The Homestead: Consummate Host

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For Tommy Milham, ‘settling down’ on Lookout Mountain has involved building three cabins and a lake – and sharing his property with vacationers he quickly calls friends.

story by LARUE HARDINGER | photos by OLIVIA GRIDER and Salil V Photography

Tommy Milham is a robust, jovial lover of people – and his constant companion, Bo, a Labrador retriever mix. Milham is tanned and tall. His smile is ready and his voice is kind. This Spanish Fort, Ala., native looks as if he just walked off the beach, and the impression comes close to reality.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]When asked why he left the sea and its sun-soaked, wind-tossed waves beckoning adventure for a serene cove of hardwood acreage atop Lookout Mountain in North Alabama, Milham smiles and says: “I took one look at this place on top of this majestic mountain, and I knew this is where I wanted to settle down.”

Milham spied the spot while driving a charter bus of nurses from Gatlinburg, Tenn., back to Mobile – one of many tasks he’s performed as part of a long list of jobs, including Greyhound bus driver, Jefferson Bus Lines driver, Wal-mart tractor-trailer driver, co-owner of the Dixie Belle South Company (where he designed and built old-time, copper-roofed cedar phone booths), professional Dauphin Island sailboat racer and restaurateur of the four-star, Fairhope, Ala., Square Rigger eatery, which he says was owned by his family and eventually became the famous Wintzell’s Oyster House.

Milham proudly produces signed photos of celebrities who frequented the Square Rigger – Sally Fields, Jerry Clower, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Conrad, Freddy Fender and Bing Crosby’s sons Phil and Gary.

“I don’t know how many jobs I’ve had,” he muses, “but there’s nothing I can’t do.” Indeed.

Milham’s secluded cove in Mentone, Ala., is now a popular tourism destination. Three rustic cabins and a private, spring-fed lake have been built on 11 acres since 2004, thanks to Milham’s ingenuity.

The largest, Nestle Down, was the first to go up, in 2004. Milham designed the three-story, graceful-yet-rustic structure, and Mitchell Brothers Construction in Flat Rock, Ala., built it. Next came the Appalachian in 2005 and Kowaliga in 2010. Again, the designs belong to Milham. Construction was by Raymond Evans Construction of Mentone.

Milham’s ongoing project is a 3-acre lake near the cabins. He based the layout and positioning of the lake and cabins on a resort in Fairhope, Ala. “I knew,” he stresses, “there was no reason I could not build that here.”

Milham says he and community laborers engineered the lake from wetlands on the property, then stocked it with rock bass, bream and hybrid blue gill. Guests are welcome to fish and canoe on the lake.

Next, he plans to erect larger-than-life redwood carvings of a Native American brave and maiden guarding either side of the lake’s lower dam. Two massive red oak tree trunks lie next to the lake, ready for carving. The tree trunks were shipped from Gadsden, Ala., and are awaiting the carving
skills of Jim Marbutt of Summerville, Ga. “Jim’s nickname is Kowaliga – the namesake for our third cabin,” Milham says. “Jim absolutely loves Indian art and culture.”

After the carvings are finished, a gazebo with fire pit will be constructed atop the dam itself. Lastly, Milham’s design will feature a rock-lined waterfall flowing from one end of the lake.

“I know what I want to do,” Milham pledges. “I want to see this through.” After viewing his accomplishments of the past decade, I feel it’s pretty safe to say his vision will come to fruition.
Milham is not only an entrepreneur and designer, but a conservationist.He says all hardwood harvested from the wetlands on the property was salvaged, processed by Daniel Millican Wood Products in Valley Head, Ala., and used in building the cabins.

A walk-through of each cabin boggles the mind. Milham has uniquely and expertly blended a range of sawmilled hardwoods: wormy maple, poplar, chestnut, walnut, red oak, hard pine, cedar and hickory. He knows every nook and cranny and can point out exactly where each board originated on the property.

Perhaps the most interesting of the many stories Milham has to tell is about how he raised money for building the lake. It came from the sale of a ring given to him by Elvis Presley at a 1976 concert in Mobile.

“I had waited in line 20 hours to buy tickets to see Elvis,” he begins. “Twenty hours! We were the first in line. Imagine it. Front-row seat. I saw that ring was loose on his finger, and I could tell he was going to take it off and give it to someone in the crowd.” Milham says he determined to get that ring.

“People were climbing over me, trying to get to Elvis,” he says. “He was right in front of me, and I just opened up the newspaper with an article stating I had stood in line 20 hours and was the first one in line, waiting to see him. I wanted him to autograph the newspaper article. I had it on a clipboard. He looked at me and said, ‘That’s nice.’ Then he said, ‘Do you want my ring?’ I said, ‘I sure do!’”

“He just put it in my hand!” Milham continues, eyes wide. “Immediately, security had to escort us out because he gave me the ring. We missed the last song!”

The oversized ring bears a whopping 52 diamonds atop a blue-lapis inlay, in the shape of a Romanesque crest. “It was 14-carat gold!” Milham says, displaying photos of the treasure.
Selling the ring wasn’t an easy decision, he says. He held onto the keepsake until he decided to retire to the charming and artistic town of Mentone.

Milham offers his three cabins as vacation getaways through his business, Rental Cabins at Mentone. He says the cabins are in demand by guests seeking respite from the hustle and bustle of their work-a-day worlds.

The cove also is a venue for those celebrating weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. Entries in Milham’s guestbook hail all these events.

“Mr. Tommy” is the affectionate moniker guests have given him. Many praise Bo – and bashfully admit to sneaking him treats of jerky.

Guestbook remarks along the lines of the following recur more than any other: “Mr. Tommy made us feel right at home. We consider him our friend, not just a business man.”

“I do have a motto,” Milham recites: “I trust you. You trust me. That’s the way it’s gonna be.” Milham does not use credit cards. He does not put money on hold in guests’ accounts until their bill is paid in full. Has anyone ever stolen from him? “Not once,” he smiles and winks.

“It’s all about trust,” he says. “A few have booked and never showed up. But I am not the one they will have to answer to.”

The phone rings and Milham answers. “Just leave the money on the table when you leave,” he instructs a regular guest, Troy Reed of Haleyville, Ala.

“This is an extremely nice cabin,” says Reed, on speaker phone. “We’ve been to the Smokies several years. Why drive farther and pay more when Mentone is closer, and Mr. Tommy makes us feel at home? Plus, I don’t like crowds!”

Milham’s retreat is just the right distance from civilization – close enough to eat out or shop, yet secluded enough to make guests feel they have privacy while being showered with amenities such as hot tubs, kitchens complete with a complimentary bottle of wine, fresh linens, swinging beds, flat-screen TVs, board games, books, a man cave with bar, firewood and so much more.

When the largest cabin, Nestle Down, is rented, Milham visits family. This cabin is his home, and Milham filled its interior with a random but inviting mix of furnishings and accessories that spin the story of his life.

Photos of his parents aboard their 40-foot charter boat, the Zira, and of Milham aboard his award-winning, 30-foot sailboat adorn the walls – accompanied by tapestries of foliage and a softly lit Kinkade, which overhangs the open-loft railing.

The loft offers magnificent third-story views of the lake and includes one of the hanging beds Milham builds himself and bunk beds for the little ones.

Visitors who look upward when climbing the staircase will see two stained-glass windows, Milham’s finds at a Fort Payne auction to benefit natural-disaster victims.

An antique jukebox is posted at the bottom of the staircase. This colorful conversation piece once played tunes for patrons of Marty’s, a New York restaurant owned by Milham’s brother-in-law.

Leaning on the living-room hearth is an LP album by Jimmy Buffett, a Mobile native who Milham counts among his friends. On its cover, a mustached Buffett leans just inside a wooden phone booth, chatting on a coin-operated telephone adjacent to a sandy, beachfront pier.

“That pier and boathouse were just a few slips down from ours,” Milham says. “Jimmy asked to borrow one of our Roaring ’20s phone booths from our Dixie Belle Booth Company.”

The album is Buffet’s “Coconut Telegraph,” and Milham is planning to restore the phone booth, which he brought with him to Mentone. “He [Buffet] could’ve kept the booth for what he paid to rent it, just for the photo shoot!” Milham says.

On the bottom floor of Nestle Down, walk through the double doors to a view of the lake and an outdoor patio bounded by curvy walls of sand stone from Sand Mountain.

Every room of every cabin holds stories, and Milham loves to regale his friends and guests with them all.

