Special Occasions: History with a View

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Cragsmere Manor atop Lookout Mountain has begun a new life – one of many – as a venue for vacations, weddings and other events.

story by LARUE HARDINGER | photos by ABRAHAM ROWE PHOTOGRAPHY and OLIVIA GRIDER

If only the 150-year-old hand-hewn log walls of Cragsmere Manor could talk.

Since it was built around 1860, owners of the Mentone, Ala., cabin have included a freed slave, a midwife, a sports-club developer, a lumberman, an Alabama legislator, a ski and golf resort owner, a chef and now – rental property veterans Bill ‘Hoot’ Gibson and Martha Blackburn Gibson.

In July 2012, the couple won the property at auction and within two months had renovated it, careful to maintain original features. They also employed the talents of Harold Carden Construction to erect a pavilion that showcases the property’s sought-after view from the top of Lookout Mountain. The pavilion can accommodate 150 people and includes a caterer’s room, bar, serving area, restrooms and dance floor.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]The pavilion and Cragsmere’s 300 feet of clear brow view have been the backdrop for 12 weddings, including that of Katie Herndon, daughter of drummer Mark Herndon of Alabama band fame, since April 2013. The manor stays booked weeks in advance for weddings, family reunions and vacations, graduations, anniversaries and retreats.

“We love the brow view at sunset,” Martha says. “We had always loved Cragsmere. We had such good memories here.”

The Gibsons frequented Cragsmere when it was a restaurant known as Cragsmere Manna. “Many times we’d just go out, eat good steak, sit by the fireplace and enjoy good company. You bet!” says Hoot, whose nickname refers to the actor Hoot Gibson, who starred in early Westerns.

Martha and Hoot say they are thrilled with Cragsmere’s new public appeal as a vacation and venue-rental property.

“Our first-time visitors are in awe of the natural beauty,” Martha says.

“They tell us, ‘Now that I have found this, there’s no need to drive farther and pay more.’”

Mark Travers, a November 2012 guest, wrote in an online comment: “We enjoyed spending several nights at Cragsmere Manor. It was the perfect place for our family to gather and has become the setting for our family vacations.

We were more than comfortable. It is absolutely beautiful beyond description – inside and out!”
Martha says she can now quickly answer prospective guests’ top three questions. “We can sleep 14 adults comfortably, the view is spectacular and, yes, there is privacy,” she demonstrates.

The six-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath, sprawling structure has been expanded multiple times and offers views of the mountain foliage and valley depths. One immediately feels at home, yet amazed. Cragsmere Manor is a piece of history. It’s in the air.

The original cabin, still visible from the inside, is the center of the building. Martha’s family heirlooms and antiques blend into the décor. They include her father Bill Blackburn’s baby grand piano, her grandfather’s Hoosier cabinet, a coffee table fashioned of repurposed iron and wood from a railroad depot baggage cart and her mother Dottie Blackburn’s oil paintings.

The Hoosier cabinet was originally used at Blackburn Grocery, an oldfashioned general mercantile run by Martha’s father and grandfather in the Sand Valley area during her childhood. The cabinet was used to store and dispense flour.

The Blackburns were also known for their “rolling store” – better known back in the day as “the peddler,” Martha says.

Oil paintings punctuating the great room walls are her mother’s masterpieces; each spins a delicate story of the area’s past, embodied in its beloved buildings. One depicts the Mentone Springs Hotel, which
burned in 2014.

“There is a lot of her in that house,” Martha says of her mother, who served two terms as mayor of Hammondville, Ala., in the early 1970s.

Martha says she wanted to maintain the authenticity of the cabin, but include the comforts and amenities for a cozy, warm, inviting stay.

“The kitchen is a chef ’s dream – a caterer’s dream,” she adds. “Room for cooking, prepping, serving, cleaning – and an oversized refrigerator plus ice machine.”

Martha displays a pamphlet depicting ‘Cragsmer Club’ (no ‘e’) as a gentlemen’s sporting club and business venture owned by the now-defunct Little Mountain Land Company. Records date the business by Nick Davenport, Pete Snedecor and W.V.M. Robertson, Jr., from 1927 to the Great Depression,
when finances collapsed.

The yellowed document states the ‘Cragsmer’ cabin was the clubhouse of a “25,000-acre game preserve, with miles of bridle paths through rugged mountain scenery, an 18-hole golf course, two tennis courts, hiking trails leading to vistas dotted with magnificent waterfalls, camp sites and golf-course lots for
sale.” An embossed initial ‘C’ on the original fireplace still exists.

