Danny Foster loves a good cigar, and after his hunting-lodge-turned-showplace burned to the ground July 2, he's received cigars from friends all over the country.
Holding an unlit cigar between his fingers, Foster and his son, William, sat on the porch of their makeshift office and talked about the fire that claimed numerous heirlooms and one-of-a-kind items that were on display at Seven Springs Lodge, not far from the popular Rattlesnake Saloon.
The building they're using as an office was previously a gallery dedicated to the incredibly detailed wood carvings of their friend Gabriel Sellars. A new office is being built near the entrance to the property off Mount Mills Road in western Colbert County.
Once the office is complete, they'll move out of the gallery and begin work on the nearby lodge, which Danny Foster originally built in 1998 as a hunting lodge.
"I leased it to hunters and it was a hobby," Foster said. "We'll hunt two months out of the year."
Foster would serve as a hunting guide on the 3,000 acres of property, some of which has been in their family since 1916.
Later on, the property became popular as a "horse camp," where equestrians could come and camp and enjoy miles of trails. The property has hosted a variety of events from concerts featuring country artists to Grateful Dead tribute bands, biker gatherings, and Frontier Days, which includes a rodeo with roping and bull riding, and the unique chuck wagon races.
The Seven Springs Lodge didn't have any rooms, but served as a gathering place for groups that often camped or stayed in rooms built inside three metal grain silos. The unique accommodations were located directly across from the lodge. The intense heat from the blaze caused fire damage inside one of the silos.
While the Rattlesnake Saloon never closed, the Fosters had to cancel reservations after the fire. They had booked every weekend through September.
Danny Foster said the state fire marshal traced the fire's origin to the refrigerator in the lodge. They suspect dust caused the fan to lock, causing it to overheat.
The fire started around 9 p.m. and was spotted by campers who rolled in for the Fourth of July.
By the time Foster arrived, the roof of the lodge was falling in.
Foster said the lodge was insured, but the insurance will not cover the loss of many of the items that were inside, including a shotgun dating back seven generations, Sioux Indian moccasins, handmade knives, a mounted wolf from Canada, and a ledger from an 1866 cotton exchange, among other irreplaceable items.
There was a collection of rare arrowheads that cracked in the intense heat, he said.
"We had a museum in there," Foster said of the lodge.
William Foster said he and his brother, Owen, tried to outdo each other with unique gifts for their father. After William gave his father a reindeer pelt from Sweden, his brother countered with a 14-foot anaconda skin. Those items were also lost in the lodge fire.
Since the fire, friends from all over have reached out to the Fosters to offer their assistance.
William said numerous people who know his father's affinity for cigars have sent him boxes, and even brought mini-humidors with rare cigars.
"He's getting them from everywhere," he said.
Danny said he's going on 73 years old and even if it's a rare cigar, he's going to enjoy it while he can. When he turns 75, Danny said he plans to turn over the operation of the lodge to his sons.
William said the new lodge will include a gathering space, but also several rooms that will overlook the nearby lake.
He was grateful firefighters were able to keep the flames from further damaging the silos and the adjacent building that houses coolers where bulk food is stored for the restaurant.
Danny said Rattlesnake Saloon is one of the four most unique restaurants in the United States. He and his son built it to capitalize on the business his father built around the lodge because visitors would often ask where they could eat. Aside from a convenience store about seven miles north on Alabama 247, the closest restaurants were in Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals, or Red Bay.
From the very beginning, Shoals tourism directors saw the potential in Seven Springs Lodge and Rattlesnake Saloon.
"It's a huge tourist attraction," Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau Executive Director Susann Hamlin said. "It's added greatly to our offerings. They probably stumbled onto something when they found that bed of rattlesnakes."
Inside the saloon, William points to the mounted adult rattlesnake skin and 12 smaller skins. There are several skins on the wall, as well as newspaper and magazine stories about the lodge and restaurant.
"The events the Fosters have out there are fabulous," Hamlin said. "There's just nothing else like it."
Hamlin said it's especially popular with international tour groups that visit the Shoals.
Debbie Wilson, executive director of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and the former executive director of Florence-Lauderdale Tourism, said her office recognized the value of what the Fosters were doing from the beginning.
She included them in a video for the office's "Get Your Groove On" promotion.
At first, she thought the lodge and restaurant might be too far off the beaten path, but it's only about 30 minutes from the Shoals and near another unique attraction — the Coon Dog Cemetery.
"It's definitely an asset," Wilson said. "It's an experience more than just going to a restaurant."
William said students who participated in SHiFT Education camps on the property started a Go Fund Me account to help with the rebuilding because of the experiences they had. William's brother, Owen, is one of the founders of SHiFT Education.
"It was a gift from these kids," he said.