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Vintage farm furnishes antique mystique to area rich in natural magnetism

A new land-donation to the Virgin Falls State Natural Area allows visitors to stroll back into history a bit and ponder life lived at a slower pace during a more down-to-earth era.

A 19th century homestead adjoining eastern White County’s picturesque Dog Cove, which includes a still-habitable farmhouse and period outbuildings, has been added to the state of Tennessee’s public recreation-land holdings.

The state Department of Environment and Conservation — which along with Tennessee fish and wildlife officials manages the area — is ultimately planning to upgrade the vintage home so as to make it available for overnight guest rental. At this time, however, it’s only open for day-use visitation.

The Beecher Wallace Homestead, named after the man who settled the property and built the home, barn and shed structures in the late 1800s, was purchased from Wallace family heirs last summer by the Land Trust of Tennessee. Ownership of the parcel was then transferred to the state in December. The property adjoins 750 rugged wildland acres also acquired by the state in recent years with financial and technical assistance from the Land Trust, Open Space Institute and Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation, according to TDEC.

Virgin Falls Natural Area Manager Stuart Carroll in Dog Cove.

A day-use area with eight miles of trails, Dog Cove is known for its small creeks, big woods, serene tranquility and lovely views.

“Dog Cove really is a true cove, reminiscent of Cades Cove in Smoky Mountain National Park,” said Stuart Carroll, park manager for Virgin Falls State Natural Area. “It’s not surrounded by mountains as high as around Cades Cove, but it’s a true cove in that there’s no water that escapes. The creeks appear and disappear, then reappear again. Then they finally they go underground — and that is the source for Virgin Falls and Lost Creek Falls.”

Liz McLaurin, president and CEO of the Land Trust, calls it “a magical place.”

“The conservation of this swath of land is an example of the way, over time, land trusts and partners can build relationships that stitch together special places for the enjoyment of Tennesseans and visitors now and forever,” said McLaurin.

A primary aspect of the Land Trust’s mission is working with landowners to purchase property and “create conservation solutions for Tennessee’s important places,” said Emily Parish, vice president for tho group.

“Dog Cove’s wildlife habitat, caves, creeks and storied history will be cared for and be accessible to the public for generations to come,” Parish said. She called the acquisition effort “a tremendous success for the growing corridor of protected land in the area.”

Likewise, Tom Lee, a Beecher Wallace family descendent who’s been taking care of the place for years, said he’s glad an arrangement was reached that both preserves the property and enables others to appreciate the homestead land and history.

“This place has meant a lot to my family for generations,” said Lee. “We are grateful to know others will have the opportunity to enjoy it and that it will always be cared for.”

Ranger Carroll said the Beecher Wallace farmhouse was built in 1888. Prior to that an old log house was situated on the site. He noted that some work needs to be done on the house before it can be open to the public for overnight stays.

Nevertheless, the Beecher Wallace home “is in pretty good shape for a 120-year-old house,” said Carroll. He credits that to regular maintenance and repair efforts by Mr. Lee, a longtime Cookeville-based home-renovation specialist.

“It’s going to be a nice place for people to come for a getaway,” said Carroll.

Over the years, the state has set aside a corridor network of protected lands across Tennessee’s mid-Cumberland Plateau. Among the patchwork are Fall Creek Falls State Park, Lost Creek State Natural Area, Virgin Falls State Natural Area, Bledsoe State Forest, and Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area. Other natural lands adjoining those are the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain and Latimer High Adventure Reservation.

Taken as a whole, the plateau conservation corridor connects around 60,000 acres of “significant protected forested habitat,” according to TDEC.

The Nashville District Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is anticipating that heavy rains over the past weeks will result in higher-than-normal pool elevations for some time on the Cumberland River system lakes it manages.

Center Hill Lake, Dale Hollow, Percy Priest and Lake Cumberland in Kentucky are all discharging vast quantities of water in wake of a storm system that dumped 3-4 inches of rain around the region late last week.

Precipitation Friday and Saturday raised reservoirs along the Cumberland River to levels not seen since the spring floods of 2010 or before. Rainfall in Nashville for the month of February this year has surpassed 13.5 inches — reportedly breaking a previous record set in 1880.

