- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

MENTONE, Ala. (AP) - Staring despondently at the smoke that billowed from the 130-year-old Mentone Springs Hotel, general manager Judy Rathel took a cigarette break from the driver’s seat of a red GMC Yukon sport utility vehicle.

Rathel, who was the innkeeper Saturday night when the Mentone Springs Hotel burned down, struggled to find words to describe the loss of northeast Alabama’s crown jewel.

Holding a tattered, smoke-damaged garden gnome she found in the debris of the massive fire, Rathel said the small town of Mentone will never be the same.

“You can’t replace a 130-year-old icon,” she said Sunday, with tears in her eyes. “It was magical. People would come up here to just sit on the porch and enjoy the peace and quiet.”

Yellow police tape surrounded the hotel complex Sunday morning. The smell of smoke lingered in the air as spectators young and old came out in droves to pay their respects and take pictures of the fire scene with their cell phones.

A sign outside one nearby business read, “Closed. Mourning loss of our Grand Old Lady Mentone Springs Hotel.”

Mentone resident Heather Tarrance, who watched in tears as flames engulfed the hotel Saturday night, stood Sunday morning outside a small house her aunt used to rent near the inn.

“It was just heartbreaking last night,” she said. “It was so sad. You just wanted to jump in there and stop it. … I’m not sure what Mentone is going to do now.”

Rathel said she and two other guests were in the first-floor lobby shortly after 7 p.m. when they heard a loud popping noise and saw smoke coming from upstairs. After the power in the kitchen went off, a hotel customer grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprinted to the upper floor.

“When he got up there, the panel was emblazed and we called 911,” she said, adding that there were eight guests staying at the bed and breakfast this weekend.

The fire quickly spread to the nearby White Elephant antique mall. Authorities at the scene said no one was injured in the blaze, which firefighters battled until the wee hours of the morning Sunday.

Authorities told AL.com the fire started because of an electrical panel explosion from the second floor, but the official cause has not yet been determined.

The Mentone Springs Hotel was one of the oldest hotels in the state of Alabama and was featured in The New York Times best-seller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” Built with 57 rooms in 1884 by Dr. Frank Caldwell of Pennsylvania, the hotel was named after Mentone in France after Caldwell’s daughter saw news reports of Queen Victoria visiting there.

Jim and Darlene Rotch, who own the hotel and antique mall, made the car trip to Mentone from Birmingham on Sunday morning. Rotch, who has operated the nearly 100-year-old White Elephant since the late 70s, said he purchased the hotel with his wife almost four years ago after the former owner passed away.

When she and her husband bought the hotel, Darlene Rotch said the bed and breakfast underwent an extensive months-long renovation, which included all new furnishings, painting and cleaning. They recently installed a new white picket fence around the property to prepare for the inn’s 130th birthday.

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