The Homestead: Breezy Escape

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A historic summer home that once belonged to Martha Berry is the perfect getaway for a Rainbow City couple.

Story by ELIZABETH MANNING, Photos by RANDY GRIDER

When John and Kathy McFarland began their search for a second home, they planned on a move-in ready, newer place on the brow of Lookout Mountain.

The Rainbow City, Ala., couple had known about Mentone long before they considered purchasing a home there. Being only an hour away, they often visited Little River Canyon, Desoto Falls and Cloudmont Ski and Golf Resort.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]They enlisted a realtor, Susan Collins of Southern Properties in Fort Payne, Ala., to aid in their search. On a trip to Mentone with their two daughters, Mollie and Samantha, Kathy stumbled upon the perfect home on the western brow of the mountain. “We rounded the corner of the parkway, and I said, ‘Oh, John would love this,’” Kathy says. “You really couldn’t see it from the road – we saw the ‘for sale’ sign and we thought it was just a lot.”

Knowing the McFarlands had been looking for a more modern house, Collins was at dubious at first. “When we eventually visited this house, Susan said, ‘Oh, you don’t want that drafty old thing,’” John recalls.

According to Kathy, they had dreamed of buying an old house at some point, but had moved away from the idea in recent years. They fell in love with the place, though, and bought the house in August of 2013.

The original house, the exact age of which is yet to be determined, featured five to six bedrooms and only one bathroom and one wood stove. By today’s standards, it was primitive. Thomas and Frances Margaret (Rhea) Berry, the parents of Martha Berry – founder of Berry College in Rome, Ga., and a well-known philanthropist – reportedly built the home as a vacation place. Although its connection to the Berrys has been locally known for years, the McFarlands were officially able to verify it when the house and property appeared on a newly discovered inventory of Martha’s real estate holdings in 1936.

Martha is thought to have spent a great deal of time here while she was growing up. In letters, she sometimes referred to it as her mother’s house, and it was often used by Martha as both a getaway and to host guests during the summer months.

“We were told it wouldn’t be livable in the winter,” John says. “And that was relatively true, but I think with the updates we have made, it could work now.”

The cabin now holds six bedrooms and six bathrooms. John did much of the work needed. They outsourced help from Stan Lawton at Little River Hardware in Mentone for most everything else they needed done. Since purchasing the house, the couple opened up the breezeway to run the length of the house. A den sits where a patio used to be – closed in long before the couple purchased the house. They also refinished the floor in the back den, and added doors upstairs so they could close off the second floor easily in the winter. Kathy has taken on several interior projects, as well, including painting the walls in the den of the house. In the den, a ceiling was added to buffer sound from outside and to add another layer of insulation. “When it rained, you couldn’t carry on a conversation or even hear the television,” John says.

“Leaves would come in through holes in the roof, too,” Kathy adds.

The updated kitchen was already in place when John and Kathy moved in. The floors are in need of an update, though, they said.

“We’ve gone back and forth over whether to touch them,” Kathy says. “When you walk barefoot in there, you get splinters.”

Just like the rest of the house and the surrounding land, though, there is a story in the floors. A mark in the floor near where the original wood stove sat marks an accident that nearly burned a hole in the floor.

Outside, the couple replaced the porch rails and added a matching rail to the staircase inside, all done by local Jeff Rymer. Russell Wright, another Mentone native, did all of the landscaping and added a rock path around the back of the house.

The cabin houses four fireplaces and two chimneys. In the first room off to the right of the front hall, “Kyndle Friendshyp” is etched into the fireplace hearth. According to Kathy, the phrase was a Martha Berry family motto.

While Martha was a local celebrity in her own right, the cabin played host to national celebrities, too: one Henry Ford and his exclusive camping party.

According to letters exchanged between Martha and Ford’s wife (Clara), Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, President Warren Harding and several others stayed at the house when passing through on one of the group’s famous camping expeditions. The house was fit for such a large crew, though.

A screened-in porch off to the right holds several comfortable chairs and couches, as well as a sleeping couch John built from shipping pallets. The porch is the domain of Darby, the couple’s Pekingese mix. From the porch, one can see a well, original to the property, out at the back of the house.

The homestead has gone through a number of different hands over the years, including a stint as a bed and breakfast. Because of its time as a hotel, all of the rooms’ closets feature a small bathroom.

“They only left us with one closet in the whole house,” Kathy says.

The McFarlands bought the house entirely furnished, and have kept a few of the pieces that came with the house. However, most of the house’s rooms are filled with treasures from the family’s travels and antiques they picked up over the years. In the upstairs hallway, for instance, hang stained glass windows from a church in London, England. John and Kathy found the windows at an auction in Georgia.

John’s paintings are spread throughout the house, as well. Many of them depict local scenes of Mentone, such as a rendition of the old Mentone Springs Hotel, which burned just two years ago. One of the upstairs bedrooms houses an art studio for John.

The owner prior to John and Kathy left the house with only her toothbrush in tow and didn’t look back. When asked why, John and Kathy don’t seem too worried. According to John, it’s her loss, and their good fortune.

Good fortune, indeed; the couple not only found a weekend getaway, but a house with a lot of history to uncover, too. “We’ve bought nearly every book we can find about Martha Berry, trying to nail down the history of the house,” Kathy says. “I’m going to have to go to the county records next.”

Her trip to the county records will be in search of the definite year in which the cabin was built – something neither the McFarlands nor anyone else in the area has been able to find out.

The history of the home and the surrounding area are obviously of great interest to the couple. With little prompting, John and Kathy both fly into detail about the house, Berry and how the history of Mentone is connected to the house.

“Most people in this area don’t realize how much they owe Martha Berry,” John says. “She was influential in building so much that Mentone now has to offer.”

As for John and Kathy, they have Martha and her ancestors to thank for their haven on the mountain. The couple spends their weekdays at their home on a horse farm in Rainbow City, where John is part owner of Max Packaging. Lately, though, they are spending more and more time in Mentone.

“We can come up here at the drop of a hat, which is really nice for us,” John says.

For now, the cabin will continue to serve its original purpose – the perfect, if a bit drafty, weekend getaway.

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