The reservoir level behind Center Hill Dam Monday morning was reported at over 677.43 feet and still rising. That’s 20 feet higher than it was early Saturday morning. Officials said the lake could rise above 680 feet before its starts to recede. That’s tremendously higher than the 625 feet that water-level managers want to get the lake down to before summer in order to finish a scheduled boat-ramp construction project near the dam.

The Corps’ Nashville District water management specialist Anthony Rodino predicts higher than normal water-releases for the foreseeable future from dams along the Cumberland.

Water levels along Center Hill Lake have eclipsed parking lots and shore-area recreation grounds. The picnic area adjacent to Edgar Evins Marina was completely submerged as of Sunday, as were a large portion of improved campground facilities at Floating Mill Park near Hurricane Marina.

Despite well-publicized concerns over the years about the structural soundness of dams along the Cumberland River system — especially Center Hill and Wolf Creek in Kentucky — Nashville District USACE commander Cullen Jones said the impoundments have performed flawlessly so far.

“While there were localized flooding impacts, especially along unregulated waterways, the Corps of Engineers dams held a lot of water back,” Jones said.

According to the Corps, Nashville water levels “would have exceeded 55 feet without the dams holding water during recent rains.”

“The water level in Nashville crested in minor flood stage near 41 feet, so the dams reduced the water level on the Cumberland River in Music City over 14 feet,” the USACE press release said.

March means angling madness for Rock Island’s early spring spawners

Ask around what’s the best-eating freshwater fish and there’s a good chance walleye tops any serious angler’s menu.

True, walleye aren’t necessarily know for their bellicose resistance subsequent to biting a bait — leastwise not in the manner of, say, a burly smallmouth or mean-spirited musky. But owing to their delectable flavor, delicate flaky texture and bulky fillet slabs, walleye are as prized as any game fish that prowls the waters of North America.

Dale Gribble and the eye-popping walleye wall mount he made for display at the Rock Island State Park ranger station. Contact Gribble’s fishing-guide and taxidermy service at 931-743-8163.

Even though they’re not officially considered a cold-water fish, walleye are regarded by many as something of a “northern” species. To give an indication, at least three cities in Minnesota alone lay claim to the title of “Walleye Capital of the World.”

But in fact, at certain times of year, walleye fishing below the Mason-Dixon line — especially here in Tennessee — is superior even to renown Upper Midwest hotspots like the Big Lake They Called Gitche Gumee.

For starters, the world record walleye was caught by a man named Marbry Harper on Old Hickory Lake in 1960. At 41 inches and 25 pounds, that fish dwarfed the 17-18 pounders that stand as state records in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

A lot of people are unaware that three years prior to the Old Hickory catch, Center Hill Lake produced a behemoth-class monster that, at 21-pounds 4-ounces, was a certified U.S. record until eclipsed by the Harper fish. You can stop in and see that fabled catch for yourself at the Rock Island State Park ranger office, where it is mounted on the wall with a placard telling the tale of how local anglers Bennie “Buck” Bryant and Glen Grissom hauled it ashore after a 20-minute tug o’ war one frigid January day in 1957.

For 54-year-old local fishing guide and master taxidermist Dale Gribble, there indeed does not exist a finer body of water than Center Hill Lake for landing trophy walleye.

Bennie “Buck” Bryant and Glen Grissom caught a 21¼ lb. walleye on Center Hill Lake in 1957. At the time it was a national record. Pictured above is Bryant and then 2-year-old Jimmy Grissom. (Photo via TN State Library and Archives)

“In my personal opinion, there is no better place anywhere in the world for walleye fishing,” said Gribble. “I have fished for walleye everywhere — from here to Canada and all over Canada. Fishing for walleye, that’s my thing. And I can tell you that when it’s on, there’s no beating walleye fishing on Center Hill Lake.”

Gribble maintains that the record Rock Island walleye isn’t even the biggest walleye he’s personally witnessed lugged out of a Center Hill honey hole.

Once when Gribble was fishing with his grandfather back in the mid-1970s, he said they observed a couple elderly anglers tow in a brute that would have eclipsed even the Old Hickory monstrosity.

“I will never forget it. They caught that thing on a bluegill, and it was he biggest walleye I’ve ever seen,” said Gribble. “I still remember the exact bush they were tied on to when they caught it. You couldn’t believe it — that fish was massive. It was huge.”

