By Carmen Cristo
In the early 1900s, many blue-collar communities popped up in North Alabama and Mississippi along the route of the Illinois Central Railroad. With the introduction of the Doodlebug, a self-propelled railcar with a passenger compartment, these towns became destinations and resting places for travelers passing through. Those travelers needed a place to stay, so in 1924, two hotels were built just 12 miles apart but in two different states. Recently, each of these local landmarks fell under new management. The new innkeepers are bringing new life to these historic buildings and the small towns they stand in.
The Historic Belmont Hotel
The Belmont Hotel is a Georgian style building located on the end corner of Belmont’s downtown strip. It features four guest rooms downstairs, each with its own restroom, and two king suites upstairs currently under renovation. The open parlor and dining area have been maintained with care, showcasing the original character of the hotel with all the modern comforts. The old telephone booth sits near the check-in desk, on loan from its current owner.
“Something about this place turns back the hands of time,” said Natalie Coker, the new hotel keeper.
The rooms vary in size to accommodate groups, couples and singles. The old comforters have been transformed into curtains and replaced with white down comforters. A section of the upstairs rooms are being renovated to house a “vintage spa,” where guests and non-guests can book massages and other staple services in an environment that will send them back in time.
Many pieces of furniture have been in the hotel for many years, while others are recent finds of Coker. Her children joke that she drives to a new city each day to pick up another thrifted piece.
“It’s been an adventure,” she said.
Coker’s day job is at Belmont schools, but as a recent empty nester, she jumped at the opportunity to help preserve and improve one of the town’s treasures.
“The Deatons, the previous owners, worked hard for the last several years, making this hotel what it is. We hope to continue that and do some new things as well,” Coker said.
During Coker’s short time at the hotel, she has begun promoting and throwing events. Weddings, receptions, showers, family reunions and parties can all be booked at the hotel. The entire space is even available for rent for large groups to stay. In December, Coker hosted a Breakfast with Santa event that was a big hit among local parents and children and she hopes to make an annual tradition.
Many of the hotel guests have extended stays while their motor home is being built or repaired at the nearby Tiffin plant. Some are traveling the Natchez Trace. Recently, Coker hosted a couple passing through, bicycling from Canada to Argentina.
“That’s my favorite part—meeting the people. I’ve already met so many wonderful people from so many different places. It is so much fun,” Coker said.
Some of her favorite guests have been people from right down the road. The hotel has hosted tours for local school children.
“I was shocked at how many children, and even adults, had never been inside the hotel,” Coker said. “We want people to feel welcome here and to come and enjoy it.”
Historic Hotel Red Bay
The Historic Hotel Red Bay reopened last year after more than 30 years of being closed. Despite its years of disuse, two fires and former plans for destruction, the hotel is once again a thriving piece of Downtown Red Bay and local history.
Over the past decade, the hotel underwent a huge renovation. Many changes were made to bring the building up to code, but owner Mark Dempsey and innkeeper Emily Strickland did their best to retain as much historical value as possible.
The original heart pine floor can still be found throughout much of the downstairs. The column in the foyer was left intact—a piece of the hotel that has been there since the beginning. The check-in desk was built by a restoration specialist as a replica of the one that came before. Antique doors and door headers are used as décor throughout. Enough of the history was preserved for the hotel to maintain its historical registration.
The upstairs guest rooms have been renovated to include bathrooms and other amenities, but they retain their charm. There are twelve regular-sized rooms and a large bridal suite; they are small and cozy, with pieces of the hotel’s history tucked into corners and on top of end tables.
“We are proud of this building,” said Strickland.
Strickland is the latest in a long line of owners and innkeepers, like Nancy Dove Riley Giles who became a local legend around town. When Giles left the hotel, she went to live in assisted living, where she wrote her autobiography, “From the Little Red Bay Hotel to the Heart Break Hotel,” an autobiography about her experiences working there.
Like the Belmont Hotel, Hotel Red Bay also hosts many guests in town to have their motor built or repaired as well as travelers from the Natchez Trace. For many locals, it’s also a daily lunch spot with the 24 Crossroads restaurant located inside. A coffee shop is set to open soon, too.
The hotel can be rented weddings and special events inside or out on the string-lit courtyard, with plenty of rooms to stay in afterwards. Wedding packages are tailored to the brides choosing and can include the hotel handling everything except the cake and photographer. Other hotel-hosted upcoming events include Groundhog Day Bruch, an etiquette class and a mother-daughter banquet.
The Hotel Red Bay was the site of a handful of weddings prior to its closing. One bride, Shirley Knight Wood, rode the train from Kenosha, Wis., to elope with her husband-to-be. Her bridal portrait is on display in one of the rooms, gifted by her family members.
Strickland, whose background is in hospitality, wanted the hotel to be comfortable for guests and something for residents to be proud of.
“I love the history here,” she said. “I want it to be filled with nice antiques that reflect an evolving history.”