Feature: Respite and Renewal

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Built by a country music legend and owned by the family of a popular restaurant chain founder, The Summit is a mountainous haven offering relaxing group getaways.

story by ELIZABETH MANNING | photos by OLIVIA GRIDER

Tucked atop a wooded ridge between Lookout Mountain and Sand Mountain in Fort Payne, Ala., is a secluded estate where the family of late Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy invites groups large and small to enjoy world-class accommodations and the area’s abundant natural beauty.

“The Summit is a private residence of Mr. Cathy’s,” says Amber McPherson, guest coordinator. “So when we have groups come, we want them to feel like they are guests in Mr. Cathy’s home.” Church and corporate groups from across the Southeast visit the 200-acre estate, which is part of the Cathy family’s Lifeshape organization, for retreats and planning meetings.

The Summit consists of three homes, offers 17 bedrooms and suites and can accommodate up to 80 guests. The main house includes seven bedrooms and 12 bathrooms, a gourmet kitchen staffed by a full-time chef, a large dining area, movie theatre and billiards room. A heated, outdoor pool is available to guests during much of the year. Eighty people can be seated in a large conference room, and smaller, intimate meeting spaces are tucked indoors and out. Wireless Internet is available in common areas.

“We are all-inclusive,” McPherson says. “When groups come for a stay, they take off their shoes and kick their feet up, and we take care of the rest.” The estate was originally the private home of Teddy Gentry, member of the band Alabama. Gentry began construction of thehouse and surrounding buildings in 1982, and the home was completed in 1987.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]The carriage house was built as a residence for Gentry’s road manager. Gentry sold the estate to Bob and Beth Yoe in 1991. The Yoes added an upper parking lot at the main lodge, widened the porch and added extensive landscaping to the property. In 2003, the estate went up for auction. Cathy heard “a mountain estate” only a 45-minute drive from his camp, Winshape, was going to be auctioned. Winshape, in north Georgia, is a Christian day and overnight summer camp for children. “Theysay Mr. Cathy loved auctions and he loved a good deal,” McPherson says.

Upon visiting the property prior to the auction, Cathy fell in love with the place, she continues. Cathy knew his daughter, Trudy, and son-in-law, John, had a dream of founding a retreat for Christians in leadership roles, McPherson says. Cathy bought the Fort Payne property and offered it to them as a location for the retreat.

The estate began welcoming guests shortly thereafter. Bob Yoe is now a board member of Lifeshape, the organization that operates The Summit. Lifeshape was established in 2003 to help young Christians understand, explain and live their faith, according to the Lifeshape website.

After purchasing the property, Cathy renovated several rooms in the main house and carriage house to include private bathrooms. A pool house, adjacent to the main lodge, includes another suite – for a total of 12 – and an exercise room. The grounds have expanded from the 50  acres Cathy bought at auction and now include three additional houses.

The gated estate is quiet and peaceful. Windows are plentiful, with nearly every room offering mountain and wooded views. Many of the band Alabama’s most famous songs are said to have been written and prerecorded in the Gentry Billiards Room and the Alabama Theater Room, formally a recording studio. Autographs of people who played and wrote with Alabama are displayed on the mantel in the billiards room.

A typical day at The Summit might include personal solitude, strategic planning meetings, a hike in the woods, time on the deck and a swim in the pool. Team-building activities led by Winshape representatives and outdoor excursions can be added to the itinerary as well. Hikes in nearby Little River Canyon, a 600-foot-deep gorge cut into Lookout Mountain, are a popular activity for many groups. Other recreation opportunities include canoeing, caving, fishing, golfing, mountain biking, scenic drives, picnics, rappelling and rock climbing. A local business offers manicures and pedicures by The Summit pool.

A Tennessee River dinner cruise aboard a private yacht also is available. “At dinnertime, when the sun is setting over the river, it’s absolutely gorgeous,” McPherson says. “That’s a little extra touch that you can’t get just anywhere.”

Fort Payne resident Tricia Shankles has attended a women’s retreat at The Summit annually since 2012. Her group arrives on a Friday and leaves the following Sunday. A weekend full of massages, manicures and pedicures, Zumba, Bible study and communing with one another leaves the women refreshed and ready to go back to the real world, Shankles says.

“We have all ages of ladies who come on our retreat – the different points of view help us grow and look at life’s challenges in a new light,” Shankles says. “Each year a speaker comes; this year’s talk will focus on the different seasons of life.”

The Summit’s full-time staff of five focuses on providing the most comfortable retreat possible, McPherson says. “We have designated jobs, but each of us knows how to do everything, just in case we need all hands on deck,” McPherson says. “If a bed needs to be turned, I’ll do it.”

One such do-it-all staffer is Holly Davis Burt. Burt started working with the Summit in housekeeping and moved through several different jobs before reaching her current position as financial services administrator. Her typical duties include gathering invoices, coordinating with the Lifeshape home office in Atlanta and organizing timesheets. She says her job is rewarding because of the service The Summit provides.

“The rest that groups get when they come to The Summit is so important to us and them,” Burt says. “It’s a place to get away for those who rarely take a moment for themselves.”

That respite is highly sought after, it seems. The Summit stays busy most of the year, with many groups returning annually for rest and team planning.

In December, the estate is available for local churches’ Christmas parties. “Although we don’t host private parties and weddings, we have no trouble staying busy,” McPherson says. “The Summit’s original purpose is still alive and well.”

For more information, visit summit.lifeshape.org.

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