“I had a picture for years and years — I wish I still did,” he added. “It was hanging on a scale and it weighed 27 pounds. That would be a world record today.” Gribble said it measured “right around 38 inches.”

Not every walleye is a trophy, but they’re always good-eating. Here a first-time walleye fisherman shows off his catch below Cordell Hull Dam. (Photo Credit: Bill Medley, Medley Fishing School. 615-397-4137)

But it was never reported for any kind of record verification. The guys who caught it “were a couple of old-timers who didn’t care about stuff like that,” said Gribble.

As far as predicting when the fishing is going to be “on,” there’s probably no better time than March, when walleye run by the thousands up Center Hill Lake’s headwaters on the Caney Fork for their yearly spawn. That’s when and where biologists from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency collect many of the walleye they use for breeding in state-run fry-rearing facilities, like the Normandy Fish Hatchery.

“The majority of the fish we collect come from Center Hill at Rock Island,” said Mike Jolley, the TWRA fisheries manager for Upper Cumberland reservoirs.

Because of their appetizing reputation, walleye that meet size-limit regulations “generally go home with people,” said Doug Markham, a four-decade veteran of TWRA who retired last year.

For that reason, stocking programs are important for maintaining strong numbers. “It’s a fishery that needs some help to sustain itself in a lot of these waters,” Markham said. In a lot of places like the Cumberland River system, walleye “would still be there if it wasn’t for stocking, but they wouldn’t be there is such abundance,” he said.

Flavor-making is the spice of life for Cookeville entrepreneurs

Part of running a successful small business is knowing how to focus your energies where they’ll do the most good.

For Putnam County taste-creators John and Amanda Brantley, that means concentrating on the two aspects of their business they love most — the making and the marketing of their highly palatable spice-package products.

The Brantleys specialize in concocting a variety of culinary enhancement delights. They share an appetizing talent for mixing up flavor-packed batches of meat rubs, cooking-spice blends and other multi-purpose chow seasonings.

John Brantley and his wife Amanda run a pair of Cookeville-based culinary enhancement businesses: The Lagniappe Spice Company and the Tennessee Spice Company

Among their best-selling grill-mates for making mouthwatering flesh and fish dishes are products with names like Dixieland Steak Seasoning, Bodacious Blackened Seasoning, Booyah BBQ Shrimp Seasoning and Caribbean Citrus Seasoning.

Other products they prepare and sell include peppery-taste-laced jellies and jams, kits for supercharging stone-ground grits, and a line of gourmet cocoa mixes irresistibly infused with mood-warming essences like hazelnut, raspberry, peppermint and mocha.

The Brantleys founded their business in 2010, with the idea of sharing their shared fondness for down-home cooking and Southern food culture — especially New Orleans flavors.

They sell their products through a pair of homegrown companies — The Lagniappe Spice Company and the Tennessee Spice Company. “Lagniappe” is a Louisiana Creole French word that means “a little something extra,” or “an extra blessing.”

“Our custom blends are rooted in our Southern heritage and are sure to enhance your favorite recipes, and hopefully, a few new ones,” their website declares.

Blessings of Being a Small Business

For the Brantleys, living up to their company name means striving for “a little better quality and more product in a bag,” and both at a price that’s affordable to anybody who wants to add some zest to their kitchen cuisine repertoire and pizzazz to their backyard barbecue proficiency.

John said their adventure in commercial spice-making all began when he discovered a particularly savory Big Easy-style seasoning blend that he truly relished, but couldn’t get past the fact that it was a little on the bold side. “It was just too hot to eat in any quantity,” he said.

So he decided to improve upon it by dialing down the heat a bit in order to make it a little more accessible to palates unaccustomed to blistering levels of capsaicin-saturation. The result was a blend that was so popular with his friends that he had trouble keeping it on hand. So he decided to go into the business of making it for profit.

“That’s kind of how we got started,” John said.

“And here we are, 20-plus products later,” added Amanda.

Nowadays, friends and customers often tell John and Amanda they ought to open their own store or restaurant. But the Brantleys say they’re pretty sure that would cut into the fun factor of what they do — and cause unnecessary headaches

“We don’t have a lot of interest in running our own storefront,” said Amanda. “If people can sell it for us and customers see us enough locally, and they know where they can get our products, then that works just fine for us.”

