By Rita Mitchell
If you had mentioned the term bed and breakfast to Mike (Martin ’74) and Cathy Barnett 15 years ago, the Martin, Tennessee, couple admits that they wouldn’t have had any idea what you were talking about. That’s hard to imagine about a couple who have operated Our Backyard Town Bed and Breakfast since 1998.
“We have been to some bed and breakfasts since we’ve opened ours, and we definitely know we’re doing this right,” Cathy says. Many B & Bs are only in it for the money, she says, “but we enjoy our guests. We’ve met some of the nicest people from all over the world.”
The 4-acre bed and breakfast is suspended in time — the 1930s — and gives new meaning to the business term value added. The couple remodeled the home place of Mike’s grandparents, the late L. E. and Clara Puckett, who located their family and a sawmill in Martin during the Great Depression. Then Mike and Cathy began transforming other structures on the property and filling them with Mike’s lifetime collections. Over the years, they’ve added period pieces from estate sales, auctions, and individuals in the region.
Visitors who stay in the Davy Crockett, the Lincoln Log Cabin, or the Train Station “live” in Our Backyard Town. And don’t let the names fool you. During their stay they not only have the amenities that are bed and breakfast hallmarks — great food, comfortable rooms, and specialty linens and bath products — they get a private tour of the town that can take as long as they care to linger over a childhood toy or a good memory.
“On the tour, people say, ‘Oh, my grandmother had one of those,’ or ‘I saw that on The Waltons [’70s TV show that depicted rural Virginia life during the Depression],’ ” Mike says. “They can relate to something we have in the collection.”
Hardware, grocery, and toy stores; a drugstore with an antique soda fountain; a café; a hotel; a barbershop; a feed mill; a service station; and a wedding chapel are all authentic structures filled with authentic furnishings and fixtures. Each building is packed with period products, from canned goods and notions to antique tools and toys. Mannequins, dressed in outfits and uniforms from the era, stand waiting for customers.
After practicing on a host of friends and family members, Mike and Cathy opened Our Backyard Town to the public. Mike has continued to own and operate Puckett Lumber Company, remodeling and redecorating Our Backyard Town on days off and weekends.
“All I knew to do was cook like my mother and grandmother and try to please the guests,” Cathy says. Mike, she adds, takes guests on tours of the backyard and tells them how it all got started — how they began unpacking his many collections and realized they had an amazing opportunity. They are assisted by Cathy’s son, Clint Riley (Martin ’01), who also operates a pottery shop in Martin.
Our Backyard Town was featured on Tennessee Crossroads in 2003. “After that, we had so many guests stay we couldn’t accommodate them,” Cathy says. That’s when plans were made for additional cabins.
“He’ll never get through remodeling,” she says, ticking off a list of Mike’s current projects. That’s good news for guests who return to Our Backyard Town year after year.
Recently 21 visitors from France, who did not speak English, came to Martin to visit relatives and stayed at the B & B. A family member helped bridge the language gap between French and English, including translating some phrases like country cooking and Southern hospitality that help define the distinctive atmosphere of Our Backyard Town.
This feature was written before the death of Mike Barnett on November 27, 2010. Our Backyard Town in Martin, Tennessee, showcases his love of history and a lifetime of collecting.