Attics, antiques and attitude contributed to the birth of Hickory Ridge Lodge in Andalusia after 1995’s Hurricane Opal ravaged George and Brenda Gantt’s beloved 80-acre tree farm on a stomp-and-destroy mission from the Gulf of Mexico. When it was over, the couple surveyed the damage and decided to write a new version of turning life’s lemons into lemonade. A two-year drought put more dying trees on the ground, and the Gantts decided something had to be done.Searching their farming souls for the pioneering spirit of their ancestors, the Gantts decided to turn Opal’s leavings into a native timber refuge of peace and quiet.”To tell you the truth, we cried after we saw what Opal had done,” George said. “And I’m not sure today that I wouldn’t rather have my trees back than this wonderful lodge, but facts are facts, and you have to deal with them.”Today, Hickory Ridge Lodge boasts five bedrooms with private baths, two kitchens, a 32-by-40-foot great room, a classroom and 1,500 square feet of porches. It sits beside a man-made, five-acre lake and offers wildlife sightings along three miles of walking trails.The pines culled by Opal and fashioned into lumber by the Gantts cover walls, ceilings, floors and every visible square inch of the lodge. Furnished with functional antiques and collectibles, Hickory Ridge offers a restful retreat for families and is an ideal setting for weddings, reunions and other gatherings. It is a smoke-, alcohol- and pet-free facility.”We’ve had weddings on the porch (the rails are removable to make room for the bridal party), honeymoons, retreats, planning sessions, reunions, vacations, Girl Scout parties, and just about anything else you can think of,” Brenda said. “And the best part is that we built it ourselves.”Brenda drew up the plans–at first for a little cabin, but it soon became obvious the cabin was to be much more.They hired a carpenter to help, set up a sawmill on the property, and bought a planing machine, which the two of them operated.”George would get on one end, and I would get on the other end,” Brenda recalled with a chuckle. “We would run every board through that planer. It takes a long time to plane enough lumber to build a lodge.” “Here’s a hint,” George added. “Thirty pines yield about 1,000 square feet of lumber, and the lodge measures between 3,700 and 4,000 square feet.” The Gantts planed all the 12-inch boards, but had to have help with the 19-20-inch planks. The lumber also built Gantt-made tables, which are wide-planked, pegged, and finished by the owners.Collectibles from all over the world have been gathered by the Gantts as they search high and low for antiques to be sold at their two Sweetgum Bottom Antiques shops, located just down the lodge trail. Displayed throughout the lodge are vintage posters, moonshine stills, paintings, carvings and furniture from exotic places such as Red Level, Selma, Troy, New Guinea and the wild, wild west.Each bedroom has its own personality, decorated with old quilts and a wide variety of beds, some of which the Gantts made themselves. In the honeymoon suite, a wood railing is draped with curtains to fashion a headboard, and the bath features some titillating “dream girl” pictures on the walls.Asked about the bathing beauties from the ’50s, George gave a great belly laugh and explained. “These are the girly-pictures mommas and daddies had hidden under their mattress when you were growing up.” He hastily added, “not my momma and daddy, but a lot of them.”He then noted the pictures are not nearly so “chancy” as the way people dress today to go downtown.Architectural features recycled from old buildings charm guests, including windows, circa 1902, in the upstairs sitting room. They were recovered from a Methodist parsonage in the area.Bedrooms upstairs and down feature more old-timey windows–one which attests to the pureness of a lover’s promise. “Leora 1898” is etched in its bubble glass. George explained a bride would “test” her diamond engagement ring by scratching her name and the date in glass to be sure the groom was giving her the real McCoy.The Gantts are retired; he from law enforcement with Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in Montgomery, she from teaching. Neither was a lumberjack before Opal, but they found the nerve to tackle the project in their “can-do” attitude, according to Brenda. “George and I are the type, that, if it can be done, why can’t we do it? We are adventuresome and we’re not afraid to try. People say building something stresses a marriage, but it didn’t stress ours,” she said.Her husband agreed. “There are so many things I know now that I didn’t know when I retired in ’95,” George said. He stood back and with some pride, pointed out the round pegs in the overhead beams. “That’s what scared me the most in this deal, I had to figure out how to make these round pegs to fit those holes,” he said.The Gantts are members of the Alabama Treasure Forest Association (ATFA) and are committed to responsible management of their land. Their main focus is on wildlife and timber, but they’re not through. Plans for an outdoor education classroom are forming in Brenda’s head, and they hope to add more to the grounds in the way of children’s entertainment.On the tree farm, food plots are maintained for wildlife–feeding deer, turkey, birds, honeybees, rabbits and squirrels year round. The couple also has a vegetable garden and fruit orchard. Stewardship is one of the core values of the ATFA as well as the American Tree Farmers Association, of which the Gantts also are members. The ATFA’s Covington County chapter named the Gantt land, 70 acres of mixed timber and 10 acres of ponds, as outstanding Treasure Forest for 2002. They are in the competition for regional and national titles.The gracious couple emphasized the lodge mostly attracts people who hold events or individuals who want some tranquility without the bother of phones, computers and traffic jams. “We warn people there’s not excitement here unless you like watching the deer eat or sneaking up on rabbit nests,” George said. Thrills might be found at nearby Montgomery or Ft. Walton (90 minutes) or on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Greenville (60 minutes). Most guests prefer to tour the antique shops, take nature walks or play games in the main room, or just listen to the quiet of the woods.”We’re secluded, and we like it that way,” George said. Putting his arm around his wife, he sat back with a wide, contented grin.For information on rates and reservations contact the Gantts at (334) 222-6647.Freelance writer Fran Sharp lives in Alabaster.
Winds Of Change