John says one reason he’s an entrepreneur rather than a clock-puncher for someone else is that he gets to organize day-to-day production activities and business operations so as to avoid otherwise avoidable headaches.

“I really like flexibility,” said John, who spent two decades working as a quality-control and research development scientist in the commercial food-manufacturing industry.

Lagniappe Spice Company and Tennessee Spice Company are available direct-to-customer online and at a range of local and regional grocery stores and local-products boutiques.

“Our stuff is carried from time to time in places like Opryland,” said Amanda. “There’s a growing demand for ‘Made in Tennessee’ labeling in tourist-destination spots.”

She said the state Department of Agriculture’s “Pick Tennessee” program has been a good boost for their business — although she’d like to see more PickTN-focused shows and events around the state to promote Tennessee-based products to other Tennesseans.

Home Cooking at Home Shows

John, who helps plan the Upper Cumberland Home and Garden Show’s kitchen demonstration lineup, said he’s particularly fond of participating in trade shows and lifestyle expos.

There he and his wife get to meet not just large numbers of people in short periods of time, but also come in friendly contact with people who might never come across their products otherwise — and who may, as a result of sampling a succulent morsel of John and Amanda’s handiwork, become regular customers.

John especially enjoys conducting demonstrations on “doing something a little different” in the kitchen that people maybe haven’t seen before — like fashioning a meat or seafood glaze out of Lagniappe’s spiced jams or jellies.

“He’s cooked pork tenderloins and steaks before. People alway seem to like that,” said Amanda.

At the Wilson County Southern Home & Garden Expo in February, John gave a lesson on how to whip up a savory shrimp dip guaranteed to please at any party.

John said the culinary demonstration aspect of the Upper Cumberland Home and Garden Show has really come into its own the past few years as Cookeville and the surrounding region continue to draw in skilled chefs and food-and-beverage entrepreneurs.

“It’s nice to be able to showcase local talent,” he said. “Cookeville is becoming a great place for really good food.”

Crews are beginning to embark upon construction of the new lodge and restaurant at Tennessee’s most popular state park.

Regional politicians and state government officials gathered this week at Fall Creek Falls for a ground-breaking ceremony at the lake construction zone at Fall Creek Falls. The planned new 98,000-square-foot will be built to “to reflect the natural setting of the park,” according to a news release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks.

Breaking ground at Fall Creek Falls State Park are, from left, are Erik Pyle of Bell Construction; Bledsoe County Mayor Gregg Ridley; Lt. Gov. Randy McNally; Rep. Cameron Sexton; TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill; Deputy Gov. Jim Henry; Ann McGuaran, state architect; Rep. Kelly Keisling; Rep. Ron Travis; General Services Deputy Commissioner John Hull; Ron Lustig of Earl Swensson Associates; and Park Manager Jacob Young of Fall Creek Falls State Park.

The new hotel and lake-facing restaurant will include “three floors of visitor space,” along with “indoor and outdoor gathering areas with larger meeting rooms for conferences.”

The projects designers have said the inn will “provide spacious views of the lake and of the park’s natural forest that will evoke long-lasting memories for visitors.”

Walking trails around the lodge will connect up with other trails that wind off into the remote reaches of the park.

“At Fall Creek Falls, the new inn and restaurant are forecast to generate $278,000 per year in sales and occupancy taxes, a growth of $90,000 per year compared to revenue from the previous facility,” according to the TDEC press release. “Short-term, construction is expected to bring in an estimated $14.7 million in taxable spending to the area, along with more than 100 construction jobs.”

Construction is anticipated finish up in 2020.

The Fall Creek Falls project, which also includes other upgrades to existing park facilities and infrastructure,  is part of more than $175 million in capital projects appropriated for state parks since Republican Gov. Bill Haslam took office, the TDEC release noted. Haslam is finishing up his second and final term as Tennessee’s highest elected official.

“This reinvestment in Tennessee’s most famous state park is indicative of similar reinvestments made from Memphis to Kingsport,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner TDEC. “Over $175 million in capital reinvestment is already paying back dividends through increased visitation, customer satisfaction, and revenue growth.”

