Growing up without nearby visiting relatives doesn’t nourish an interest in family and genealogy. That’s doubly so when your father, who entertained with tall tales the veracity of which one could never be sure, always said your family sprang from England’s crazy Queen Ann. I mean, who wants to pursue such a heritage?
Thus it was that I had little interest in the chapel that great-uncle Milford Howard built on Lookout Mountain in the ‘30s in memory of his beloved wife Sally.
Then developed this yen to see it and to understand something of this man, for whom my father, Rice Milford Howard, was named. A drive last week to Mentone to see the unusual structure was rewarding and fascinating.
The sturdy little church is built of stone with half a dozen windows down each side. Its interior is simple, plain, and white, an aisle dividing a dozen or so pairs of wooden, padded benches.
Perched rather lonesomely on a mountain outside Mentone, with no inhabitants within sight, it could easily have been neglected and forlorn. Instead, it appeared lovingly cared for, the grounds attractively kempt, flowers here and there, a bird feeder hanging from a tree limb, sidewalk swept.
Thanks are due the DeKalb County Baptist Association, which bought the property, tends it, supports Sunday services, and makes it available for other uses, among them occasional weddings.
It’s amazing that the chapel remains unlocked throughout daylight hours, apparently without experiencing vandalism. The day of our visit, a young neighbor woman was playing the chapel piano, which she does frequently, she said.
What makes the chapel unique is its construction against an immense standing boulder that forms the back wall, attached to the constructed building by cement.
As interesting as the little chapel is, so is the man who created it, instructing workmen even as he grew sicker and sicker of the illness that took his life. Milford had long dreamed of paying this honor to his wife, whom he was said to love so dearly, marrying her when she was only 17 and he 21.
In the book The Vagabond Dreamer,
his biographer Elizabeth Howard (no relation) writes of a man with sharp intellect, vision, and good impulses but no understanding of finances and little practicality. He embarked on ventures with great enthusiasm and initial success, only to fall on his face again and again in yet another failure.
One of six children, he grew up in Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama in grinding poverty, educating himself, and becoming one of the youngest men in the state to pass the bar back in the 1930s. He wrote novels, making more than one of them into movies in California. He served two terms in the U.S. Congress and interviewed Mussolini in Italy for his column in The
When Rice Milford Howard’s parents died when he was 14, he was sent to live with his uncle, but according to the author, their relationship was stormy and the young adolescent ran away to Oneonta to live with Milford’s sister and Rice’s aunt Octie Howard Stephens, wife of the founder of The Southern Democrat.
Hardly more than three years later the youth was with the U.S. Army in France fighting in World War I.
An enthralling trip farther into northeast Alabama informed me a bit about my family and perhaps about myself.