The pamphlet boasts the sporting club’s access to the “main line of the Southern Railway between New Orleans and Chattanooga,” and invites the reader to “bid farewell to mosquitoes and electric fans when on the club property atop Lookout Mountain.”

Wealthy vacationers and potential investors from Birmingham, Montgomery, New Orleans and other areas frequented the club, according to a history of Cragsmere printed in a brochure provided by Ronnie and Bonnie Barnett, who purchased the property in 1988 and operated it as a restaurant. Guests and potential investors enjoyed horseback riding, hiking, hunting, fishing and home-cooked meals and were shown available mountain properties, the brochure states.

DeKalb County Circuit Judge David Rains, an avid collector of historical memorabilia, gave the Gibsons the Cragsmer Club pamphlet.

“The men and women who developed the Cragsmer Club are representative of an entrepreneurial group of people who saw the commercial and recreational potential of Mentone, Lookout Mountain and northwest Georgia,” Rains says.

“Cragsmer Club was maybe even the infancy of that development of the Mentone you see today. You have Cragsmere Manor, the girls’ and boys’ camps, Mentone Inn, Kamama [an art gallery, restaurant,
antiques store and music venue].”

Cragsmere Manor is important to the history of northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia, and is one of the oldest structures in Mentone, Rains says.

“It has been rewarding to be part of Cragsmere’s evolution,” Hoot Gibson says. “Not only have we been privileged to see the property evolve into the special place it is today, but we have also been blessed to be involved with so many wonderful people who started out as clients and ended up as friends.”

The Gibsons’ say their dream is to continue the century-old Cragsmere tradition of true Southern hospitality. “Our guests love Cragsmere as much as we do,” beams Martha, “like a home away from home.”

Cragsmere Manor is at 17871 County Road 89, Mentone, AL 35984. For more information, call
256-634-0006, visit cragsmeremanor.com or see rental details at VRBO.com (property 442119).

The History

According to numerous sources, including former owners and their family members, newspapers, brochures, pamphlets and the book “Mentone Alabama: A History,” by Zora Shay Strayhorn, Cragsmere Manor’s history includes the following.

Former slave Ned Jackson, originally of Virginia, and his wife Margaret Davis bought the property from W.N. Howell in 1898. They farmed the land, and to help support their five kids, Ned butchered and dressed animals and Margaret worked as a laundress and midwife. The two were known as “Uncle Ned” and “Aunt Margaret,” and hosted Sunday afternoon picnics at what was then called the Jackson Place. “Together, Ned and Margarette Jackson
provided a ‘special place,’ where regardless of who you were, what you had or what color your skin
was, you were always welcome,” a Cragsmere Manna brochure states.

In 1927, the Jacksons sold the property to Nick Davenport and his wife, Jessie, who went into business with Pete Snedecor and W.V.M.

Robertson, Jr. to promote their “Cragsmer Club” business venture. They expanded the cabin into a clubhouse to accommodate overnight guests.

After the Great Depression ended the business, the family of Jane and George Gifford, a lumberman, occupied the cabin. Tommy Gifford, the couple’s grandson and a resident of Valley Head, Ala., recalls his father’s stories about living at Cragsmere. “I remember Daddy telling stories about walking from
Cragsmere to Valley Head School – he and two older sisters,” Gifford says. “It was still just a log cabin.”

In 1937, F.L. “Hello” Ferrell and his wife, Nina, purchased Cragsmere. F.L., who was known as “Hello” because he spoke to everyone, was a representative in the Alabama Legislature in the late 1950s. Nina opened The Studio Tea Room and Gift Shop at the cabin. She was well known for her cooking, weaving and green thumb, and is responsible for many of the ornamental shrubs and foliage at the manor today.
In 1969, the Ferrells sold the property to Jack and Olive Jones, owners of Cloudmont Ski and Golf Resort. H. Bruce Bon Fleur of Daytona Beach, Fla., bought Cragsmere in 1981. He opened an eatery
called Cragsmere Manna Restaurant. In 1986, Randy Still, a chef known as “The Country Gourmet” became the new host and owner. Cragsmere Manna Restaurant continued to be known for its  mouthwatering steak, chicken and seafood.

Ronnie and Bonnie Barnett of Fort Payne purchased Cragsmere Manna in 1988 and operated
it for many years. According to the Barnetts’ records, Cragsmere’s cuisine was hailed in publications such as National Geographic and Historic Restaurants and even appeared in the movie “Southern Heart.”

Cragsmere sold at auction in 2007 to Joe and Em Johnson, who extensively renovated the structure for use as a second home. In July 2012, Cragsmere was again put up for auction and was purchased by Bill “Hoot” Gibson and Martha Blackburn Gibson.

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