Bygone days and ways live in memories alone

Standing atop Center Hill Dam or Hurricane Bridge today, it’s easy to forget that homestead activity and rural enterprise once flourished along the hillsides and throughout river bottom lands now submerged under the lake’s expansive waterline.

But across Tennessee during the great federal dam-building decades of the 20th Century, old manners and modes of living were drowned out and washed away as reservoir waters rose behind hydroelectric impoundments that still serve as monuments to modern engineering and industrial technology.

Prior to the dam’s construction, which was completed in 1948, much of the area around the Caney Fork “was subject to intensive family-type farming of money crops, such as corn and tobacco, which involved hillside plowing with mules,” notes the Army Corps of Engineers’ Center Hill Lake Master Plan. However, since the dam’s completion, “farming in the Center Hill Lake area has steadily declined.”

Center Hill Dam under construction on the Caney Fork River in DeKalb County, 1949. (Tennessee State Library Photo Archive)

Local historians and aging residents who lived through the events recall that it was a time of gloom and upheaval for many.

“By the end of 1948, all of the homes and farms were cleared out, torn down and covered with water,” wrote the authors of “Under the Lake,” a 2016 coffee table book of historic images, remembrances and genealogy from the region prior to creation of Center Hill reservoir. “People who had lived there in their lifetime would never be able to see their homes again.”

DeKalb County historian Thomas G. Webb, who wrote a book about local history for the Memphis State University Press that was published in 1986, recalled that by the end of World War II “most of (the inhabitants) had accepted the idea that they had to leave their farms, homes, schools and churches.”

“A few, however, were bitterly opposed to moving and remained in their homes until the dam was completed and the water was literally in their front yards. Some in the Center Hill area relocated in DeKalb County, but many moved to other counties, and the county lost 4,000 people between 1940 and 1950,” Webb reported.

Rosemary Ponte of Cookeville, whose family owned property where today sits the Appalachian Center for Craft, said it pains her even now to recall that “very sad time” when families in DeKalb County were forced off their homelands.

“I still feel bad about it,” said Ponte, who was born in 1931. “They took so much more land than they needed. I just hated to see the people so displaced like that, after generations and generations of their families living there.”

Recreation an Unanticipated Boon

It may seem surprising now, with Center Hill Lake a prominent recreation destination in Middle Tennessee, but leisure and sporting activities weren’t considered important to the dam-project planners.

The Center Hill Lake Master Plan even notes that “recreation was not originally an authorized function of the project” — although surrounding lands were later acquired from property owners and “recreation facilities constructed to assure unencumbered access to the lake for the general public.”

In the beginning, though, they scoffed at the idea of recreation.

“The first few years that Center Hill Lake was backed up after the lake was there, they didn’t even want to talk about recreation,” said Carl Halfacre of Baxter, whose father worked on construction of the dam. “‘If you mentioned recreation to the Corps of Engineers, they would insult you.” They would say, “That dam is for flood control and hydroelectric power — we don’t furnish recreation.’ The Corps didn’t feel it was their job to spend millions of dollars so people could have a good time.”

Nevertheless, by the middle of the 1950s, people did indeed start showing up to fish and boat and swim on Center Hill Lake, said Halfacre, who in 2014 retired from serving as managing ranger at Edgar Evins State Park for nearly two decades. At about that time, picnic areas and campgrounds started popping up, he said.

Webb noted that some who lived in the area in fact began anticipating recreational benefits even before the dam was finished.

“Those who hoped to benefit from the increased tourist trade looked forward to the completion of the dam,” he wrote.

So if you’re one of the more than three million people who annually takes advantage or accesses Center Hill Lake’s vast recreation opportunities, you might do well to spend a moment and reflect on the reality that many people gave up homes and lifeways for the lake to exist — and many would for the rest of their years suffer broken-heartedness and resentment as a result.

“There used to be a lot more life down below the water’s surface — and it was more than just fish,” said Ria Baker, one of the authors of “Under the Lake.”

Fascinating history accompanies marvelous scenery around state park

State agencies and local Warren County business and political leaders are analyzing the prospect of restoring a long-shuttered historical landmark that was once a hub of commerce and industrial activity.

