Mentone’s Creative Outlet

Ray and Sandra Padgett have given Mentone and its many artists something they’ve said was needed for a long while – quality showcasing of the area’s creative minds.

The Padgetts turned an auto-repair garage into Kamama – an art gallery, coffee shop, antiques store and concert venue all under one roof.

Story and photos by James Jaillet

ONE OF THE LAST SHOPS HEADING OUT OF MENTONE ON Alabama Highway 117 toward the Georgia line proudly boasts a long, wide porch supported by pronounced timber framing. “Heading out” is a term used loosely, as the peacefully quaint town’s main attractions measure just a two-lane-road intersection flanked by a few antique stores, eateries and a cluster of log-cabin shops, and heading in or out is about the same thing.

The timbers – like much of Kamama’s innards – have been there only a little more than a year. And like the building’s dozens of art exhibits, antiques room and coffee shop, they are the execution of humble “visionary” Ray Padgett – the adjective  bestowed by his wife Sandra, who says her husband has a knack for not only finding a “fixer-upper,” but having a mental picture of its  reformation and bringing it to fruition.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]…

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[/s2If] [s2If is_user_logged_in()]The Padgetts have done plenty of fixing in the past three and a half years: Finding and rebuilding the structure that would house Kamama, which consists of an art gallery, music venue, Twiggs Coffee Shoppe, followed closely on the heels of finding and rebuilding a cabin in Lookout Mountain’s Mentone area.

Unlike the cabin, though, Kamama is more Ray’s brainchild than Sandra’s. She anticipated peaceful retirement in the couple’s second residency in Mentone (the first was a 10-year stay in the ’80s and ’90s) rather than entrepreneurship.

That’s not to say she wasn’t all for the two starting an art gallery. As head of the town’s art council, she has been pushing for a place to showcase the town’s many artists for several years. As head of the town’s art council, she has been pushing for a place to showcase the town’s many artists for several years.

Nonetheless, when Ray told Sandra he wanted to buy an auto-repair garage and turn it into a coffee shop, she told him it was the ugliest building in Mentone. “It looks a whole lot better now,” though, Ray said during our visit in February, standing under another timber frame inside the building and surrounded by hundreds of pieces of local art.

The couple’s son and daughter didn’t quite understand the vision either, as trying to start a coffee shop and art gallery in a town with 300 registered voters didn’t sound like the smartest business move to them, Sandra said. “But Ray knew,” she said, and though the tourist town’s population might be sparse, especially in the off season, the coffee shop at times possesses the bustling feel of a corner cafe in a big city, as residents, visitors and friends of the Padgetts stop by to grab a cup of coffee and a scone, admire the art and tell tales.

The coffee shop draws regular visits, but the Padgetts’ and Kamama’s main goal is simply to promote local art – something there’s no short supply of in Mentone and on Lookout Mountain, Sandra says. “Mentone is like a magnet for creative people,” she says. “We have the best artists in the Southeast. It’s just such a creative, wonderful place.”

So far, Kamama is providing that intended forum: 80 percent of the art featured in the gallery was created either  by someone who lives on Lookout Mountain or has a home here, Ray says.

a section of the gallery at Kamama

The paradox of Mentone’s art culture, though, prior to Kamama’s opening, was the lack of a dedicated venue for artists to showcase their work – a byproduct of creative minds, Sandra says. “Artists are so busy creating their art, they’re not really thinking about marketing or sales,” she says.

Now, however, Kamama leases alcoves, kiosks and, in one case, an entire room, to local artists. On display are paintings, pottery, sculptures and some woodworking, along with unique art such as re-shaped  horseshoes.

And for visitors who enjoy consumable artistry, there’s a little bit of that going on each day, too, by resident chef Jennifer Ferguson.

Twiggs Coffee Shoppe is about more than coffee, offering freshly baked scones and cookies as well as Ferguson’s signature hot  Reuben sandwich and paninis.

