To understand Sawtooth Plantation, just step into the cookhouse. Inside the soaring room with comfortably worn leather furniture and a large stone fireplace, you’ll notice two things: a collection of huge white-tailed deer mounts, and a customized professional grade kitchen.
Neither should come as a surprise given the owner, John Cassimus. The former University of Alabama running back transformed his parents’ Birmingham restaurant, Zoe’s Kitchen, into a national chain that now operates 171 locations. But the day after he sold his majority stake in 2007, he signed a contract to buy Sawtooth, then a large tract of undeveloped hunting land about forty miles south of Auburn. “This was a blank slate,” he says, noting his additions, which include buildings, barns, and cleared fields now planted with clover. And although he still owns several restaurants, including the Maki Fresh sushi chain, he’s most at home here. “It’s very, very remote, and very private,” he says.
Sitting in a rocking chair on the cookhouse’s wraparound porch, he points to several bucks with commanding racks grazing along the far shore of the lake. Sawtooth partners with a regional breeder and maintains strict control on hunting within the 1,200-acre fenced property.
Meanwhile, just a few feet away, Leola “Miss Dot” Rogers dips flour-dusted chicken into pots of heated oil on the outdoor stove. Cassimus hired her to work on the property and so loved her cooking, he decided to go into business with her. Last year, they opened Miss Dots Southern-inspired restaurants in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
But rest assured, both Cassimus and Miss Dot remain focused on their work at the plantation. To them, it’s not just a hunting property; it’s a window into a simpler way of life. “It takes one second to kill a deer. If that’s all a guest wants, they can do that somewhere else for less,” Cassimus says. “Here, they can sit with Miss Dot and watch her cook and ask questions. They can be fully engaged with nature, relax, and decompress.”
But that doesn’t mean Cassimus expects guests to sacrifice creature comforts. When requested, he’s called in massage therapists, arranged for yoga classes, and partnered with Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm to offer a sportsman weekend of cooking and hunting.
Although the plantation often hosts business retreats and family hunting trips, couples and solo guests are welcome; past visitors have included country music stars Luke Bryan, Chris Janson, and Brett Eldredge. Since there’s no main lodge, guests stay in five metal-roofed cypress-board cabins, each with heart-pine floors, walls, and ceilings and water views. While some are furnished with bunks, mine has a big comfortable bed.
The room also has a flatscreen TV, but that’s hardly in the spirit of Sawtooth. So after washing up, I wander over to the cookhouse, pour a bourbon from the self-serve bar, and check to see what Miss Dot’s making for dinner. After a hearty Southern meal of fried chicken, biscuits, greens, and peach cobbler, we’ll wrap up the evening by the fire pit, watching stars fill the evening sky.
While You’re There
The Tuskegee Airmen first took to the skies thirty miles northwest of Sawtooth. A national park site preserves the historic airfield and recounts the heroic story of the African American pilots who broke the color barrier and helped defeat the Nazis. nps.gov/tuai
Forget football for a moment; Alabama’s famed university also has an artistic side. The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art surprises guests with vibrant galleries and world-class works from the likes of Picasso, Renoir, and Chihuly. jcsm.auburn.edu
Better with Age
Eufaula is best known for its annual April Pilgrimage, Alabama’s oldest historic home tour. But the town, forty-five minutes southeast of Sawtooth, delights antiques lovers year-round with shops such as Blackmon Antiques at the Farm. eufaulachamber.com
65 Jackson Trail, Hurtsboro, Alabama • (334) 667-6350 • sawtoothplantation.com