Mill workers around the turn of the 19th century,

Built on the banks of the Caney Fork River in 1892, the Great Falls Cotton Mill operated for just a decade before its wheelhouse turbine system was destroyed by a cataclysmic flood in 1902. Nevertheless, in that relatively short span it became a prominent feature of the local landscape and economy, even sprouting its own adjoining company town known as Falls City.

“The mill was operate by a flume, turbine, ropes and pulleys powered by the water diverted from the falls,” reads to a placard near the mill. “The operation included the manufacture of cotton, wool products, and was known for its heavy cotton sheeting.”

An information page about the mill at TNGenWeb.org, an online genealogical research organization, recounts that the facility’s purpose was to “manufacture, spin, weave, bleach, dye, print, finish and sell all goods of every kind made of wool and cotton.”

Details and specifics about costs and timelines for the project are sketchy at this time, but the overarching goal is to boost visitation and enhance tourism in the area, officials say. The project is still in a “conceptual phase,” according to a Nov. 14 press release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

The mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

“We are excited to pursue restoration of this important piece of Warren County history,” said TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill. Preserving and protecting “the cultural significance of Tennessee’s special places” is part of the agency’s mission, he said.

Falls below Great Falls Cotton Mill. A cataclysmic flood of the Caney Fork River in 1902 destroyed the mill’s turbine.

The mill property is situated along the Caney Fork River about about a quarter mile below Great Falls Dam, which was completed in 1917 by the Tennessee Electric Power Company. Today the mill’s remains and the dam are owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is involved in the restoration discussions.

According to TDEC, other agencies mulling the costs, rewards and logistics of refurbishing the mill are the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Historical Commission, the McMinnville-Warren County Chamber of Commerce, the Industrial Development Board of McMinnville-Warren County and various local elected officials.

Patrick McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, said his agency is “pleased to be a part of this effort to restore the Great Falls Cotton Mill. The project would fit well with the commission’s efforts “to preserve historically significant properties that are part of the rich history of Tennessee,” he added.

Rock Island State Park was established in 1969. However, the community of Rock Island dates back to the early days of Tennessee. Not only was it the first permanent settlement in Warren County, but the old Tennessee Superior Court, a forerunner to the state supreme court, would from time to time hold proceedings there. Andrew Jackson sat on the Superior Court in the late 1700s and early 1800s, nearly three decades before he served as president of the United States.

In order to improve access and parking and enhance the surrounding “green space” for people to safely and enjoyably explore the Great Falls Mill and surrounding grounds in the event that it’s transformed into a special attraction, rerouting the section of Highway 287 that runs by the mill may become necessary, officials say.

“During peak season, we have a lot of visitors who park in this area and our goal is to provide a safe experience that gives park-goers access to the historical and natural sites they’ve come to see,” said Rock Island State Park Manager Damon Graham.

Conservation carve-outs added to Upper Caney Watershed

The rural lands that make up White County have long been recognized and appreciated for their remarkable geological features and timeless sense of hardy frontier vitality.

Over the last several decades, more and more people from outside the area have come to love and admire White County’s abundance of beauty, wildlife and recreation potential, especially southeast of Sparta, where the Cumberland Plateau fuses with the Highland Rim in the cave-pocked boulder-strewn realm of Virgin Falls.

In his essential 1999 survey of scenic regional hikes and Tennessee cultural heritage, “The Historic Cumberland Plateau; An Explorer’s Guide,” outdoor writer Russ Manning observed, “The unique features of this area are the waterfalls that plunge from great heights and disappear into the ground.”

“Big Laurel Creek flows over Big Branch Falls and farther downstream washes over Big Laurel Falls before disappearing in an underground cave behind the falls. Farther in the wilderness a small creek running out of Sheep Cave cascades 50 or 60 feet until it disappears into a hole in the ground,” wrote Manning. “But the most spectacular is Virgin Falls, which emerges from a cave, runs about 50 feet, drops 110 feet, and disappears into the rocks at the bottom. The water from all these waterfalls apparently runs through the ground, finally draining into the Caney Fork River, which flows through Scott Gulf to the south.”

Courting Conservation-Friendly Commerce

Numerous groups and individuals have devoted time, energy and resources toward shielding the mostly untamed domain from large-scale commercial and residential development, or environmentally destructive industrial land uses.

