Corps dummy wooden rifles and stored them in the roundhouse behind the Mitchell House. We had racks for rifles inside and bicycle outside.
“I remember the custodian, Claude Hicks, and he would take care of keeping that beautiful downstairs polished. He had a large electric polisher. It was full of gorgeous wood, and he kept the walls and fluted pillars shining.
“As far as the Mitchell House, I had a great childhood there. To me that was boy’s heaven, a great place to grow up,” said Lavit.
Lass enjoyed life in the big house
Nan Winfree was one of the few girls who spent her early childhood in the house. That meant the Castle Heights campus was her playground.
Her mother, Oleta, got a job at the school and discovered they needed a math teacher, which led to her husband, Cordell Winfree, getting the job and later becoming commandant of the Junior School. They moved into an apartment in the upstairs of Mitchell House in the spring of 1957 when Nan was six months old.
“When we were there the thing I remember is that Castle Heights was so formal and elegant. On Sunday afternoons they had band concerts on the front lawn with the band on the front porch of Mitchell House. It was a very formal affair. They had waiters in white coats and gloves and served ice cream,” she recalled.
“I slid down the banisters and ran up and down the steps. There was a commissary where the boys could buy things. Mrs. Katherine Pritchard lived upstairs. She wasn’t 5-feet tall, and she made them toe the line and was quite the seamstress and would darn their socks.
“Downstairs was off limits to everybody. The downstairs was very formal, and receptions were held there. The Junior School boys would have a dance and invite town girls to come. There were boys there from South America and Central America who didn’t go home on holidays, so they went with us when we would go to our grandparents.
“I lived 12 years on campus, my first six in Mitchell House, and then we moved to another house on West Main next to where Wilson Bank & Trust is, beside the Hooker House, and 18 boys moved in there. It was like a dormitory. It was so neat because we could run around the track and football field and swim in the indoor pool and use the tennis courts. That was like our backyard. It was like a huge extended family.”
One small detail Winfree recalls about the Mitchell House concerns a column that ran down a wall in the downstairs hallway. “At about the two-foot level they (the cadets) fixed a little shelf or drawer that pulls out, and the boys would hide cigarettes and magazines there and leave them there for the next person.”
Architect addresses 1997-98 restoration
It was about 20 years after the Winfrees moved off the Heights campus that Wilson County architect Mike Manous captained the restoration of the Mitchell House for its new owner, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. Manous remembers the house was in poor condition when Danny Evins hired him to tackle the project.
“The building had been abandoned for nearly 10 years when I got involved. It was obvious when I gained access to the interior for the first time that many people had been inside through the years. What really hit home to me was the fact that there was zero vandalism. People could have broken the leaded-glass cases in the library, defaced the marble mantels and spray-painted graffiti, but again the building had suffered degradation only from the elements,” said Manous.
“I distinctly remember thinking at the time, ‘Wow, this is a really great community filled with good people.’ Sadly, I fear the fate of the building would have been different were it to have been built in a different city. Start to finish we were completed with the restoration in a little less than a year.”
Not only was the transformation of the mansion done in less than 12 months but, even though it was remodeled into functional, modern office space for a national corporation, it was accomplished in a manner that preserved its status on the National Register of Historic Places.
Manous understood the project was not just another job but that he was putting his hands on a building that was one of the architectural jewels of the community, a structure valuable in more ways than simply function.
“All too often it is much easier, cheaper and more expeditious to tear down an old building than to renovate (case in point McFadden Auditorium). Also, old buildings can rarely be used in exactly the same manner in which they were originally intended. Old buildings typically must be re-purposed to maintain relevance in today’s real estate environment,” said Manous.
“It takes people with vision like Mr. Evins to understand the priceless nature of such structures as the Mitchell House. They tell the community’s story. Every city and town in this country are unique in their own way. If we as a society decide to destroy iconic architecture such as the Mitchell House and replace these structures with homogeneous fast-food restaurants and gas stations, we completely alter and vanquish our collective history.”
Historical home getting upgrade
Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash saw the house through similar lenses after close inspection and looks forward to moving in.
