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(Cookeville, TN) - March 13, 2005

By Jill Thomas
Herald-Citizen Staff

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.

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.

They try to get back to Europe once or twice a year to visit family members and they regularly play host to relatives visiting here.

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.

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 easily.

Both Martina and Josef grew up on farms in post-World War ll Europe, he in Switzerland, she in Austria.

As the 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 was."

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 Astin."

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 said.

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 yourself."

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 buy."
 
 And maybe it's time for a new motel in Monterey.

 

Pictures from family album