Inn for the Night: Enduring Gem

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Perched atop Lookout Mountain, the Mentone Inn offers a glimpse into the past and is a lasting treasure that should not be missed.

story by AMY BUCHANAN

As you wind up Lookout Mountain on your way to the quaint, mountain retreat of Mentone, Ala., one of the first things that will catch your eye is the sprawling front porch of the Mentone Inn. It draws you into town and will suddenly remind you that a weekend of relaxation is exactly what you need.

My husband and I are delighted to arrive at the bed and breakfast on a Friday night after making the drive from Birmingham. The well-lit facade, welcoming rocking chairs and a personal note from innkeeper Cynthia Stinson on the front door make me feel right at home before I even cross the threshold.

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Nestled comfortably on the main street of Mentone where it’s proudly served guests since the 1920s, the Mentone Inn is a cornerstone of the community. Mentone, a small, tightly knit town, is home to artists, environmentalists and hospitable Southerners. Originally a tourist draw because of mineral springs discovered in the 1880s and believed to possess curative properties, Mentone has a long history of welcoming outsiders.

Today, it continues to be a popular tourist destination for those seeking outdoor excursions, one-of-a-kind antiques and handmade art, as well as anyone in need of respite and renewal. Breathtaking landscapes, delicious local cuisine and the vibrancy of this artistic community make it the perfect destination to rejuvenate, recharge and relax.

The Mentone Inn is part of the town’s quaint appeal. Guests agree it is the perfect hideaway and complement to the surrounding area. “It is quiet here,” says Donny Foster, a repeat customer visiting the Inn with his wife for their second anniversary. “It is the perfect place to go if you want to get away, but you don’t want to go too far. I love the atmosphere and the friendly people.”

Once you leave the gracious front porch and enter the appealing interior of the Mentone Inn, you feel more at home with each step. Still true to its original structure, the 9,000-square-foot bed and breakfast boasts beaded, hand-polished wood paneling, an original stone fireplace and antique decor, making you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. Each of the 12 guest rooms is distinctly named, thoughtfully decorated and boasts a private bathroom with claw-foot tub.

The Mentone Inn is charming, and a big part of the reason why is clear upon meeting innkeeper Cynthia Stinson. “Much of the charm is in Miss Cynthia,” a regular guest shared. Even as a first-time guest, I can certainly agree. Stinson lights up the Mentone Inn even more than the porch lights on a dark night.

Stinson, who has managed the inn for five years, oversees all aspects of the care and upkeep of what she affectionately calls “my dollhouse.” Up early every morning to greet guests with hot coffee, Stinson runs the inn with the help of two housekeepers. Wearing many hats throughout the day, she seems never to tire of caring for those staying under her roof. “I get to do what I love every day, and that’s to help people and make them happy,” she says.

As a mother and with a diverse array of previous work experience, Stinson’s unique skill set makes her the perfect benefactor and caregiver for the historic hotel. In addition to managing the inn, Stinson plans and cooks bountiful, delicious breakfasts. On our first morning, we are greeted by the smells of fresh fruit, cheesy hash-brown casserole, eggs Florentine, homemade biscuits, sawmill gravy, Conecuh sausage and warm, gooey apple turnovers. The delicious smells are trumped only by the delectable tastes. My husband and I devour each bite of our full plates. As I (briefly) pause between bites, I notice Stinson as she visits each table to greet her guests.

During breakfast one morning, Stinson pulls an antique cake server off the wall and graciously gives it to a guest when she finds out the guest collects the line. The woman is delighted and amazed, but Stinson just smiles. “I bought that piece at a garage sale,” she says. “Giving it to her, seeing how happy it made her, was so much better than having it hang on the wall.”

Stinson’s welcoming demeanor and love of community are contagious. Visitors to the Mentone Inn quickly find themselves in conversations with other patrons, rocking side by side on the porch or sitting around the fireplace watching football games on cool fall evenings. I am delighted to hear most of my fellow guests are staying at the inn for special occasions, including a 50th anniversary, the aforementioned second anniversary and a birthday. All are in agreement over their enjoyment of the inn and their desire to return soon.