“I am a bit overwhelmed to realize that we will be working in such an historic building. The fact that this is the house that David Mitchell built and he and his family lived here, and that Castle Heights cadets roamed these hallways, and Danny Evins, a former cadet and founder of Cracker Barrel, had an office in this very building is just amazing to me and quite a responsibility.”
Mayoral assistant Debbie Jessen detailed the improvements that will be done before city administrative offices relocate.
“We plan to repaint the exterior woodwork, refinish the hardwood floors and replace the carpet. The interior has beautiful wainscoting, fluted columns and coffered ceilings made from tiger-eye oak and Philippine mahogany. All will need polishing. The light fixtures will be rewired for LEDs,” she said.
“The landscaping has an English-garden feel. We will freshen up the landscaping including the beautiful fountain. To the rear of the building stands the springhouse. The Castle Heights cadets referred to it as the Armory. This round structure is surrounded by Doric columns. It will also be restored.”
Stunned by the opulence of the historic house, which Mitchell built as a gift of love for his wife, Jessen noted that it has eight fireplaces and a number of original chandeliers, while the Rose Parlor features brocade fabric on the walls. “I’m sure distinguished ladies from days gone by sat by the fireplace enjoying a cup of tea,” she imagined of the room that soon will be her new office.
Mitchell’s massive monument
As for the final resting place of Mitchell and his wife, Tennessean writer Hugh Walker, a Lebanon native, penned in 1980 that a few years after Elizabeth’s death, Mitchell asked Seagraves & Smithwick to order a monument to be set beside her grave. He selected a solid block of unpolished Georgia granite. Approximately 10-feet long, six-feet wide and five-feet high, it weighed an estimated 54,000 pounds and cost about $5,000.
It took between nine and 14 days to move the massive stone from the Tennessee Central Railroad Station on South Maple to the cemetery and was accomplished by using block and tackle to take it off the flat car near the Fakes & Hooker lumber building. There was no truck that could hold its weight; thus, a wooden track was laid. A crew of about a half dozen men helped Marvin Head, who hitched his truck to the monument with a chain and pulled it at a snail’s pace down South Maple to the cemetery.
The chunk of granite remains the largest monument in Cedar Grove Cemetery. Writer Walker recalled that his father told him, “When the trumpets blow for Judgment Day that stone will be there.”
Twenty-six years after Elizabeth’s death, Mitchell would join his mate in Cedar Grove Cemetery. Newspapers announced that the educator, churchman, philanthropist, geologist and investor died of pneumonia July 30, 1945, in Williams, Ariz. He was 69.
He had lived in California the last nine years of his life, and the 1940 U.S. Federal Census listed him as residing in Glendale, Calif., with his son, daughter, son-in-law Joseph Aparicio and two grandchildren. He was survived by his second wife, Ellen Jones Mitchell, and his children, Elizabeth and David Jr.
Newspaper obituaries did not mention it, but H. Rogers Thomson, author of “Guardian of the Legacy: The Mitchell House,” reported that Mitchell died financially destitute and owed a gas station $350, a debt paid by his son.
While the academy Mitchell co-founded gave up the ghost in 1986, his legacy lives on as Cumberland University flourishes and last year boasted a record enrollment of 2,405 students. With City of Lebanon offices moving in, the house that Mitchell built more than a century ago will continue to wear his name and maintain its stature as a sparkling architectural gem in the City of Cedars.
Sources for this story include: “A History of Cumberland University 1842-1935” by Winstead Paine Bone, 1935; “Guardian of the Legacy: The Mitchell House Story,” by H. Rogers Thomson; “Phoenix Rising! Cumberland University 150 Years, 1842-1992,” by G. Frank Burns; “The Tennessean” (June 4, 1902; Dec. 18, 1912; June 4, 1913; Aug. 3, 1913; March 4, 1980); “The Lebanon Democrat” (Oct. 6, 1960; July 28, 1960); “The (Monongahela, Pa.) Daily Republican” (Aug. 1, 1945); “The (Connellsville, Pa.) Courier” (July 11, 1902); “New York Daily News” (April 29, 1930); “The Wilson Post.”