March 11, 2014
Somewhere in a shoebox beneath a bed, I have photographs of the Mentone Springs Hotel, a Victorian lodging built 130 years ago on the western brow of Lookout Mountain in Northeast Alabama.
In one snapshot, I am sitting with friends on the tailgate of a truck filled with yard-sale treasures, the elegant hotel our incongruous backdrop. I look deliriously happy.
For years the old inn boasted the best porch I’ve ever seen on a commercial establishment. The chairs were old, some sprouting cotton stuffing, both shabby and chic, matching only in comfort. The porch had an unparalleled view of the resort town of 400.
An electrical fire destroyed the landmark a few days ago.
I grew up in Alabama but never knew of the town or the hotel until the late 1980s, when a column trip to Helen, Ga., routed me back through Mentone. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
A good 10 degrees cooler than anywhere else in the state in the summer, the mountaintop town was the un-Gatlinburg. The old cabins along the brow were from another era, before nouveau riche folks gave the word “cabin” a different meaning. I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
The old houses were dark red or green and board and batten, or log, with ivy climbing the walls and rhododendron filling the yards. And they were, for the most part, small, as if the Seven Dwarves might return any moment.
The businesses were mostly related to the arts, and the best sights were natural — DeSoto Falls and Little River Canyon. And, of course, there was the centerpiece hotel, where you could dine on the porch or simply sit and pretend you lived in a quieter, gentler era.
After that first accidental trip, I made it to Mentone only a couple of times — until the mid-’90s, when I began an annual trek to the so-called World’s Longest Yard Sale always held in the blistering month of August. The sale’s southernmost point is Gadsden, Ala., but I always headed straight to Mentone. There it was cooler and the treasures easier to come by. Especially the first few years before Mentone had emptied its attics.
I didn’t always stay at the hotel, preferring to spend my money on junk instead of lodging, but I always stopped by for a long sit. No matter what else you did, you paid a short visit to the hotel.
It has struck me in this life that any death in a small town seems more significant simply because there are fewer people. A loss is proportionately larger.
It’s the same for lost buildings, I guess. This won’t be the first old hotel with a heart pine heart that went up like a beach bonfire. But its loss is large, extraordinarily so.
The Mentone Springs Hotel was the cover girl for the tiny town, what you first noticed and loved, the place you met folks even if you weren’t staying there. To replace it would be impossible.
The doctor who built the hotel named it “Mentone” at the suggestion of his daughter. She had read about Queen Victoria’s visit to the French town of Menton on the Riviera.
And if the old hotel wasn’t perfect enough, it had a French connection.
The fire that ended an era left a scar on a lovely town’s face, and now memories and old snapshots will have to sustain us.
Distributed by King Features Syndicate