John Shearer: Visiting A Unique Valley Head, Al., B&B Run By Former Tide Football Standout
Friday, October 9, 2020 - by John Shearer
Winston Place operators Leslie and Jim Bunch
A few days back, my wife, Laura, and I were looking for a unique place not too far away to visit overnight and celebrate our anniversary in a simple but meaningful way.
My friend, Kurt Schmissrauter, had previously passed along a possible story idea about a Valley Head, Al., bed and breakfast inn run by former Alabama Crimson Tide All-American lineman Jim Bunch and his wife, Leslie.
So, I decided to combine a little work and pleasure, and off we went to the Winston Place bed and breakfast inn after we were able to make last-minute reservations.
Valley Head and Winston Place are located no more than an hour’s drive down Interstate 59 from Chattanooga and are even closer to those who live on the southwestern side of town.
The inn is situated just on the other side of the railroad tracks in the small downtown.
The big, white and historic home stands out among the other smaller and modest residences here like a big football lineman around a group of short kickers, to use football vernacular.
But the colonnaded old home, despite its formal 19th century look, still manages to have a relaxing and inviting feel -- kind of like a grandmother’s house where you can indeed touch the furniture and china. Of course, the tiny downtown area that is empty and quiet at night – except for some mooing cows on an adjacent and leased field that is part of the estate grounds – adds to the unpretentious but nice ambience.
Leslie Bunch, whose grandparents first bought the home and grounds at about the end of World War II, greeted us in a friendly manner and gave us and another overnight guest arriving at about the same time a mask-wearing tour before showing us our rooms.
She has been a schoolteacher, while Jim, whom we met a few minutes later, had done some work in the restaurant industry for such chains as Quincy’s and Hardee’s. They had moved into the home in 1994 and opened the B&B in 1996.
I had mentioned to Leslie that I knew Kurt and that he had discussed their place, so they warmed up to Laura and me even more. Jim had been an All-American offensive lineman in 1979 when Alabama was undefeated and won a national championship under Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Jim had also been a graduate assistant coach when Kurt arrived there in the fall of 1980 as a freshman lineman, too, after graduating from Notre Dame High.
Jim kindly reminisced on two or three occasions when prompted by me during our stay about playing for coach Bryant and arriving at Alabama after having gone to high school in Virginia and playing a post-grad year at Fork Union Military Academy.
He said some of his old teammates and others of note have stopped by the inn over the years, and he gladly shares pictures of his playing days and all-American accomplishments on the wall along with those of some of his family, including their son who attended West Point. One interesting photo is of Jim with Bob Hope when the all-American players were introduced every year on his holiday special show on national TV.
The larger web of families involved in the ownership of the home dating back to the 1800s are also shared through family tree drawings and historical written information in the inn.
The home had been built initially about the 1830s by area railroad builder William O. Winston, and during the Civil War was taken over by the Union forces for a period and used as a headquarters to prepare for the 1863 battles in Chattanooga.
The home was later added onto twice in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when it took on its current look. After Mr. Winston’s death in 1871, the home had been passed on to three generations of women, all of whom married railroad-related businessmen named Paine, Anderson and Tutwiler. The latter’s family was also associated with the Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham.
The home had been initially built as kind of a summer resort amid the springs at Mentone and elsewhere, and in the early 1900s it was a popular place to gather for those from Birmingham and elsewhere.
Besides some interesting agricultural outbuildings, the estate also has several giant trees surrounding it that look pretty. Against the backdrop of the large home, they don’t look as big as they actually are after one gets up close to them.
One old oak no longer standing on the grounds was where Cherokee leader and Indian alphabet developer Sequoyah held council meetings in the early 1800s before the Indian removal. A state historical marker on the southwest corner of the property recognizes the connection.
There are no real dinner restaurants to complement Winston Place in culinary richness in the immediate Valley Head area, although they did have a menu in the kitchen for Canyon Grill 20 miles away in Rising Fawn. So, because of that and probably wanting takeout anyway with the coronavirus pandemic, Laura and I ended up getting some basic food from a market on Mentone only about two miles up the mountain.
That had occurred after we found one or two shops open in this community known for its camps and vacation homes and after we had to wait out a heavy downpour while in one store.
We ate the food in a small picnic area on the bluff overlooking the valley below from this stretch of Lookout Mountain seemingly not quite as high as the part by Chattanooga. Some flies decided to join us uninvited, but that did not take away from our unique anniversary experience.
Once back down the mountain with an hour or so before dark, we did some feasting with our eyes from the large, two-level porch that became a stage to enjoy the views of the big trees, the mooing cows and Lookout Mountain behind the B&B.
The next morning came the real feast. After I took a sunrise jog past a couple of pretty small and historic churches and the also-vintage Valley Head School, Laura and I enjoyed a nice breakfast prepared by Jim featuring bacon, scrambled eggs, diced and buttered potatoes, cheese grits and baked French toast.
It was the perfect dessert to the stay at this Bama B&B.
Winston Place bed and breakfast inn