Just north of Fort Payne, both Valley Head and Mentone have some nice old places that historic-sight seekers would enjoy. A few of the oldest and best-preserved structures in DeKalb County, Alabama, can be found there.
If you draw a straight line, the two towns are less than two miles apart. But, they are separated by about 700 feet of elevation. Valley Head is about 1,000 feet above sea level. Mentone overlooks the valley at an elevation of about 1,730 feet.
Both towns experienced significant growth during this region’s boom era of the 1880s and 1890s. Valley Head’s new railroad depot helped it become a hub for activity while a number of motels, camps and cabin getaways were established at Mentone.
The demand had grown for mountain retreats where you could escape the summertime heat and visit the mineral springs. It can typically be 8-to-12 degrees cooler in Valley Head and Mentone than in Birmingham or Montgomery in July, for example, and the new railroad made it easy to get there.
Downtown Valley Head
Like Fort Payne, Valley Head rests in Little Wills Valley between Lookout Mountain and Little Ridge near the northeast corner of Alabama. Its tiny downtown — barely more than one block square — is nostalgically charming in its picturesque setting. The commercial buildings appear to be from the 1910 to 1930 range.
Valley Head has one property listed with the National Register of Historic Places. The c. 1838 Winston Place was the home built by William Overton Winston, the man who is responsible for establishing the railroad that connects Gadsden to Chattanooga.
The original 1838 pioneer home was remodeled in the 1880s-90s, gaining its Colonial Revival appearance at that time. Rear additions were built between 1900 and 1920.
Winston Place is currently operated as a bed and breakfast. Visit their website at www.winstonplacebnb.com.
A historical marker at the south corner of the front yard tells about the black Spanish oak tree where Sequoyah taught his alphabet to other Cherokees.
Other historic structures in downtown Valley Head
About 1.5 miles away from downtown Valley Head by helicopter, or three miles by car, you will find Mentone high above the valley at the crest of Lookout Mountain.
Two properties in Mentone are listed with the National Registry. The c. 1880s Mentone Springs Hotel was registered in 1983, and a c. 1920s brow cottage was registered in 1996 as the Dr. J.A. Gorham house.
Tragically, the historic hotel burned down in 2014.
Dr. Gorham’s cottage has been known by locals as The Hanging Cottage, and I believe it currently appears almost exactly as it did 100 years ago.
Shown above, from top left: ; C. 1880s Mentone Springs Hotel as it appeared in 1983, the hotel ruins in 2020, and the c. 1920s Dr. Gorham cottage.
FUN FACT: When Dr. Gorham’s cottage was built on the mountain’s rock ledge, many locals predicted it would not last. It would slide down the mountainside for sure. It’s still there, and people haven’t stopped building cabins and cottages directly on the edge of the Lookout Mountain brow. There are now dozens of “hanging cottages” between Mentone and the Desoto State Park area.
Mentone is still a mountain retreat destination. The unique town can be described as an alpine village or a summer camp mecca. There are dozens — maybe hundreds — of rental cabins where you can enjoy the lush forest or bluff views. DeSoto Falls, one of the top tourist attractions in north Alabama, is nearby.
Other historic places of Mentone
Shown, from top left: The Hitching Post in 2020 (it burned down on February 2, 2023), at Saint Josephs on the Mountain Episcopal Church, Log Cabin Craft Village, Mentone Inn (c. 1920s), and The Hitching Post.
The busy Alabama Hwy. 117 that cuts through the village is one of the top routes for crossing Lookout Mountain, so expect some intense traffic noise at times. The town has recently expanded their sidewalk along the road towards the east, so a walking tour is better than ever in spite of what often seems to be a non-stop stream of commercial trucks followed by the large number of cars that get caught behind them.
Don’t forget to visit Mentone Brow Park. While many private cabins and homes in Mentone and Fort Payne enjoy spectacular brow views overlooking Wills Valley, the park features DeKalb County’s only brow viewing area on Lookout Mountain that’s open to the public.
Please check out my posts featuring other nearby places of interest: