After winding up Alabama 117 from Valley Head in DeKalb County, you arrive at a four-way intersection in the town of Mentone. On your right is the most charming calling card you can imagine: the Mentone Inn, nestled against a backdrop of trees and lush landscaping, with an almost irresistible wrap-around porch. 

Stepping inside is like getting a big hug: the warmth, the relaxed atmosphere, and a host whose mission is your comfort. Few people are more qualified to share with visitors what makes this part of Northeast Alabama, and the inn, so special than innkeeper Cynthia Stinson.

The inn was built in 1927, by Hal Howe and his wife, Nelda,” Cynthia says. “They opened for business in 1928 and ran it until 1954, but they were only open May through September, so basically Memorial Day to Labor Day, as there was no insulation and no heating in the building. It’s always been an inn, built with 12 bedrooms and 9 bathrooms to begin with. Now all the rooms have private ensuite bathrooms.”

Over the years, the inn has continued to be a cornerstone of the community high atop Lookout Mountain.

“The inn has been the place for people to come and join together,” Cynthia says. “Families, weddings, church retreats. I say it’s a place for strangers to become friends. And that happens quite often.”

Cynthia’s life intersected with the Mentone Inn quite by serendipity.

Well, I call it a God wink,” says Cynthia. “I’m from Greenville, Alabama, originally. I had an antique store there and a lot of inventory I wanted to get rid of. So I did the research for the World’s Longest Yard Sale. I already knew about Mentone, because my mom’s family is from Pigeon Mountain. I called the lady at the inn, and she said I could have the entire square to set up my goods. I showed up on a hot August Tuesday and put a tent in the backyard, because at the time I couldn’t afford to stay there. I helped her with breakfast at the inn. Gloria was her name.”

Gloria offered Cynthia a job at the inn, an act that would change the trajectory of Cynthia’s life. “I knew I needed a change, because a lot of tragic things had happened in my life that I was trying to overcome, she says. “And I was trying to overcome myself, because I was in a bad place. I went home and prayed about it. Two weeks later, I rented a U-Haul, and with my little dog, Bear Bryant, and $2,000, I struck out for Mentone.”

Spring is a colorful time at the Mentone Inn.

In 2007, Cynthia joined the inn as a housekeeper, though she continued to live in her tent in the backyard until winter weather became untenable and she moved inside the inn. During that time, she also worked as the Sunday chef at the Wildflower Café.

Mentone had become home.

Then one day, after she’d been in Mentone almost three years, the inn’s owner, Mike Campbell from Birmingham, asked if she would like to take over operations. She did just that in 2009.

“I basically put my head down and just started from scratch to build up some repeat business and get a good reputation and good reviews going,” Cynthia says. “And now we are a lodging destination and a hub for people to come and meet.”

When guests walk in, ‘cozy’ and ‘homey’ are two of the most common words Cynthia hears. “People hang out and talk,” she says. “I have a little box on the table called a conversation starter. I pick a card out of that box and ask them a question, then walk away. Next thing you know, they’re laughing and talking and having a good time. And I have people who actually met here and plan to come back just to see each other. Sometimes two to three times a year, and a few of them four times a year.”

The inn is a center of activity for tourists, but as Cynthia can attest, there’s a real sense of community in and around Mentone that is plain to see if you spend any time here at all.

We have a wonderful community that’s based on people who live there, and new folks are coming in and want to get involved,” she says. “That’s what it takes to have a good community — involvement. Our library [Moon Lake Library] is top-notch; we have a program that serves the elderly and school children, called the Mentone Educational Resource Foundation; we have the Rhododendron Garden Club; and other organizations.

Behind the inn is a large pavilion, named the Linger Longer Pavilion, that serves the town in a variety of ways, and that service is important to Cynthia.

“I knew I wanted to give back, because I felt like Mentone had given me so much” she says. “I allow nonprofits to use my pavilion for musical events. Little River Arts Council has a monthly series out there during the summer. St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church next door uses it for their outdoor activities. Scouts gather there. And I host a farmer’s market on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the property. It’s a pretty busy little corner.”

Cynthia is in the process of getting the inn on the National Historical Register. “Aesthetically, she looks the same as when she was built,” she says, “but we’ve of course updated the rooms quite a bit. I call the inn ‘she’ because, from one old lady to another, we understand each other. I’m trying to preserve our corner because, you know, we’ve had some tragic losses in Mentone. Ten years ago, we lost the Mentone Springs Hotel, and a year ago, we lost the historic Hitching Post. When I’m gone, I hope whoever comes in behind me will feel the same way.”

The inn and the square outside are a family affair. Daughter Hannah is the inn’s head housekeeper. Eldest daughter Fontana owns Fontastic Foods, which serves up popular fare from the food truck outside the inn. Often on weekends, you’ll see lots of hungry folks waiting for their innovative burgers and other culinary creations. Check their Facebook page for hours and phone number.

