Talladega County, Ala. – The drive from metro Atlanta to Pursell Farms does not take long, but the trip feels transformational.
Point your car west and in a little over two hours, the angry sea of metal and asphalt you endure on your daily commute has vanished from the rearview mirror, and a gently rolling 3,200-acre patch of heaven bids you welcome.
“People decompress a bit on the drive,” said CEO David Pursell, who got his start at age 12 shoveling cottonseed in the warehouse of what was then the family fertilizer business.
Indeed. Once you pass through the main gate you’ll have another couple of minutes to go, as the path from the entrance to Pursell Farms’ lodging, dining, sporting and spa facilities is purposefully meandering. In this last little bit of your journey you’ll feel what’s left of the stress you carry in your temples or between your shoulders disappear, like morning fog burning off in the sunshine. Then it’s time to decide how much or little you’d like to do during your stay.
Pro tip: Go now. Through the end of April, all rooms at the newly opened Inn at Pursell Farms are $275 per night, and guests receive vouchers for two free drinks at the pub in addition to two vouchers good for a 20 percent discount on spa treatments. See this link for details. The Inn opened in March, joining amenities such as its Hamilton Place wedding venue and Parker Lodge, Cottages, Cabins, and Orvis FarmHouse guest accommodations.
Your visit might feature a casual bite and a game of billiards, 18 holes of golf or a fly casting or sporting clays lesson from an Orvis instructor. Maybe a massage treatment or herbal wrap, cocktails by the fire pit or a fine-dining experience. No matter, you’ll discover there’s a story at every stop.
The pool table by Old Tom’s Pub in the newly opened Inn at Pursell Farms building was a gift from “Gomer Pyle” star Jim Nabors. He and patriarch Jimmy Pursell met after Pursell, a running back for the Talladega High School Tigers, was badly injured during a Sept. 21, 1945 game. Nabors, who attended rival Sylacauga High School, visited Pursell in the hospital and remained a lifelong friend.
“If you ever had to have one friend in your life, Jimmy Pursell would be the man,” Nabors, who died last year at 87, once wrote. “I’ve never had a better friend.”
Photos on the wall show some of the celebrities who have racked ’em up on the famous felt over the years: Dolly Parton, Carol Burnett, President Ronald Reagan (during his movie-star days), Frank Sinatra and members of the Jackson 5 among them.
The pub, named for legendary Scottish golf instructor and course designer Thomas Mitchell Morris, serves casual, moderately priced dishes such as fried-green tomato sliders and club sandwiches (both $10), Alabama oysters, assorted pizzas ($10-$12) and steak frites ($24).
If you’d rather nibble while watching whatever sports programming is on or maybe just gazing out the window at the unspoiled view, try the Medjool dates stuffed with house made chorizo ($8), “Old Tom’s” Scotch eggs ($9) or a board of local cheeses ($22). Here’s the entire menu.
Other dining options include the Clubhouse Grille, open for breakfast and lunch, and Arrington, which opened in conjunction with the Inn. The breakfast menu at Arrington features morning indulgences like an omelette with pimento cheese and bacon with grits ($10) or johnny cakes with house-made ricotta cheese and a farmhouse compote ($12). For a lighter start to the day, consider the yogurt with berries and granola ($8) or egg-white omelette wrap ($10).
Dinner entrees include pan-seared grouper ($28), braised beef short rib ($27), crispy red snapper ($26) and chicken and dumplings ($29).
Executive Chef Andrea Griffith came to Pursell Farms from Primland Resort in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, having previously served roles at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia and Circa Restaurant in Philadelphia.
Sommelier and Food & Beverage Director José Montalvo’s culinary pedigree includes tenures at Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud’s famed restaurants in New York.
Locally sourced ingredients including honey and eggs from the resident bees and chickens dot the menus and many food and drink offerings reflect local flair, as mixologist Brandi Townsend demonstrated with her Southern Mule cocktail:
If you’re ready to relax, the Spring House Spa offers treatments including signature, deep-tissue, warm stone, expectant mom or sportsman massages ($100 for 50 minutes, $135 for 80 minutes); reflexology treatments or scalp massages ($65 for 25 minutes, $100 for 50 minutes); couples’ massages ($200 for 50 minutes); and herbal wrap or body scrub treatments ($100 for 50 minutes).
Ready to hit the links? Enjoy some trivia with each drive. “Bootlegger,” or Hole 6, salutes the entrepreneurs of a bygone era. Hole 9 is “de Soto,” named after Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, thought to have come through the area on his travels in the 1540s. Hole 3 is “Baby Rattler,” in memory of a venomous foe who met the business end of a 5-iron one day.
If you’re into selfies in between swings, Hole 5 (shown above) begs to be Instagrammed. The dramatic 172-foot drop to the green inspired its name, “Hang Time.”
Fees start at $55 for 18 holes and vary by season. See this link for details and available tee times.
By far the most breathtaking view is from what’s called “The Secret Place.” David and Ellen Pursell used to pile their six kids in two four wheelers and motor up to the top of Chalybeate Mountain. Everyone managed to hang on; today daughter Vaughan Pursell Spanjer is Pursell Farms’ artist in residence, and her husband Tim Spanjer is marketing and creative director.
Ellen, who scoured regional antiques shops, made regular trips to Atlanta for the monthly Scott Antique Market and worked with Atlanta’s DesignONE Studios, selected the new Inn’s decor and furnishings. The unique treasures effortlessly blend with classic contemporary pieces, giving the Inn a feel of comfortable elegance.
“I want people to feel like they’re visiting my home,” she said.
Down below, the golf course (which Golfweek has hailed as Alabama’s best) is a storied field of green.
For more than a century the family business was fertilizer. David Pursell’s great grandfather co-founded the Sylacauga Fertilizer Co. in 1904, with his father Jimmy Pursell eventually taking the reins.
The golf course, christened in 2003 with Nabors and then Alabama Gov. Bob Riley there to celebrate, served as a giant exhibit for visiting golf-course superintendents.
In 2006, the company then known as Pursell Technologies agreed to sell business assets including its slow-release fertilizer technologies to Agrium Advanced Technologies for $74.5 million, outlets including Golf Course Industry reported at the time.
Why not enjoy the profits and retire?
“I ask myself that all the time,” David Pursell quipped during an interview. “I was never intending to make this into a resort property. It was always a strategy to sell fertilizer.”
While his family was proud of the business’ success, the Pursells felt there was yet more opportunity after the sale, he explained.
“For 10 years it was like Moses wandering in the desert, trying to figure out a new model,” he said. “On the one hand you’re looking at all this money you’ve got from the sale of this very successful business. On the other hand you’re looking at this unbelievable asset. When we sold the business we didn’t sell family farm. We just didn’t feel like we were done.”
Developing the property into a multifaceted destination involved years of planning and research, and growth has proceeded at a deliberate pace. The result is a resort popular with the Birmingham and Nashville markets, with Atlanta visitors making the quick trip over the state line as well. The property’s herd of longhorn cattle gave a fitting welcome when metro Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A held a corporate gathering there in December:
Moving forward, Pursell Farms may consider adding themed events like wine dinners and artists’ programming. In keeping with their traditions, the family’s not in a hurry.
“I have a generation coming behind me. Our reputation means something,” Pursell said. “ We want to build an impeccable name in hospitality that rivals anyone out there. We want to be better before we get bigger.”