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Mitchell House - Part of Castle Heights history

Updated: Feb 21

Photo by Brian Stansberry

Part of the campus of the former Castle Heights Military Academy on West Main St. in Lebanon, Mitchell House is a 2 story Sewanee sandstone structure in Neo-Classical Revival style at 106 North Castle Heights Ave. Boasting 10,600 square feet, it was built from 1906 to 1910 by David Earl Mitchell (1876-1945). Mitchell was married to Elizabeth Smith Mitchell (1877-1920).

Mitchell had moved to Lebanon to attend Cumberland College and after he graduated in 1902 was immediately voted in as its president - becoming the youngest college president in the nation. Mitchell and professor I.W.P. Buchanan organized and co-founded Castle Height School in 1902. Mitchell had made a fortune in the Pennsylvania coal mining industry, and they moved to Wilson County. He purchased 450 acres on the western side of Lebanon and donated most of it for the Castle Heights campus. His goal was to build a great educational institution and have its students matriculate to Cumberland University.

In 1920, David and the children got typhoid fever, and Elizabeth nursed them to heatlh. Tragically, she fell ill with typhoid as well and Elizabeth died three days later. Consumed with grief, David never entered her room or slept in the mansion again. Ellizabeth's parents Rev. Arthur and ???? Smith took over care of the Mitchell children and moved them to their home on Coles Ferry Pike. David would visit the mansion at night to work in his library, then leave. Three years later, in 1923, David left his family and moved west to Arizona and California. The Smiths then moved into the mansion for a few years but left about 1925 for Florida. To keep the home in the family, David deeded it to his kids. It remained vacant for more than a decade until purchased by Castle Heights in 1936. At some point, evidently, the Mitchell children were reunited with their father out west.

In 1913, Dr. Laban Lacy (L.L.) Rice became the sole owner of Castle Heights and changed it to a military academy and male-only school.

In 1928, Castle Heights was struggling financially and was sold to Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955). He was married four times. Macfadden was an early advocate of physical fitness/ bodybuilding culture and nutritional theories. He was an American fitness guru who the the predecessor of Charles Atlas and Jack LaLane in the 1930s-50s. He founded the magazine publishing company Macfadden Publications. He improved some of the buildings and built a gymnasium.

The school bought Mitchell House in 1936 from the Mitchell children’s estate to use as their Junior School and was owned by the Castle Heights Foundation, Inc. The mansion was renamed Macfadden Hall. There were various slightly odd rules and traditions that the students (male until 1970) followed. By 1954, the academy had a 150 acre campus. In 1963, The Macfadden Foundation opened Sanford Naval Academy in Sanford, FL as a sister institution. The Bernarr Macfadden Foundation operated Castle Heights until 1974.

Castle Heights closed in 1986, and Mitchell House was vacant until 1998. Danny Evins, founder of Cracker Barrel, was a Castle Heights graduate, and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store purchased the property for its corporate headquarters from 1998-2015. In 2015, Cracker Barrel sold Mitchell House to Sigma Pi Fraternity International for its executive office. The old driveway leading to the mansion is now Mitchell House Lane. NRHP 1979



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