“Everybody says when you get older, your kids grow up, then they move out and you have an empty nest,” Cynthia says. “Well, mine came back, and I’m so glad they did because I have family here now.”

That family feeling extends to many of the guests who visit the inn.

“I’m not a fancy person,” she says. “I’m a down-to-earth person who can cook really well. I tell people that they’re coming to Grandma’s house. Imagine, when you were a child going to your grandmother’s house, you went to bed and she’d have this big, comfortable bed with quilts on it and the smell of fresh linens. Then you rolled over in the morning and got a whiff of coffee and some sausage or bacon frying and biscuits in the oven. Well, that’s my house. We’re going to fill you up with a really good breakfast and some hot coffee or hot tea in the mornings.”

Mentone in the fall is a little-known delight. Some folks think of Gatlinburg and Cherokee, North Carolina, but in October, you don’t need to look beyond the Lookout Mountain Parkway and Northeast Alabama in general to see the splendor of autumn and feel the fresh, crisp air of the season.

“There is excitement in the air here when the weather starts to turn cool and the colors are magical,” Cynthia says. “College football is a big thing in the fall, so I have a 65-inch flat screen in the living room, which is the only TV in the house. It gets used mostly during football season.”

I caught Cynthia slipping in a “Roll Tide” at the mention of football season.

The Mentone Inn’s front porch invites reflection, conversation, and a restful afternoon enjoying a great book.

“And it’s not just fall. We have four very distinctive seasons. Spring blooms with wildflowers, rhododendrons, mountain laurels — and lots of pollen, of course. Then in summer, it doesn’t really get that hot, and even if it does, there’s always a breeze on my porch. Summer is busy, because we have so many boys’ and girls’ camps in the area. Winter is cold and very unpredictable. We have our own little weather system. It can be quite chilly, but you learn how to adjust if you live in Mentone. When I first moved here, a local man told me, ‘if you make five winters in Mentone, you’ll become an official Mentonian.’ Well, I’m coming up on my 18th winter, so I guess I’m official.”

Part of the appeal of Mentone is that there is something to do year-round. “In summer, you can’t beat a trip down Little River in a kayak,” says Cynthia. “The river is about a mile from the inn. And if you want to go to DeSoto Falls and put your kayak in there, you can row up to the 117 bridge. And if hiking is your thing, we have plenty of trails. Then we have some of the best restaurants in Alabama.

“Also the Mentone Arts and Cultural Center,” she adds. “We have a lot of talented people in our area, and a lot of their work is displayed at the center. Add to that the little artisan shops along the main road that are in old log cabins, where you’ll find everything from goat’s milk soap to handwoven shawls.”

The mountain town has always attracted talented artists and great food, but you can’t talk about the area without talking about music, which is fundamental to the culture in that part of the state. Lots of folks know about Fort Payne’s rich musical heritage and of course the band Alabama. But the music didn’t begin or end with Randy and Jeff and Teddy. Cynthia helps foster the continuation of a vibrant musical scene.

“I do it with help from the Little River Arts Council and the State Council on the Arts,” she says. “We get grants every year to put on concerts for the area. We start in May. I book all the music, and I try to keep it diverse. In May we have bluegrass, and then in June we’ve got a band called the Black Sedan Band that is old-time rock and roll.

“People can bring their lawn chairs and their quilts and sit out back and listen to music,” she continues. “We usually have a kids’ station set up for artwork and crafts, and Fontastic Foods is always set up there. We’ve got music, food and friendship — you don’t have to leave. And we want people to take their shoes off and dance if they feel like it.”

Breakfast at the Mentone Inn is an almost magical way to start the day.

Cynthia has repeat guests at the Inn who’ve known her so long that they’ve left her their dog in their will. The unintentional consequence of her place in this part of the world is that she now has a huge extended family, and she’s a driver in both helping Mentone evolve into the future and keeping the peaceful way of life its residents have enjoyed.

You know, when I came here, I’d been doing things my way for years, and that just wasn’t working out,” she says. “So I talked to God, heart to heart, saying that if He would show me the way, I would listen. All of a sudden, all these people are important to my life because of where I am and what I’m doing. I’m so grateful that I have been given the opportunity to be there and to leave my legacy. When I’m gone, people hopefully will remember me fondly and I hope that I have left a mark. My business partner and I have a vision of preserving the Mentone Inn. We’re coming up on 100 years and she still looks good. I hope I look that good when I’m 100.”

Thanks to Cynthia for her time. She was headed out to stock up for a group of guests who were arriving at the Inn that day, and I didn’t want to hold up the innkeeper any longer.

 If you’re planning a visit to Mentone, check out the Mentone Inn website, or on Facebook. Do yourself a favor and book at stay at the Mentone Inn!