History Book: A Rock for the Ages

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The last deed of energetic and resilient Renaissance man Milford Howard was to build Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel as a tribute to his first wife.

by KATHRYNE SLATE MCDORMAN/Photos by Olivia Grider and Brittney Hughes; historic photos courtesy DeSoto State Park

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds …With consistency a great soul has nothing to do.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Throughout history there have been many ways by which the bereaved have sought to memorialize their departed loved ones. In Medieval Christian times, lovers’ endowments built chapels and staffed them with monks to ensure perpetual prayers for the soul of the dead. Milford Howard would no doubt be pleased to think that the Lookout Mountain chapel he dedicated to his first wife fell within that historical tradition.

Despite its more humble origins and structure, the Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel near Mentone, Ala., stands as much a testament to the tempestuous life of the man who built it as to the memory of the wife who endured a life of hardship following the unpredictable and sometimes bizarre fortunes of the man she loved.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Milford Wrairson Howard was born near Rome, Ga., to a hardscrabble farming family.  Despite having only a few months of formal education, he had a vivacious appetite for reading anything he could get his hands on. As a young man, he studied law under the apprenticeship of a former Confederate officer, Maj. Joseph A. Blance of Cedartown, Ga. Soon afterward, he moved to Fort Payne, Ala.

The determined Howard studied state rules of evidence and codes and became one of the youngest individuals ever admitted to the Alabama State Bar. He earned the honorary title of “colonel,” and was often referred to as Col. Howard for the rest of his life.

In December 1883, 21-year-old Milford married 17-year-old Sallie [sometimes spelled Sally] Lankford. Together they would  rear two sons (another child died at 11 months), live in dozens of homes across three states and face periods of fleeting success and abject poverty. Through every turn of fate and regardless of where she lived, Sallie would be the adviser whose cautions he too often ignored and his primary supporter – both emotionally and financially. In every way, she was his rock.

Though a talented lawyer, legal practice proved too tame and modestly remunerative for an impatient young man who was certain he was born for great accomplishments. At first he speculated in Fort Payne real estate during the “boom days” of the late 1880s and early 1890s. Briefly he was a wealthy man, at least on paper. Sallie encouraged him to sell his land and stock in the highest market and get out of speculation, but like every impractical dreamer, he held on, seeing more and more profits to come. He lost everything as the “boom” inevitably and rapidly went “bust.” With a deep sigh, he returned to the law, and for several years the couple struggled just to have enough to eat. As became his life’s pattern, at the moment he was finally achieving success, he abruptly changed direction.

The decades that followed were filled with his frantic attempts to find the one idea or medium that would recognize his talents and fulfill his dreams. In 1894, he became a best-selling author of a scandalous book accusing Congress of gross misbehavior. In “If Jesus Came to Congress,” his main character, the delightfully Dickensian-named W.H. Snollygoster, breathlessly described what he saw as the vile and corrupt excesses, sexual and otherwise, of most Washington politicians. Just when the book began to make money for him, Col. Howard concluded he needed to join those in Washington whom he had mercilessly skewered. During his run for the U.S. House of Representatives, Sallie became his savvy campaign manager, and the couple moved to the more centrally located Cullman, Ala.

Col. Howard served two terms as a Populist congressman, but was consistently ineffectual. In frustration he wrote another barn burner of a book, “The American Plutocrat,” which continued his rampage against wealthy businessmen – indicting them for exploiting the poor farmer and laborer to amass their obscene wealth. In her biography of Col. Howard, “The Vagabond Dreamer,” Elizabeth S. Howard (no relation) shrewdly observed, “…his literary skill often eclipsed his shallow reasoning. For, no matter what he said in this book, he usually said it well.” He never let mere facts disrupt his colorful and impassioned accusations.

In yet another whip-lash-inducing swerve, he foreswore politics forever. He toured the lecture circuits as a popular speaker on a variety of topics, returned to real estate speculating and finally became an aspiring script writer and actor in the nascent movie industry. The latter ambition brought him to California, where Sallie found her home in the sun and modest security in her own real estate investments. She was content there, but her restless husband dreamed of returning to Lookout Mountain. In his fantasies he imagined himself starting a school for poor mountain children, following Martha Berry’s successful model (now Berry College) founded in 1902 in Rome, Ga.

Leaving Sallie behind, he moved back to the mountain and spent the remainder of his life casting his soul and his considerable energies into developing a school. Col. Howard and Sallie wrote almost daily, and she continued to pour encouragement, love and occasionally money toward his cause.

When more substantial funding failed to materialize, he promoted his vast real-estate holdings on the mountain for summer homes, summer camps and recreation opportunities. He foresaw the need for roads and campaigned for what today is the scenic Lookout Mountain Parkway. In all of this, the lack of sufficient support money haunted him at every step, but buoyed by the faith and efforts that his friends from the mountain invested in him, he never stopped working to make the dreams reality.

