Ron Stancil was only 55, had just sold two Western Sizzlin restaurants and by his own admission was “a wealthy man.”Friends and family told him to relax. Take it easy. Enjoy life.
Stancil, however, wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture. So, he bought the farm. Not just any farm, mind you, but an almost century-old barn abandoned 45 years earlier. The barn’s eight-inch-thick concrete walls were covered with pigeon droppings and obscene graffiti. Remnants of cow manure and broken whiskey bottles littered its six-inch concrete floors. Kudzu held the three-story concrete skeleton in a deadly clutch.
Wind had stripped the domed tops from the towering twin silos, allowing rain to pour in until they stood like giant pitchers filled with six feet of stinking rainwater. “The first time I saw it, I looked at it and I really fell in love with it,” said Stancil, who visualized turning the dilapidated old barn into one of the finest restaurants in Alabama. “I saw a lot of beauty in it.”That was 1995. Five years and $4 million later, the old dairy barn was back in business as a gleaming 33,000-square-foot dining complex with three restaurants — the Rusty Nail, the Harvest Family Restaurant and The Loft — under one roof. Officially named Old Henry Farm Restaurants but more commonly referred to as The Barn, it has a seating capacity of 700.The old floors were cleaned, covered with an additional four inches of concrete (per order of the county health department), and then acid stained. They now shimmer from three coats of wax and daily buffing.Stancil added an 11,000-square-foot kitchen facility to the old barn, but it otherwise looks enough like it did when built in 1910 that it earned a spot on the state and national historic registers. C.B. Henry, a lumberman and multimillionaire from New Hampshire, forked out between $30,000 and $40,000 to build the old barn out of pure cement and river bottom sand. Before that, in 1852, it was a 1,400-acre plantation worked by 100 slaves.Even today, the history of the old farm is everywhere. The Milk Room Tavern, a spacious 45-foot by 60-foot room filled with televisions and a 30-foot horseshoe bar, is where the cows were milked. Still suspended from its high ceilings are the tracks where five-gallon buckets of milk moved along rails to wagons waiting to carry it to the nearby pump house to be kept cool. Diners can now sit inside the silos, feasting on steak, seafood, chicken and pork. Go through the wooden doors at the rear of the tavern and you’ll enter the Harvest Family Restaurant. That’s where customers sit in old stalls that once stabled the farm’s workhorses. The hayracks the horses ate from still hang there, but the customers fill their plates from buffet tables resembling covered wagons. Patchwork quilts, mule collars, bridles and other farm implements add to the casual dining atmosphere. Adjacent to that dining room is The Rooster Room, a banquet-sized room where feed and tack were stored and cows were given their shots.Take the $70,000 elevator to the basement and you’ll be in The Rusty Nail, a sports bar restaurant popular with students from nearby Jacksonville State University. Billiard tables, a disc jockey on Thursday nights, and live bands on Friday and Saturday nights keep this joint jumpin’. Years ago, however, it’s where wagons lumbered along the corridor, hauling away manure to the fields.Ride the lift to the top floor and you’ll find The Loft, a fine dining restaurant with a 23-foot ceiling, shining hardwood dance floor, stage for a band or disc jockey, 15-foot horseshoe bar and spacious L-shaped dining area. The old tackle that once lifted the hay in and out of the barn is clearly visible. This is where groups hold weddings, after-rehearsal dinners, class reunions, corporate parties and other functions. Stancil has actually reached the restaurant’s seating capacity a few times, mainly during Jacksonville State graduations and the wedding season. But luring a steady stream of hungry masses to The Barn has been more difficult than Stancil anticipated. The location — midway between Interstates 20 and 59 and just off Alabama 21 near Jacksonville Hospital — is off the beaten path. “It hasn’t been easy,” said Stancil, who was raised on a small cattle farm in Hokes Bluff. “The marketing out here hasn’t been great. First of all, we did real well until 9-11 hit and then it was like somebody cut the water off. Then, we started building back after 9-11 until the Iraq war hit and people started watching the war on TV, and it cut it off again. We’re starting to build back, but the gas prices have gotten people so they don’t travel as far as they used to.”Stancil even admits that there are days — and sleepless nights — when he regrets his decision.”I’m still here by the skin of my teeth,” he said. “I shouldn’t have been here. I should’ve just bankrupted and went on.”He’s tried a little of everything, even once offering a cookie called the Cow Patty. It flopped.Stancil’s not through tinkering, either. He’s renaming the Milk Room Tavern “Udders” as he transforms it into a sports bar restaurant more akin to the Rusty Nail restaurant down in the basement. There’ll be Monday Night Football, Open Mike Night on Tuesdays, karaoke on Wednesdays, football on Thursdays and live bands Fridays and Saturdays.”We’ve got 10,000 students at the university, and they’re here nine months of the year. That could be the bulk of our business I guess you could say,” said Stancil. ” … I’m going to go after it. It’ll make it or break it.”The all-you-can-eat buffet, abandoned during the Atkins Diet craze, has returned to the Harvest Family Restaurant. When The Loft isn’t booked for an event, it serves nothing but prime rib on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. “The idea is to have just one item up there – the best prime rib dinner in the country,” said Stancil. “I just heard about this place in California that is doing that, and they’re getting rich out there.”In the meantime, Stancil waits for the crowds to come. He just hopes he isn’t waiting until the cows come home.
For more information, call The Barn at (256) 435-0673.