By Melissa Wickline
While searching Craigslist for an antique dresser, I met Kathy Sawyer and made an instant friend for life. She’s the kind of girl that dreams big, laughs big and likes a big adventure. We once threw shovels in Kathy’s trunk, rolled up our sleeves and dug enough daffodils to make Wordsworth proud. A trunk, brimming with the spoils of Spring, and two, crazy women, enthusiastically blissful, wielding shovels as we cheered ourselves on. Now that was fun.
Both Kathy and I are lovers of all things pretty, old and a little rusty. We enjoy treasure hunts and can usually be found exploring some small Southern town, searching for the feeling of our childhoods.
Kathy and I grew up in our Grandmas’ kitchens: fried pies, old cookie tins regrettably filled with sewing spools and sticky recipe boxes covered with flour. That’s a bond worth sharing, and it runs deep if you have the memory. We also share the bond of historic salvation, especially when it comes to a house in need of rescue.
A hairdresser for thirty-six years, Kathy is the owner of The Hair Biz in Hermitage, Tennessee, in a wonderful, century-old stone cottage she rescued with her husband, Keith. “The stone cottage has allowed my decorating skills to evolve and come to life, while hairdressing evokes another talent I dearly love,” she said.
It was the next renovation that changed the Sawyer’s lives forever. Kathy fell in love with Belle Isle the moment she saw pictures of the stunning property. To the former 406 acre estate of Cracker Barrel founder, Dan Evins, Kathy says she was initially drawn as soon as she turned in the drive.
“From the moment you enter through the stone pillars and tall gates at the front entrance of Belle Isle Plantation, you can hardly wait to see what’s at the end of that gorgeous, tree-lined drive. And behold, a cabin in the woods, awaiting its new owners, just wanting to be loved and updated,” Kathy said.
Aside from creating one of the country’s most beloved restaurants, Mr. Evins is described by his neighbors as “a very generous man and very well loved in his community; a down-to-earth kind of person, always wearing his overalls.”
In May of 2015, Belle Isle’s five homes, including Evin’s main residence, were sold in 29 parcels. Keith and Kathy purchased one of the post and beam cabins along with eleven acres.
Completing much of the work themselves, the renovation began with a total gut of the kitchen and bath that required Keith moving duct work, removing walls and updating the electrical, HVAC and plumbing. Kathy focused on redesigning the home’s rooms and served as her own contractor to bring her vision to life.
The Sawyers also removed two sets of narrow stairs and had a bridge built to connect the two lofts. Because the floor plan did not allow space for a proper stairwell, it made sense to save space and install an elevator.
Other renovations included adding a stone porch, much-needed landscaping and a beautiful farm fence to line the driveway and property. Keith and Kathy are currently working on plans to add a new, but historic-looking barn in the future.
The cottage had great bones, as Evins spared no expense when he built the estate’s dwellings, complete with European charm and beautiful craftsmanship. Slate tile roofs, imported tile and soaring stone fireplaces add a timeless appeal, even though the homes where built in the early nineties.
With all the beauty Kathy evokes in her design work, I asked her what truly inspires her creativity: “A go-to for me is sitting on the banks of the Tennessee River at dusk. It always brings about inspiration and clears the cobwebs. There is nothing better than fresh air and the natural beauty in the sky or the sunset across the river at dusk. It always brings to mind something incredible.”
The Sawyers are quite possibly the best hosts to ever entertain, and I appreciate how they honor the kind of southern hospitality Kathy and I still look for on our hunts. Keith’s home-cooked meals are a real treat, and my favorite part is when Kathy says, “I told Keith you were coming for dinner and he made a pecan pie.” I’m always hoping she’ll say that and I’ve yet to be disappointed.
A southern meal, pie, and pretty things to look at… I think Mr. Evins would find himself right at home at the Sawyer house.