Sallie fell ill, but came back to Alabama briefly. The couple spent one more summer together on the mountain. She returned to California in August, and husband and wife knew, despite her courage, they would never see each other again. After Sallie’s death in October of 1928 and his harrowing journey to California to bury her, Col. Howard returned to Alabama to oversee his school’s development. He later remarried.

“Lady Vivian” Harper, Howard’s second wife, was less practical than her predecessor, and shared her husband’s expansive visions. Col. Howard began earning a little money writing “vagabonding” articles describing his country ambles and thoughts for The Birmingham News.

After a particularly disappointing year in his land development and speculation, Vivian persuaded him to travel to Europe, especially to Italy, which intrigued both of them. In Rome, Col. Howard used some connections from his congressional days and secured an interview with Benito Mussolini. This meeting triggered one of his most bizarre enthusiasms, praising Il Duce as the leader of tomorrow and advocating that democracy must adapt to some of the ideals of fascism. His next book, “Fascism: A Challenge to Democracy,” was controversial to say the least.

Returning to Fort Payne, he claimed he was “Mussolini’s friend,” when, “in reality, they only met for a few minutes,” says Elizabeth Howard. Arguably, in those years, Col. Howard was as naïve and uninformed as many other Americans and Europeans, most of whom failed to under stand the implicit threats that fascism and its bastardized brother, Nazism, posed. Elizabeth Howard believes “he was easily persuaded, and easily impressed.” The book made little money, but promoting it allowed him and Lady Vivian to travelthe Eastern Seaboard speaking at meetings organized by the pro-fascist Italian Historical Society.

Back home at last, some of Col. Howard’s plans began to prosper. He had envisioned his Alpine Lodge, built by mountain artisans, as a recreation and conference center. For a couple of years, he and Lady Vivian enjoyed a comfortable life as innkeepers at Alpine Lodge, where he continued writing his vagabonding articles. The lodge, which was located on the property that is today the Al- pine Camp for Boys, burned in 1971.

That peace and relative ease disappeared in the Great Depression. Once again, Col. Howard found himself thrown into a hardscrabble existence living in a one-room cabin. Lady Vivian went to Florida to be with her mother and did not return. In anger and growing increasingly confused and ill, he divorced her and rewrote his will leaving all his property to a former daughter-in-law.

Col. Howard was now spending most of his time alone and hungry, and he began contemplating death. In these harrowing months, he was haunted by a commitment made years before, to build a beautiful church to honor his first wife.

When he buried Sallie at Forest Lawn Cemetery in California, he remembered a chapel there they had both admired when she purchased her grave site. Known as the Wee Kirk O’ the Heather, it’s modeled after a stone church in far northern Scotland, Glencairn, supposedly the parish church of Annie Laurie, the romantic young woman of Scottish ballads. The Forest Lawn chapel is astonishingly beautiful and romantic, with far more stained-glass windows and comfortable seating than found in any true Scottish kirk. Even in his grief, Howard had been enthralled with the structure. It seemed to him a fitting memorial for his love, Sallie, now long wrapped in a fog of memory.

He selected a well-known spot on his mountain property for the edifice. The land included a large, vertical stone known as Sentinel Rock and was elevated so the chapel would be clearly visible for miles, but just to make certain of that, Col. Howard proposed an electrically lit cross for the roof. He also hoped to buy a world-class organ. Neither of those dreams would be realized, but their absence only enhances the chapel’s charm as a simple mountain church – with the unique feature that it incorporates the large Sentinel Rock as its altar.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Elizabeth Howard, echoing the sentiments of many who visit the chapel. Against his doctor’s orders and in defiance of his physical frailty, Col. Howard began the work in January 1937 with desperate, unemployed carpenters from Fort Payne. When he could no longer raise or borrow enough money to pay his workmen, he did the heavy labor himself. He drove himself to exhaustion in the coldest part of the year, determined to complete his self appointed task.

Col. Howard had to settle for clear-glass windows, a less expensive organ and a plain, wooden cross. Each sacrifice was painful for him, but by June the chapel was finished. He spoke at the dedication ceremonies and for once in his life, felt a sense of completion and satisfaction. But his health was broken. Friends loaned him money to visit his son in California. There, in December of 1937, he died. People of faith would declare that at last the vagabond had gone home, but Howard so loved the mountain that his ashes were returned to Alabama and are interred in the rock of his little chapel. It seems that Sallie is still protecting him.

The Howards’ lives spanned some of the most difficult years of this country’s and this region’s history. They lived through the terrors of Reconstruction, World War I and the Great Depression. At last, symbolically, they arrived at this peaceful place, this memorial to a love that for all of its imperfect manifestations in imperfect human beings was long and true. It is a lovely and peaceful place to visit. To sit and contemplate the turbulent life of the couple it honors is to reflect upon an era in history and the depths of human devotion.[/s2If]