The Homestead: Kinship and Community


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A search for family roots and community spirit led this Selma, Ala., couple to downsize from a two-story farmhouse to a cabin in the heart of a mountain village.


Joan and Jim Byrum, both 64, were originally drawn to Lookout Mountain at the request of a great uncle who was searching for a family cemetery.

“My uncle, George Booker, wanted to find some family gravestones, but our search was futile,” Joan says.

They did, however, connect with Nancy Smith, a longtime Mentone citizen. Smith said she and her husband used to ride their horses near the “old Booker place.”

“She took me there immediately, and I made pictures and took my uncle back a small rock,” Joan says.

Before he died, her uncle told her the family history – Joan’s great-grandfather was a Cherokee from the area. He fell in love with a woman from Sand mountain, and they moved to Selma after eloping. His mother was a midwife who didn’t walk the trail of tears because the community’s women wanted her to stay and provide her services.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]“We found in the Cherokee archives that she tried to reenter the tribe when the eastern band returned, but was denied because she took the name Booker from a trader passing through the area,” Joan says.

The Byrums returned home to Selma, but Mentone was on their minds. They were already looking for a place to retire, and in 2001, they found the perfect house, right off Mentone’s main drag. Joan, a consultant for patient welfare in several hospitals, was able to move her job north. She continued to work for several years and also played “nanny” for her daughter Kristen Emory’s two children, Byrum and Saddler, after Kristen and husband tom moved to Mentone in 2002.

“I guess you could say we didn’t come here without family – we came here because of family – and now there are three generations of us up here,” Joan says. “I was traveling for work a lot when we lived in Selma – and i realized i had lost all sense of community there, so when we moved, it was really important for us to get involved.”

The couple also cited a “pedestrian community” high on their list of needs – which is partly why they settled right off Mentone’s main thoroughfare.

“We can walk right down to the market, to city hall to pay our water bill or to the restaurants to have a bite to eat,” Joan says.

They even walk to the Post office. “Claude, our dog, knows every afternoon at 4:30 it is time to go check the mail,” Jim says.

“We could have gotten a mailbox, but a Post office box is just another way to be involved with the community,” Joan adds. “you see people, you talk and you get to know each other.”

The house is close enough to town for the couple to hear the bells of St. Joseph’s ring and to watch the hustle and bustle of customers through the Mentone Market each day.

Joan and Jim are members at St. Joseph’s on The Mountain Episcopal Church and have met other members of the Mentone community through the church and the Mentone Market, which their daughter and son-in-law bought in 2002.

“I tried to work the store to give Kristen and tom a break,” Joan says. “i wasn’t good at it, but it was another way of helping us get acclimated. all the guys from the different construction companies would come in each morning to get their coffee and biscuits – that was great when we had questions about renovation!”

The Emorys have used the store as an avenue of community growth through celebrations at the market on holidays like the Fourth of July and Christmas.

“It’s been interesting seeing Mentone kids grow up – kids who went from coming in the market with their parents to now coming in on their own or with their own families,” Jim says.

Jim, a social worker, kept his job in Selma and drove up to Mentone on weekends until 2008, when he found a job in Scottsboro, Ala., and commuted there until two years ago.

Now fully retired, the Byrums spend their free time working on their home and their newest purchase: the adjacent property they affectionately refer to as “the house and side yard.”

“I am the vision, Jim is the perseverance,” Joan says. The couple bought their house from a well-established Mentone family who wanted an owner who would love it as much as their late mother had.

“We came to look at it, and I said – ‘Jim…this is good. we can make this exactly what we want,” Joan says.

“I definitely didn’t have the vision,” Jim recalls. “I just saw a little house that needed to be torn down.”

Nine years later, the home is a stark contrast to what it used to be. The couple kept the original structure of the house, thought to be built in the 1920s, but added a vaulted ceiling in the main room, renovated part of the front of the home into a screened-in porch and completely reconstructed the kitchen and lighting, heating and air systems.

Much of the home’s décor has been passed down from family and friends. The mantle, built by Joan’s great-grandfather, and the window in the vault of the ceiling were both salvaged from “the old home place.”

Jim’s roll-top desk, the first piece of furniture he ever purchased, sits in the front room. The couple’s folk art collection is centered on a wall in the great room, where works by Woodie Long and Mose T. Hang next to Joan’s own work.

An antique quilt adorns the wall behind the couch. it still contains cottonseeds and is embroidered with “sack ravelings,” feedsack thread that was often reused in quilts.

“We’ve enjoyed collecting folk art and the antique quilts,” Joan says. “we can’t buy any more though…we’re running out of room!”

Clocks and old McCoy pottery also line the walls and shelves of the home. The kitchen features a few of the original cabinets, and a window from an old school in Selma has found a new home here. Old photographs pepper the walls, and Joan’s grandmother’s china is displayed in open cabinets.

Always looking to support the community, the Byrums have placed a child’s artwork from nearby Moon Lake Elementary School in the midst of their folk art collection, and photographs by local Brad Lackey hold court over the television. A hickory chair made by yet another local, Phil Faircloth, sits beside two Ikea leather chairs and a cabinet Jim built that incorporates an antique window.

“We appreciate the form and shape of well-made things, but we like an eclectic mix,” Joan says.

With the main house finished, the couple has moved on to their new project, “the house and side yard.” Jim recently finished renovating part of the house into an art studio for Joan. The rest of the space will be used as guest quarters and an entertaining area.

“We want it to be a place for family and friends to gather and enjoy,” Joan says.

The couple’s plan for the new renovations matches their need for community – to be as involved as possible.

“Our sweet gum tree was hit by lightning during a storm recently,” Jim says. “Our volunteer firemen had cleaned up the debris before we even got out of bed the next morning.”

“It’s the local, everyday people like our firemen that make this little town more than a stop on the map,” Joan says. ”They didn’t just welcome us when we moved here, they embraced us – they’re the true spirit of Mentone.[/s2If]