The following is part one of a three-part series.
It was a place of healing before. Now, it might be a place of healing again.
Long before it hosted generations of Blount County, Tenn.'s children, the former Camp Montvale property on Chilhowee Mountain once drew the aristocracy of the Old South to partake of the healing waters of its natural springs.
Now, Maryville-based Harmony Adoptions of Tennessee has reached a tentative agreement to possibly buy the camp, turning its use to another kind of healing.
The adoption agency plans to rename the property "The Harmony Family Center at Montvale," which will be used to provide therapeutic activities after school and during the summer to adopted children in East Tennessee, according to the Harmony Adoptions website.
Long before Camp Montvale came into existence, Blount County historian Lorene Smith said a resort on the site was once called the "Saratoga of the South," a comparison with the famed New York spa of the day. "It was the first and the most important of those 'watering places' or resorts that had the mineral waters," she said.
Montvale Springs was discovered about 1830, probably by hunters, but soon after it attracted commercial interest.
"When Daniel Foute built that first log hotel there - this was even before this area had basically been settled - he built a 10-room log hotel. He built it primarily because of the black sulfur springs," historian Ken Cornett said. "They considered the black sulfur a cure-all. The primary purpose for the hotel all along was usually referred to as a health and pleasure resort. The main thing was the mountain air."
Foute operated the two-story log hotel from 1832 to 1850, when the 3,840 acres, including the Sulphur Springs tract, was transferred to Asa Watson, of Mississippi. Later in the year, Watson took over the lease on Montvale Springs Hotel.
In 1853, he replaced the two-story log hotel with a three-story, seven-gabled frame building that was described as the largest and best to be found at any place in all the Southeast. It was 200 feet long, and porches ran the whole length of each floor. In addition, there were 60 cottages and, at the height of the season, June 1 to Oct. 1, there were generally 300 to 400 guests. Rates were $2 per day, $12 per week, $40 per month, with children half price.
By the mid-1850s, the resort was being advertised in a London newspaper as such: "The atmosphere is pure and invigorating, the scenery around is romantic and picturesque, while from the summit of Chilhowee there is one of the most magnificent views of the United States comprising some 50 to 60 miles of the great valley of East Tennessee with the Cumberland Mountains in the distance, whilst on the south tier, forming the most splendid amphitheater."
"(Watson) built the famous three-story 'Seven Gables Hotel,'" Cornett said. "Supposedly, it would accommodate between 300 and 400 guests. That was quite a venture in its time. After that one burned, (Andrew) Gamble built a motel that only accommodated about 125 guests. It lasted until 1933 when it burned."
The property lay vacant until the Knoxville, Tenn., YMCA purchased the property in 1947. "Camp Montvale" began operating in 1949, but the camp was closed in 2005. A development group, Harmony Property, purchased the property the next year, giving the Friends of Camp Montvale a chance to operate a youth camp on the site. The Harmony group spent $4 million to purchase the property, $3.4 million of the total financed by a promissory note to the YMCA itself.
Financing for the purchase had been secured with proceeds of the development of a 281-acre site close to the camp property called The Overlook at Montvale, but Harmony Property found itself in financial straits after the near-collapse of the national economy.
Knoxville auctioneer Samuel Furrow stepped in, purchasing the debt in 2008, in order to buy time for the Friends of Camp Montvale to raise funding to purchase the property outright, but that never materialized. On Sept. 1, Furrow transferred the debt to the Camp Investment LLC. He serves as chief manager of the company.
Now, a Maryville-based adoption agency is seeking to purchase the former property.
To be continued next issue.