Step inside the Kowaliga cabin and you will be transported into the days of the Wild West. Immediately the eye is drawn to the rock fireplace, which spans the height of the cabin’s north wall. On its face is a 6-foot hand carving of a Native American chief in full headdress. It is the handiwork of Milham’s friend Marbutt.

Milham found the red-maple slab and transported it to Jim’s shop. “He asked what I wanted carved. I told him,” Milham says. “So we put it on two sawhorses. Jim got out his pencil and started drawing, and the next day it was ready.”

Milham carved the hickory fireplace mantel, which came from Oneonta, Ala. Kitchen cabinets are open-faced wormy maple, and kitchen drawers boast pewter hand pulls carved into bears and canoes. A barrel from a Boise, Idaho, winery serves as a bathroom cabinet, with a washbowl and faux-hand-pump water faucet.

A final stroll through the Kowaliga cabin reveals an etching of Davy Crockett; carved Native American brave and maiden statuettes; Native American dream catchers; white-lace curtains gracing full-length, old-fashioned windows; and the big surprise – a private deck with hot tub. Wooden seating on the deck was salvaged from a defunct antique store in Scottsboro, Ala., and lobster traps attached to the railing came from Peggy’s Cove, a quaint fishing village in Nova Scotia, Milham says.

Since 2005, “Mr. Tommy” has entertained his guests with endless tales of his travels and hunts for antique treasures. He also has rented his personal home to complete strangers for the past nine years. But they do not remain strangers for long.

“I took care of my charter-bus passengers and restaurant guests,” he states, “and now, I still take care of every creature comfort my guests could want. They are not just customers; they become my friends.

“If they call and I am booked up – I say let me see what I can do; and I actually call around to try and find them a place to stay in Mentone. It’s not about me or the competition. It’s all about the customer.”

Guest-book writer John Strickland of Ellisville, Miss., penned to Milham: “This is a magnificent place, and you, my friend, are a very special person! Thanks for seeing all our needs were met and caring so much about us enjoying our stay here. We will be back and will get the word out to friends and family that this is the place to stay.”

Milham’s guest book rests on the living room coffee table, which serves more like a room centerpiece, with its many signed photographs and magazines and books in which Milham or his family members have been featured.

Milham explains that one of the coffee table books records that his mother, Elsie Wallace Milham, is a descendent of William Theodore Jay, a saw mill and ship-building tycoon in Madisonville, La., in the 19th century.

Through that lineage, Milham says, his mother also was a descendant of John Jay, a founding father of the United States and the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition, he says she was related to Sir William Wallace, made famous through the movie “Braveheart.”

Elsie and Milham’s father, Wally, sold their home to purchase a 40-foot yawl, the Zira, to offer moonlight cruises in Mobile Bay, Milham says, adding that his mother was the first licensed female skipper in Alabama. “Mother would play the ukulele while guests would sing songs like ‘Tiny Bubbles’ and ‘Chloe,’ my dad’s favorite song,” Milham says.

Milham is the youngest of three siblings. “Tommy was the baby, and we did not treat him very nice,” laughs his sister, Tonya. “He’s a hard-working guy. He’s got a gift for gab. He’s got a funny sense of humor.”

Milham says his son Wallace is a bonafide riverboat captain with a newly acquired master’s license aboard the Laney, a 280-foot vessel. “His company is assigning him the new prestigious position of commanding an icebreaker in Alaska,” Milham says.

He says his son John is a drummer in the Grayson Capps band, now touring the country. The band is known for recording two songs on the soundtrack of the movie “Straw Dogs.” It also has opened for Lady Antebellum and Reba McIntyre, among other famous names, Milham says.

“I’m equally proud of my two daughters,” Milham adds, noting that Tina Marmelejo of Spanish Fort works in the office of a heavy-equipment firm and Lisette Normann of Fairhope is a graphic artist whose creations are sold in her shop, dubbed simply “Fairhope Store.”

After a decade of homesteading in Nestle Down, Milham says there’s now more than the beauty of Lookout Mountain that he holds dear: the local folks.

“These people here come from all walks of life, but they have one thing in common: they are helping; they are kind,” he says earnestly. “They’re such nice people, plain and simple.”

Learn more about Tommy Milham’s cabins at rentalcabinsatmentone.com.

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