Groups that have donated time, money, land, labor or expertise toward conserving the Caney Fork watershed include the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, the Open Space Institute, the Land Trust for Tennessee, the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund,  the J.M.Huber Corp., Bridgestone Americas, as well as state parks “friends” groups.

State government also has partnered with private-sector nonprofits and businesses to promote “stewardship of thousands of acres of ecologically significant areas in the Cumberland Plateau with the goals of protection, preservation and public recreation,” said Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Improving the public’s access to the many recreational opportunities the rugged lands and moving waters provide will hopefully open navigable pathways toward future economic growth in an area where nagging poverty has for generations presented a snag.

Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau is home to many struggling rural communities that “need sustaining and need to be resilient,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for TDEC’s Bureau of Parks & Conservation.

Inaugural Virgin Falls Thru-Hike Expedition. Pictured at left are those who participated on Sept. 15 in the first organized hike along the newly opened 9-mile Lost Creek to Virgin Falls thru-hike trail. Left to right: Bob Ragland, Michael Faehl, Lisa Faehl, Mark Engler, Ranger Stuart Carroll, Gretchen Weir, Phil Hodge, Greg Geer and TennGreen’s Steven Walsh, who organized the event.

Hill, who formerly served as mayor of neighboring Cumberland County, asserted that “place-based economic development” not only stimulates job creation and small-business growth by drawing in visitors, it “adds a tremendous level to the quality of life for the people who already live here in this area.”

Stuart Carroll, park manager at the Virgins Falls State Natural Area, figures there’s a pretty basic and reliable formula for upping tourist visitation to a place as unique and spectacular as White County’s section of the Cumberland Plateau.

“If you open up access to the public — and provide good parking lots, good trails and good maps — then it will pay dividends to the local economy,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to emulate Cummins Falls (near Cookeville in Jackson County), because that place gets hammered (from overuse), but who could have imagined the spike in sales tax collections they’ve seen in that area because of the added traffic since that park opened?”

Long an advocate for better utilizing the area’s natural potential to lure tourists and snare tourist dollars, Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce president Marvin Bullock noted that “Virgin Falls is already somewhat of a national draw.”

But opportunities for outdoor recreation are now “growing leaps and bounds”, said Bullock. And the area’s adventure-recreation profile will only increase as conservation, trail-building and public-access efforts continue, he predicts.

“It will make it even more of a national draw because there are a lot more beautiful waterfalls up through there,” said Bullock. “There are going to be miles and miles and miles more trails in the future.”

Among the most recent additions is a new section of trail from Lost Creek to Virgin Falls — thus creating a new nine-mile thru-hike and an additional trailhead and parking to access Virgin Falls. The Lost Creek State Natural Area, which was donated for public use by the James Rylander Family, was used as a backdrop in Disney’s 1994 “The Jungle Book.”

Bullock is pleased there’s common agreement that “we are not looking to build a resort park,” or establish other high-impact developments.

“We want to maybe see some wilderness campsites and that type of thing, but nobody wants to see the area built up into something like Fairfield or Lake Tansi in Cumberland County,” Bullock said.

Of course, White County and Sparta businesses are always happy to accommodate daytrippers from those communities who want to come have a magnificent look-see at the dazzling western edge of the plateau, Bullock is quick to add.

Some counties are tempted to develop large wilderness tracts into upscale residential developments in order to increased property tax rolls, said Bullock. White County, by contrast, “gets to have its cake and eat it too — trail development attracts tourists and increases sales tax revenue,” he said.

“Rural, at-risk White County will see increase in revenue, yet the population will still have access to some of their favorite waterfalls and scenic overlooks,” said Bullock.

Communication and Collaboration

More than 100 people with ties or interest in White County conservation efforts gathered Aug. 25 on a fertile grassy plain known as “Big Bottom” along the upper Caney Fork to celebrate some notable recent victories in securing and adding new landscapes to the now nearly 60,000-acre “Mid-Cumberland Wilderness Conservation Corridor.”

Over the summer, properties of 582 acres and 76 acres were formally incorporated into the preservation zone as a result of donors, landowners and various conservation-focused intermediaries working together to acquire the properties.

