Mourning an Icon

March 6, 2014 in Featured, Luminaries by oliviagrider

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On March 1, 2014, the 130-year-old Mentone Springs Hotel burned. It was the last wooden Victorian hotel in Alabama. White Elephant Antiques, an annex to the hotel that once served as a health spa, also was destroyed. Together with the community of Mentone and all those who have enjoyed the unique ambiance of these historic structures, we are deeply saddened by their loss. Lookout Alabama magazine featured the Mentone Springs Hotel in our first issue. That article and photos are below.

The Mentone Springs Hotel combines old-fashioned style with updated luxury for a relaxing getaway.

by BRETT BRALLEY JAILLET | Photos by Brett Bralley Jaillet, James Jaillet and John Dersham

IN A TINY MOUNTAIN TOWN SITS THE MENTONE SPRINGS Hotel, a happy marriage of old-time, rustic charm and luxurious comfort. Th e former goes beyond the classic, Victorian-style facade and extends to every part of the stay, from the first walk up to the front porch, where you’re greeted by guests relaxing in rocking chairs, to homemade breakfasts served every morning in the dining room.

The mountain town, of course, is Mentone –a small but vibrant community endearing to outdoor enthusiasts, art fiends, antique collectors and those who simply appreciate a relaxing getaway.

Mentone has been a favorite of weekenders and summer vacationers since 1884, when mineral springs were discovered there and the hotel was built by Dr. Frank Caldwell of Pennsylvania.

The story goes that he had finished the hotel, but still needed a name. Caldwell was living in the home of John Mason, whose daughter Alice had recently read of Queen Victoria’s visit to Mentone, France, which was said to mean “musical mountain spring.” Alice thought the name perfect for a hotel in a place that could claim bubbling springs of its own, and the moniker stuck.

Eventually, the hotel lent its name to the area around it. Soon the Mentone Springs Hotel was a hotspot for those wanting to enjoy the springs – especially the wealthy New England investors who swarmed to nearby Fort Payne when coal and iron ore were discovered there in 1885. But when Fort Payne failed to become “the Pittsburgh of the South,” Mentone was hit hard, and the hotel never quite recovered. The rest of its history has been marked by ownership changes and ups and downs in its overall condition. But traces of that early heyday have been, and continue to be, restored. The hotel, one of the oldest in the state, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also listed in the New York Times bestseller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” Current owner Jim Rotch and his wife Darlene have worked hard to preserve the comfort and charm that have always been staples of the hotel’s identity.

“Our vision was to return this place to its former glory,” Jim Rotch says. “I wanted to create an atmosphere where guests can relax, unwind and enjoy their step back in time.” When he purchased the hotel in 2009, he and his wife embarked on a 9-month renovation. The main living area boasts a grand array of furniture, some old and beautiful, some comfortable and cozy, and all of it tastefully put together to achieve “a combination of a lodge and a country club” feel, as Rotch puts it.

The couple also updated fixtures room by room – that’s where the luxury component comes in. Nearly all bathrooms boast sleek pedestal sinks. And the Alpine Suite – a guest favorite, and where my husband and I stayed on our visit – even has a Jacuzzi tub. While each room is furnished with antiques selected by Rotch himself (he’s an avid collector who also owns White Elephant Antiques next door), the beds are comfortable, the pillows plush, the sheets soft and the blankets warm.

Another addition since Rotch acquired the hotel is general manager Judy Rathel, who starts her days before sunup, making coffee for early risers. She serves breakfast, even cleans the rooms at times, greets new guests and gives them the grand tour. She says she loves interacting with visitors and watching them get to know each other. “It’s unbelievable,” Rathel says. “People will come and sit by the fire or on the porch, and by the end of the day they’re friends, and the next morning, they’re eating breakfast together.”

The bonds guests form are a key part of the experience. During our stay, we hear a low hum of conversation and laughter at night from our room. The happy sounds perhaps come from the front porch or the living room, where guests still mingle, playing games and browsing books. It’s nothing obtrusive – this light sleeper nods off peacefully to it – rather it is comforting, this peek into the joyous community that has long been present here and throughout Mentone.

And those who know that community love it. Just ask Matt Misko, the food service manager at the hotel. After he moved to Mentone to work at a local camp, he fell in love with the area and jumped at the opportunity to be part of the hotel’s culinary endeavors.

“I have always wanted to live in a place that is owned and operated by the people that live there,” he says. “And you really get that feeling here in Mentone.”

Though closed while we were there, Alice’s at the Springs Restaurant opens late spring, and Misko works to create a menu that is true to what the restaurant has always featured: favorite Southern dishes with fine dining flair. And with a menu that boasts a filet mignon crostini with roasted red peppers, local greens and a butter-cream shallot sauce to a local catch served with hand-cut chips and the restaurant’s signature Mountain Slaw, Misko is doing just that.

But the work doesn’t stop with Alice’s. Each day Misko prepares breakfast. My husband and I enjoy a light omelet with sautéed spinach, cherry tomatoes, dates and, of course, fluffy, moist biscuits. Rathel offers us crabapple-and-peach jam by local Akesberry Farms. I spread a bit on top of my biscuit, and my heart sings.

A new eatery at the hotel, one whose opening was spearheaded by Misko, is the Rusty Fox Canteen, located on the lower level of the hotel. The Rusty Fox opened in January, and stays open all day long for hungry guests. Misko kneads and tosses dough for killer pizzas in this dimly lit, eclectically styled, tavern-esque gem. If you’re lucky, your server may also be a musician and give a performance while you wait for your food.

When it comes to local attractions and activities, Mentone is known for the Cloudmont Ski & Golf Resort, the only place you can snow ski in in Alabama. Once the temperature falls below 28 degrees, the snowmaking commences, and visitors frequent the slopes. Winter is also a prime time to visit the hotel, as the hearth before a roaring fire replaces the porch. Guests gather, visit with one another and play games like checkers and chess.

In warmer months, people journey from across the country to see the area’s natural wonders like Little River Canyon or the rushing falls at DeSoto State Park, or they’ll fish, ride horses, explore Sequoyah Caverns, bird watch or even try a hang-gliding excursion. Parents whose kids are heading off to Mentone’s nationally known camps also take the opportunity to visit the hotel. Some come for the shopping, seeking an antique that’s just right or pottery by a local artist. Some, Rathel says, come to do nothing but relax and be away from everyday concerns.

“People sit on the porch and just laugh together or read a book. That TV is rarely turned on,” she says, nodding toward a screen tucked in a corner of the living area. “That’s one thing that shocked me when I started working here. What I always say about Mentone is that God gave us just a little piece of paradise to see what heaven will be like. It really is like going back in time.”

If you go:

WHERE TO EAT: At the hotel, try Alice’s at the Springs Restaurant or the Rusty Fox Pizza Pub. In town, visit the Moonlight Bistro , and don’t leave without ordering the fried green tomatoes. Or try Wildflower Café  – known for its tomato pie, country store and eclectic vibe.

WHERE TO SHOP: White Elephant Antiques (256-634-4529) sits adjacent to the hotel, but also hop over to Crow’s Nest Antiques. Kamama Art Gallery offers a wide range of art for collectors. (see this article)

WHAT TO DO: Cloudmont Ski & Golf Resort is one of the area’s main attractions. Visit breathtaking waterfalls or simply hike around at DeSoto State Park  or Little River Canyon National Preserve (nps.gov/liri). Explore Sequoyah Caverns. Ride horses at Holly Springs Horseback Riding Stables (256-634-4132). Visit the Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel, a stone church built around a huge boulder (mentonealabama.gov).