- March 13, 2005By Jill
In 1945 a 10-year-old Swiss farm boy was taken
by his aunt to a little community stage play. The show changed his
life. It was called Crazy Martin and it was the story of an outcast
in a Swiss village who traveled to America and there earned his
fortune. The 10-year-old audience member was named Josef Gabriel.
And that day he began to dream how he would come to America and
start a new life when he grew up.Their boys grew up in Cookeville with
23-year-old Tony helping to run the motel and 21-year-old PJ just
assigned to Iraq in the Marine Reserves.
Sixty years later, Josef
and his wife, Martina, have lived the American dream. Starting with
$6 in his pocket and the promise of a job, Josef worked for years in
Connecticut and then in 1979 moved with Martina to Cookeville to buy
the first Howard Johnson's motel in the region. "It's the perfect
location," he said recently.
He and Martina searched for nine
months to find just the right spot to open a motel. They wanted an
area where they could start a family and bring up their children
safely and run their own business at the same time. And the great
weather and beautiful views were the deciding factors when they
moved away from the blustery North.
Twenty-six years after
settling in Cookeville, the Gabriels have made a couple of additions
to the motel, built their own home and rent out two others. And
instead of retiring to their home with a view, Joseph and Martina
are thinking of adding a three-story tower to the motel.
try to get back to Europe once or twice a year to visit family
members and they regularly play host to relatives visiting
If the 'American
Dream' means building something from nothing, then the Gabriels are
living proof that the dream can become real. But it didn't come
Both Martina and Josef grew up on farms in post-World
War ll Europe, he in Switzerland, she in Austria.
oldest of seven children, Josef had to drop out of school in the
sixth grade to help support the family. He worked in the local
grocery store, did odd jobs and helped on the farm. "We were never
hungry, but there was never any money," he said. An uncle loaned
Josef's father the money to apprentice the youngster to a baker. By
the time he was the age many people graduate from high school, Josef
had become a pastry chef.
When Joseph was 29, the debts had
been paid and he was free to go West. "You couldn't just 'go' to
America at that time," he said. "You had to have a job offer before
they would let you in." When he saw an ad in the newspaper for a
pastry chef to do wedding cakes for a baker in Norwalk, Conn.,
Joseph didn't hesitate. He arrived in America with $6 in his pocket
but a work ethic that was tireless.
Two and half years later,
by working 60 hours a week at the bakery, painting houses on
weekends and cleaning restaurants in his spare time, he had saved
enough for a down payment on a house. He was able to pay off the
mortgage on his house with the rent money and within five years had
saved up enough to buy out the bakery owner. When that deal fell
through, he bought a 20-unit motel in Old Saybrook, Conn., a
well-to-do area on Long Island Sound.
In the meantime,
Martina Steiner, one of eight children on a farm in Austria, had
been breaking from farm tradition, working in restaurants and trying
to perfect her English. The two met when Josef returned to
Switzerland at the death of his father and met Martina in one of the
restaurants. He offered her a job at his motel.
"Now that I
think about it, I'm surprised my mom and dad let me go," Martina
said. "In my family everybody was expected to stay home to work the
farm." Martina took the job offer because she trusted Josef
and because she wanted to learn English. "I didn't know what a motel
Over the next ten years the couple was able to buy another motel
and a couple of houses on the waterfront.
"We had some famous
people renting the one house on the (Long Island) Sound," Josef
said. "The actress with the legs ... Betty Grable, stayed there. And
the actor with the knife ... Anthony Perkins! And Patty Duke
But by the late 1970s, vacation tastes had changed
and it was getting harder and harder to successfully rent out the
houses and run the motels. The Gabriels sold their properties there
and began looking for something different. Their quest brought them
to Cookeville where their lives slowed down and the two were finally
able to start a family.
But even after selling the
Connecticut property, the couple watched their pennies, first living
in one of the motel rooms instead of buying or renting a house.
Later they built an apartment over the lobby. And now have
built their own home on land adjacent to the motel and overlooking
the mountains to the East.
They have decided to construct a
couple of apartments for their sons should the boys decide to settle
down and take over the business.
In 1998 Josef and Martina
decided not to renew their franchise with Howard Johnson and the
motel was renamed 'The Alpine Lodge and Suites.'
Was the name a
salute to their home countries? Martina laughed. "We tried to think
of a name that would come first in the Yellow Pages," she
And do Martina and Josef think that the American Dream
is still possible. "Absolutely --100 percent yes," Josef said. "If
you want to work," he added.
"Once children come, it's hard
to have the same ethic and savings. And now things are quite
different economically. No one from European countries comes here to
earn money anymore," he said. "When I first came, I earned twice as
much here as I would have in Switzerland. Today, it's the opposite.
And, there, it's better if you work for someone because the benefits
are so great there. Here, it's better if you work for
Martina agreed. "The social programs in Europe are
much better. You have health care and insurance and even college is
free. "Of course, we have to pay for all that. The taxes are
terrific," she said.
And do their sons have the same work
ethic as the parents? For a minute, no one said anything. "The
school system here can be a problem, I think," Martina said. "So
many kids hate school and it goes on for so long that some kids have
nothing they want to do. They get bored and waste a lot of time. And
that can become a habit," she said.
Josef talked about his
brother in Switzerland who was a poor student in school. "He had
terrible grades, but when he was apprenticed to a bricklayer,
everything changed. He did very well and got great grades. "I think
you should have something to learn that you're interested in. Then
you'll work hard," Josef said.
Might Josef want
to open a bakery now that the boys are helping with the business? He
thought about it for a minute "I don't think there's enough
clientele here in Cookeville for a real bakery. We were located in
one of the busiest areas in the North where people were willing to
pay $1.50 for a dessert in the 1960s," he said.
So do Martina and Josef plan to retire soon?
"We'll hold on until the boys decide whether they want to take over
the motel," Martina said.
In the meantime, Josef
is admiring some development properties going up in Hanging Limb.
"The land is so cheap there. It could be a great
And maybe it's time for a new motel in