Inn for the Night: Historic Elegance

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Step into a bygone era with a stay at one of the South’s grandest antebellum  mansions, nestled in a peaceful rural setting.

by DREW HOOVER

It is 10 p.m. and raining in the tiny town of valley head, Ala., when my wife and I pull across the railroad tracks to Winston Place. Backlit by moonlight, the outline of the Greek Revival-style mansion rises before us, and we see yellow lamplight glowing from within. Before we can get out of the car, Jim Bunch emerges from the house to help us with our luggage. Within a few minutes, he has given us a tour of the historic home (now a bed and breakfast), and we find ourselves peeling back heavy blankets to the sound of raindrops pattering the roof.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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The next morning, the smell of eggs and bacon wafts up to our room on the second floor. Downstairs, Bunch has coffee brewing and is chatting with a few guests. Breakfast is served buffet-style, and guests are  encouraged to visit with each other. As we take our seats in the dining room, Bunch launches into a story about the original owner of Winston Place, William Overton Winston.

Winston was born in Virginia and as a young boy moved to east Tennessee, where he studied law. In 1838, he followed the narrow ridge-and-valley vein of the Appalachians southwest to Alabama and settled his young family in Valley Head. Construction of a two-story “pioneer dwelling” that is now Winston Place began shortly thereafter. A family journal noted the passing of many Cherokees on the Trail of Tears in the same year the Winstons arrived. By 1840, Winston was representing DeKalb County in the Alabama Legislature, where his cousin, future governor John A. Winston, was representing Sumter County.

Bunch’s path to Valley Head is strangely similar to William Winston’s. Bunch hails from Mechanicsville, Va., and followed a football scholarship down to Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he played for Coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant and earned All-American honors during his back-to-back national championships in 1978 and ’79. It was in Tuscaloosa that Bunch met his wife, then Leslie Matthews. Winston Place has been in her family since 1945.

Throughout the house, there are little reminders of Bunch’s playing days, with a small shelf containing memorabilia from his championship seasons. Though Bunch once forcibly removed defenders from no-man’s land on the football field, you would never know it, watching him serve breakfast. Bunch traded the gridiron for a griddle, spending 25 years in the restaurant business after leaving the Crimson Tide. Now, Bunch enjoys cooking and is quite accomplished: all the guests agree his French toast is the best they’ve had.

After breakfast, Bunch assures us we are welcome to hang out at the house, play a game of pool and perhaps talk some football – Bunch does not easily tire of football talk. Even though he played for the Crimson Tide, he enjoys conversing with Auburn fans as much as Alabama fans. “Because I grew up in Virginia, I had no clue about the whole Auburn-Alabama rivalry,” Bunch says. “The funny thing is, my high school had the exact same jerseys as Auburn, but I didn’t know that until I was on the field because when we watched film on  Auburn, it was in black and white. It was quite a shock.”

Although the tourist town of Mentone with its quaint shops, art galleries and restaurants is a mere three-mile drive from Winston Place, anyone with an interest in SE C football could certainly fill an afternoon hearing Bunch’s behind-the-scenes stories from one of the greatest eras in college football history.

We spend the afternoon in Mentone, trying out a few of the restaurants based on Bunch’s recommendations, and end the day with a sightseeing trip to Little River Canyon. We arrive back at Winston Place as the sun is falling below the western ridge of Wills Valley and the trees and fields melt into shades of blue and gray.

Winston Place was fortunate to be treated gently by both sides of the Civil War. In September 1863, Union Gen. William Rosencrans was fighting Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg over Chattanooga, Tenn. Having just expelled Bragg from the city, Rosencrans sent troops to find the retreating Confederates. A force of 60,000 Union troops marched into Valley Head, where they camped for three weeks by the Winston Place spring. The general in charge of the infantry was kind to the Winstons, going so far as to punish a Union soldier who tried to steal supplies from the Winston kitchen.

Standing on the massive second-story veranda, it is surprisingly easy to imagine rows of Union tents  stretching to the horizon of the long, narrow valley. After the war, the Winstons did quite well, having invested heavily in the development of the Wills Valley Railroad. William Winston is remembered as the “father” of the railroad company, which connected Chattanooga and Gadsden, Ala., and ultimately opened the isolated, mineral rich northeastern Alabama counties to other regions. The railroad also brought in visitors from  surrounding cities to explore the “healthy” springs in the Wills Valley/Mentone area, and perhaps it was at this time that Winston Place acquired its propensity for visitors; according to a document filed with the National Register of Historic Places, Winston Place was known as the area’s “grandest summer showplace” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the late 1800s, railroad money allowed the Winstons to update Winston Place in the architectural style of  Greek Revival, which was sweeping the country at the time. Those renovations account for the four grand Doric columns. The only significant change since that time was the addition of a small, one-story kitchen and carport to the back of the house.

The grounds of Winston Place are bordered by a large hedge, and to the north and south, the house is surrounded by clean green fields for as far as one can see. Lookout Mountain to the east provides a picturesque backdrop for the scene.

Inside the house, Leslie Bunch oversaw redecorating during a design showcase in the late 1990s. Interior designers from around the country were invited to decorate the mansion’s five bedrooms. The designers got their work published, and Winston Place got to keep the luxurious trimmings. Each room has a distinct feel. While some rooms incorporate more modern influences, they all retain their antebellum roots. The wood floors and embellishments are stunning, and the house simply has a historic atmosphere about it.

The Bunches certainly carry on the legacy of the celebrated summer home. Throughout our stay, we were well taken care of. Though Bunch only cooks breakfast (as befits a bed and breakfast), he keeps a glass jar in the kitchen filled with freshly baked, made-from-scratch cookies, and guests are welcome to store food in the refrigerator. In addition to the usual politeness of hosts, Bunch just seems genuinely interested in conversing with guests. “I love the bed and breakfast business because I get to meet new people every weekend,” he says.

In addition to serving as a bed and breakfast, Winston Place is a popular venue for weddings, receptions,  family reunions, corporate retreats and other events. To learn more, see facebook.com/winstonplace or call  -256-635-6381.[/s2If]