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For information, event planning or reservations at Mountain Cove Farms, call Morgan Stamey at 423-413-8170. Mountain Cove Farms has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MountainCoveFarms
McLEMORE COVE, Ga. - Monte Robertson has spent the last 30 years working in the same place - but he's not complaining.
Grizzled, white-haired and wearing overalls, Robertson spoke from the heart Thursday about being the caretaker of Mountain Cove Farms, 1,839 acres where Lookout and Pigeon mountains meet in Walker County, Ga.
"It's paradise," Robertson said. "Ain't nothing like it. This is God's country."
The green, rolling pastures beneath the lush, forested slopes have been in private hands for a long time, starting about 180 years ago when William Daugherty, a wealthy lawyer from Athens, Ga., bought up most of McLemore Cove in a lottery of Cherokee Indian land. He built a mansion in 1835 that still stands.
Mountain Cove Farms has had other wealthy owners since then, including the Yancey family, associated with Rome, Ga.-based State Mutual Insurance Co., and the Rollins family, connected to Orkin Pest Control.
The farm once was once slated to be subdivided for housing on large, multiacre lots.
But in 2008, Mountain Cove Farms came under public ownership for a purchase price of $10.5 million contributed by the state, Walker County and private conservation groups.
Since then, the farm hasn't seen a lot of public use -- but that's about to change in a big way.
In late September, 10,000 to 15,000 people are expected to take part in a three-day Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Chickamauga on its 150th anniversary. The re-enactment is being held at Mountain Cove Farms because the National Park Service won't allow it to take place on the actual Chickamauga Battlefield.
"They're predicting it will be the largest re-enactment in the U.S.," Walker County Coordinator David Ashburn said, adding, "This will be the biggest city in Walker County, hands down."
Buildings for rent
Ashburn is in charge of getting Mountain Cove Farms ready for the onslaught of re-enactors and tourists.
When the public bought Mountain Cove Farms five years ago, Walker County contributed $2.15 million in sales tax revenue. That bought 295 acres and most of the farm's buildings.
The county plans to make money by renting those buildings out.
County workers and inmate crews have been busy for about a year repurposing the once-dilapidated structures into what Ashburn calls a "destination resort."
Resort doesn't mean pricey, though.
For example, Walker County is part-way through restoring seven "cabins," housing for the employees who tended the prize Hereford cattle once raised at the farm.
Ranging from about 900 to 1,000 square feet in size, the cabins are getting complete makeovers including sprayed-foam insulation, new wiring, double-pane windows, new drywall, central heat and air, washers and dryers, high-efficiency kitchen appliances, TVs, Wi-Fi, dishes, sheets, towels and silverware. They sleep eight people between two downstairs bedrooms and one upstairs loft with four single beds.
A small cabin starts at $125 a night Monday through Thursday and $150 on weekends.
"That's cheap," Robertson said.
The cabins, which should all be redone by August, already are rented out for the battle re-enactment.
But county officials figure there's a big market for them.
For example, hunters come to the Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area next door to Mountain Cove Farms. Ashburn figures it's a no-brainer for a group of hunting buddies to share a cabin.
Larger groups can rent "The Lodge," also known as the "Cove House," a newer home that sleeps 16 in five bedrooms and has four full baths.
"Not just weddings"
Another building that got a makeover is the barn built for $40,000 in 1940 to show off the farm's cattle.
The show barn has been in demand for weddings since the county has made improvements such as adding a concrete floor, a catering kitchen and indoor bathrooms to replace the outhouses.
The most recent makeover at Mountain Cove Farms is of the 178-year-old Daugherty manor house. The limestone mansion's interior has been transformed into a meeting space with two large main rooms, one upstairs and one down.
The old building now has Wi-Fi, a ceiling-mounted projector upstairs for PowerPoint presentations, central heat and air, a handicapped-accessible bathroom and a state-of-the-art catering kitchen.
The county didn't have to do a strictly historical restoration, but used crown molding inside and kept other historic features, such as preserving the antique porch pillars.
"The only regret I have is we did not take pictures," Ashburn said. "You would not believe how terrible this was. People would have torn it down."
The mansion was rented out for the first time last week for a wedding rehearsal dinner.
"I want to emphasize that this place is for everything, not just weddings," Ashburn said.
Businesses can rent the buildings for training, he said.
A quilting group could rent out the show barn for quilting, he said, and quilters could stay in the cabins.
The county also is turning an annex of the mansion into a pub and restaurant that will serve food, beer and wine -- and possibly liquor, with the state Legislature's approval.
Ashburn said the county would hire its own chef to run the kitchen, instead of hiring a concessionaire. The chef eventually will do the catering for the farm's weddings and business events -- a profitable business, according to Ashburn.
Herbs will be grown on site to flavor the food, and an old orchard will be planted with fruit trees such as peaches and apples that will be turned into preserves sold under the Mountain Cove Farms label, he said.
Boondoggle or boon?
Walker County has caught flak for its investment and involvement in Mountain Cove Farms.
Ales Campbell, who made an unsuccessful write-in bid to unseat longtime Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell in the November 2012 election, called Mountain Cove Farms a "boondoggle." She cited the farm as a reason to do away with the sole commissioner form of government and replace it with a five-member county commission.
But Heiskell said the county got a good deal on the roughly 300-acre farm and its buildings for just over $2 million.
"That was a bargain, according to Realtors, quite a bargain," she said.
Ashburn takes pride in what he says is the county's streamlined, low-cost approach to construction projects.
For example, the county spent $40,000 on the equipment used to spray the foam insulation into the cabins -- but that's nothing compared to the half-million dollars he said it would cost to hire a contractor to do the work.
"We do a lot of our own projects because it saves costs for our citizens," he said.
Heiskell and Ashburn figure the farm will turn into a profitable operation for the county, and the revenue will lessen the county's reliance on property taxes.
They also plan to launch an old-fashioned county fair there next year. Walker County hasn't had one in a while, Ashburn said.
He said the public purchase of the property ensured its natural beauty will be conserved forever.
"It takes a [while] to get here, but once you get here, you're in your own world," Ashburn said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6651.