When Karena Tolbert began working for her father-in-law at Bear John Hollow Ranch, she’d "never even touched a horse before."
Now, she not only "touches" a lot of horses, she’s right there along side of Sammy Tolbert as he breaks wild mustangs for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) so they can be adopted in new homes.
And when you ask Karena what’s the best thing about working at Bear John Hollow, she answers immediately: "It’s working with him!" noting the wealth of knowledge Sammy imparts would take a lifetime to absorb.
Sammy tries to take a more modest approach, but when you see the pastures, lakes, cabins and bunkhouse he’s carved out of more than 140 acres that once were dense woods and see the gentle horses neighing in the stalls and realize just months before they were wild and unpettable, you have to realize Karena is correct in her assessments!
It all started about 26 years ago when Sammy and his then-wife built a house and raised the last of their two children in the wooded valley across Beeson Cove at the base of Chandler Mountain.
He’d grown up in the Holly Springs area of Straight Mountain, almost on the Blount-St. Clair County line, attending Appalachian School and "hanging out" at his Grandpa’s, Worth Tolbert, small general store.
He’d grown up around horses and mules, plowing and planting in the fertile Straight Mountain Soil, so that easily morphed into his establishing Dixie Landscaping. His company traveled throughout the Southeast providing landscaping services and sodding most of the delicate links and fairways of the golf courses on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. (Karena’s husband Greg and his brother Wayne now continue that work as Wayne Tolbert Landscaping.)
But Sammy’s home in what neighbors called Bear John Hollow drew him back to his roots when he bought the land 26 years ago.
"We’re still searching for the origin of that name," Sammy explained. "The neighbors all relate tales of moonshiners, bootleggers, rooster fighters and all other sorts of goings on back in this valley before we settled here. There was just an old logging road through the woods."
Now Sammy laughed that he receives phone calls asking for "Mr. John" and "Mr. Bear."
In addition to his original home and the cabin he now lives in, Sammy has built four other cabins which are available for rent and the barn-bunkhouse, which sleeps ten or more.
The mile-long road from U.S. 231 passes grazing fields, barns and serene ponds before reaching the main barn and bunkhouse.
He began developing trails and hosted the ranch’s first trail ride about ten years ago, with 50 to 100 riders at each of several rides each year who enjoy the more than six to eight hours of trails. A separate trail takes about seven hours and rises to the top of Chandler Mountain over lands Sammy has obtained permission to travel.
Numerous weekend rides are held in the spring and fall, with everyone from toddlers to several in their late 70s enjoying the events.
For the trail rides, you need to bring your own horses. You can rent a cabin, camp or there are camper hookups with electricity and water. There are also nearby restrooms and shower facilities.
Many folks also come and rest overnight or several nights if they are traveling to shows or other events across the country and need a place to rest themselves and their horses.
Others simply come for the beautiful scenery if they are visiting with relatives or others in the area, as many will do throughout the holidays.
Cabins which are fully equipped (and appear more like fully-functioning houses than cabins to this writer!) go from $75 per night up to $200 for the bunkhouse.
Several Girl and Boy Scout Troops also utilize the ranch for week-long events in the summer months, one coming from South Georgia each year.
There have been numerous family reunions, church outings and even weddings! And no alcohol is ever allowed.
"This is strictly a family environment," Sammy stressed.
Sammy also teaches private riding lessons, on your mount or he can provide one of his 15 Quarter Horses, many of which he’s raised since they were born right there on the ranch.
But it’s the wild mustangs that intrigue Sammy the most. He saw an ad on RFD-TV advertising the need for someone to break and train the horses before they are adopted "and I just called the number," he explained.
When the horses arrive, they’re frightened, untamed and somewhat dangerous. Sammy noted he’s been thrown, kicked and bitten.
But Sammy’s brand of calm, reassuring but painstaking training soon begins to calm the magnificent animals.
Four in the barn when this reporter visited were awaiting adoption, one to be adopted through Horse City and their TV program on RFD-TV. All are now so gentle they eagerly come to the fence for petting or treats.
While training one of the more than 130 wild mustangs he’s broken, Sammy began to feel a little strange back in October. He didn’t go to the doctor right then, but went a few days later when the feeling hit again.
He required six by-passes and the resulting recuperation and weakness began to make him doubt if he’d be able to keep up with his ranch duties.
Karena and others in the family planted 10 acres of tomatoes, potatoes, squash, corn, beans, okra, cucumbers, green peppers, cantaloupes and zucchini, which she sold mainly at the farmer’s market in Birmingham.
"He really didn’t start getting better until we started that garden," Karena said.
"I’d do a little bit more every day and now I feel good," Sammy explained. "At first I couldn’t walk 15 feet without my legs giving out. But, little by little, I came back."
"Folks at the Co-ops in Ashville (St. Clair Farmers Co-op) and Oneonta (Blount Co. Farmers Co-op) this year all told us they were selling more vegetable seeds than they’d ever had before. People are hungry, not just for homegrown vegetables, but for what really matters in life," Sammy said.
Sammy has eight grandchildren now, from 11 months to their early 20s, and he isn’t sure if any of them will want to work on the farm after he’s gone. But step-grandson Jake, 10, is becoming quite a ranch hand!
Sammy took the ranch’s two mules to a Gadsden nursing home and gave wagon rides to residents there.
"Some of them would come out and you’d think they could barely get around, but they’d climb up in that wagon and exclaim how it took them back to when they were younger," Sammy recalled.
Sammy enjoys showing kids of all ages the beauty of nature and the greatness of living a simpler life.
"It’s just so peaceful and quiet here. And it’s just so rewarding to see little kids learning to ride; to see their parents enjoying a quieter time. I’ve got all I could ever want right here." Sammy stated.
To learn more about Bear John Hollow Ranch, you can check out their website at www.bearjohn hollow.net; contact Sammy at (205) 999-3289, or Karena at (205) 937-7158.