“We came here for our first anniversary and loved it, so we came back again this year and brought my parents for their 50th anniversary,” says Susan Foster, a guest from Georgia. “After five or 10 minutes you just feel like family. We brought my mom because she likes old places, and the history of the inn is awesome. Plus, you can come here and relax.” Rita Bankston, a first-time guest at the Mentone Inn who received a weekend trip as a Christmas present from a relative, expresses the same sentiment. “It feels like you’re going to visit friends when you walk up,” she says.

The gift package Bankston and her husband enjoyed (through the Mentone Inn) included dinner at The Wildflower Café, a popular Mentone eatery (see story here). Upon completing their meal, all they had to do was say, “We are on the tab of the Mentone Inn” and be on their way.

The Mentone Inn also accommodates large groups for parties, showers, reunions, weddings and meetings. Stinson says she loves hosting these events at the inn, which offers community spaces, an outdoor pavilion and convenience to local attractions perfect for groups. “Linger Longer,” the covered pavilion behind the inn, was added in 2007. Stinson says it’s also a great venue for music events.

When it comes to nearby attractions and activities, Mentone is at the ready whatever the season. In winter, visitors flock to Cloudmont Ski & Golf Resort, the only place you can snow ski in Alabama (see story page 26). In the spring and summer, outdoor activities abound. Guests visit Desoto State Park, where they can hike or see picturesque Desoto Falls. Little River Canyon National Preserve (see story page 29) is another spectacular destination for the outdoor enthusiast. In the fall, you might want to spend part of a day driving the Lookout Mountain Parkway or along the canyon rim on Alabama Highway 176, taking in sprawling landscapes, beautiful scenery and golden leaves. Also be sure to attend Colorfest (the third weekend in October), where the artistic talents and natural beauty of the area are on full display.

Don’t miss the Farmer’s Market held every Wednesday and Saturday year round and conveniently located beside the Mentone Inn. You can pick up locally grown, organic produce, jams and candles on your walk to Mentone’s antique shops and art galleries.

The area where the market is held (on the corner of Alabama Highway 117 and County Road 89) also is the site for the kickoff of the town’s two biggest events, the Rhododendron Festival (third weekend in May) and Colorfest.

As we prepare to leave, I stop to chat one more time with Stinson. With tears in her eyes, she reminds me once more about what matters most at the Mentone Inn. She says she tries to embody the words of Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I assure you, when you leave the Mentone Inn, you will never forget the way you felt and you will be anxious to return.

The History

Howes began building the Mentone Inn in October 1927, and he and his wife Nelda Ellis Howe opened it in June 1928. Howe enlisted help from the surrounding area’s men, who brought a sawmill to the site. The inn’s exterior hasn’t changed. Originally, there were nine bedrooms with private bathrooms and three bedrooms with a shared bathroom. In the 1970s, the rooms without baths were renovated and the closets made into bathrooms.

The barn was constructed in 1928 and used as a bunk house for the people who worked for the Howes.

The couple operated the Inn until 1954 and had a suite on the bottom floor, behind the kitchen, with two bedrooms, a den/office and bathroom. Subsequent owners and innkeepers, including current innkeeper Cynthia Stinson, have lived there as well.

“Nelda Howe was known throughout these parts as the grand dame of the mountain,” Stinson says. “She ran the Mentone Inn, doing everyday housekeeping and cooking. Her fried chicken was a big draw for locals; she served it for lunch every day.”

Hal Howe was known as the entertainer. He would meet guests at the train station in Fort Payne, Ala., and bring them up the mountain. He also took them on outings during the day, often to Little River. Always in possession of Juicy Fruit gum and lady head dimes to give out, he was a favorite of children.

Over the years, the property changed hands, and in 1999 a couple from Birmingham, Ala., Sarah and Mike Campbell, purchased it at auction, Stinson says.

They planned to use it for a family getaway as they have a large extended family. But the public continued to want to stay at the inn, and the Campbells obliged. Stinson became innkeeper in 2007 and now leases the property from the Campbells. “We consider ourselves business partners,” Stinson says.

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