From day to day, no menu’s really the same, Ferguson says, as she tries to pull something different from her repertoire every morning. By the time the sun’s up she’s baked two different types of scones –
ranging from sweet ones like cranberry pecan, blueberry and apricot to a savory bacon and cheddar – and Little Lucille’s Cookies, made from Ray’s mother’s recipe.

She also whips up her Momelettes, a cross between a muffin and an omelette – a recipe she created herself and is currently marketing to grocery-store chains. The melding of the food, the coffee and the local art ties the whole package together, Ferguson says, as those who come in for food – whether tourist or local – often find themselves taking a piece of Mentone’s art out the door. Likewise, those who come in to browse for art usually pick up lunch (or a cookie, at the least) and spend a few minutes visiting.
In many ways, that’s the beauty of Kamama – a getaway within a getaway that makes a statement with its bold timber frames, bold three-bean brewed coffee and even bolder support for local art.

Behind a Name, Behind a Homecoming


outside_2_smThough Sandra Padgett’s Cherokee heritage makes up just a trace of her lineage –1/16 th –she credits  those genes with making her a “very spiritual” person. Kamama’s name itself is a tribute to her Cherokee roots. The word translates to butterfly – quite appropriate for how Sandra and her husband Ray have drifted through the years.

Neither are from Mentone: Sandra grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Ray’s a product of Defuniak Springs, Fla., which is where the two wound up after decades of bouncing around, living in Atlanta  suburb Marietta, Mentone and even Austria.

Ray’s family owned a farm in Defuniak Springs, and the couple originally decided to make that their  retirement home. Neither thought it felt right, though, so they decided to sell the farm and find a new home.

They looked at Atlanta – “even thought about buying a condo there,” says Ray – and they love Chattanooga, where they could have landed a home on the river downtown, Ray says. Deciding to put it to a private vote, they each wrote down where they wanted to move, and “What do you know,” Ray says, “we both wrote down Mentone.” They had called the town home once before, for 11 years spanning1980-
1991, as owners of the Mentone Springs Hotel, and in many ways, the couple could be called the town’s
revivalists. When they picked up the bed and breakfast – the town’s centerpiece – in 1981, it was out of use and crammed with old pipe organs. Ray had driven by it on a trip with a friend, and the couple  bought it, cleaned it up and remodeled it. Sandra lived there with the couple’s children while Ray
worked in Atlanta, spending weekends in Mentone with his family. When they returned, the Padgetts
gave Mentone its only full-scale art gallery.

And Sandra’s Cherokee spirits? They’re the ones she says brought her to Mentone in 1980 and called her home in 2009. “Maybe part of my spirit was left here generations ago, and that’s what drew me  here,” she says. “I just have a sense of wellbeing here – there’s just such an energy here that captures  me. I haven’t been this happy in decades.”

Twiggs Coffee Shoppe manager Jennifer Ferguson cooks up sandwiches, baked goods and other fare for breakfast and lunch menus in addition to preparing a range of coffee drinks.

Ferguson was born and raised in Mentone. She joined the Marine Corps at 17 and fought in the first Gulf War in the early 1990s before moving to Chattanooga.

About four years ago, she started having heart trouble and eventually ended up having a heart attack when she was in just her late 30s. She went home to Mentone to be with family before what she thought was about to be her untimely death.

However, upon the urging of her mother, she went to visit a new cardiologist, who found the right medicine to treat her condition, and now, she says, “I’m perfectly fine.”

Moreover, she says she’s always wanted to cook for a living, and when she heard Kamama and its coffee shop were in the works, she paid a visit to Sandra Padgett with a batch of cinnamon rolls in hand.

“I knocked on her door, she opened it and I handed her the cinnamon rolls and said ‘Here’s my résumé,’” Ferguson says. “And she said ‘You’re hired!’”

That was early in 2012, and in December of the same year, Ray Padgett came to her and asked if she’d like to become a partner — half owner — of Twiggs, and she accepted.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “This is my dream. Cooking is not a job for me. It’s  something I do to make people happy.”

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