And back in April, Bridgestone Americas donated all 5,763 acres of its richly forested and biologically diverse Chestnut Mountain property to the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. It contains the highest point of elevation in White County. The donation was part of an innovative and intriguing project to allow the Nature Conservancy to “manage a carbon sequestration project on the property that will offset the carbon emissions of the Bridgestone Tower, the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown Nashville.”

Leaders of conservation groups and state agencies delivered remarks emphasizing a consistent theme during the event — that a vast and ecologically indispensable playground for preservation-minded outdoor enthusiasts is emerging, and the cooperative efforts to bring it into being have been genuinely historic in significance.

Steve Law, director of the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, or TennGreen, said the latest 600-plus acres of land acquired represents “a significant conservation achievement” that will help enhance and protect Caney Fork water quality in perpetuity.

“Geographically, this property joins the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area to the west, it adjoins Lost Creek State Natural Area to the north, and is bounded on the south by the Caney Fork River,” said Law. “From the perspective of conservation value, this property increases available migratory habitat for rare species, including the federally endangered Indiana and gray bats.”

Law contends that effective future conservation success efforts will increasingly involve cultivating and maintaining networks of voluntary collaborations among an ever-growing array of interests, individuals and entities.

“Collaboration is a fundamental element to TennGreen’s core mission,” said Law.

TennGreen has for two decades been raising money and working with landowners to acquire and protect tracts that hold or are adjacent to “natural treasures” in Tennessee.

Joel Houser, Chattanooga-based Southeast field coordinator for the Open Space Institute, reiterated the point. “I don’t think we can stress enough the importance of partnerships,” he said.

Houser, whose New York-headquartered organization promotes the preservation of geologically and ecologically unique landscapes across North America, described the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee as “a globally significant place.”

“There are species here that live nowhere else in the world — and there are species that were forced here from the last ice age, and have persisted here ever since,” he said. “There are species here that are disjunct — the populations are disjunct from larger native ranges that may be along the coastal plain or the southern Blue Ridge or further northward at higher elevations.”

In addition to the environmental benefits, Houser said preserving Cumberland wildlands in the 21st Century “will provide recreationists a respite from the modern world, and also provides hunters and their families food.”

“It’s not just for the wildlife, the lichens, the mosses, the flowers and the birds, it is for people, too, and people are a part of the ecosystem — of this ecosystem and all ecosystems,” he said.

Tying It All Together

The growing system of trails in the area is envisioned to one day connect the Virgin Falls State Natural Area with the crown-jewel of Tennessee’s state parks system, Fall Creek Falls, and in the process tie in Scott’s Gulf, Lost Creek, Bledsoe State Forest, Bee Creek and the Boy Scout’s Latimer High Adventure Reservation.

“Linking Lost Creek and Virgin Falls has long been a goal for Tennessee State Parks to provide more recreational opportunities for visitors and protect more critical habitat,” said TDEC’s Hill.

State wildlife resources agency director Ed Carter observed that the area has “one of the highest concentrations of greatest-conservation-need species of anywhere in Tennessee.”

For Stuart Carroll, the Virgin Falls park manager, progress made over the past few years represent a gratifying culmination to his 30-plus year career.

Land-protection endeavors along the Cumberland Plateau date back to the early 1900s, but in the past 20 years the acreage acquired from willing sellers or set voluntarily aside for conservation and recreation has more than doubled, he said.

Efforts by nonprofits and landholding private corporations to preserve properties and open them for public recreation are especially important in the Southeastern United States, where “public land has not historically been a really large part of the landscape,” Carroll said.

“So it is very fulfilling to see the acreage added to the public land base so that people can get out and enjoy the recreation the lands provide — and at the same time we can take care of both the resources and the history for future generations,” he said.

Carroll has himself been instrumental in negotiating a number of key land acquisitions and conservation set-asides, not to mention providing the down-and-dirty hands-on labor required to blaze, build and maintain enjoyably traversable hiking trails. He’s also co-author of a book of trail and landscape reviews called “Hiking Tennessee: A Guide to the State’s Greatest Hiking Adventures.”

The most rewarding aspects of working around places like Fall Creek Falls and Virgin Falls is preserving not just the natural aspects, but also the historical and cultural artifacts that the land holds, said Carroll — and in turn teaching youngsters to appreciate the region’s extraordinary legacy.

“It is great to see so many people pulling together to make these type of projects happen,” he said.

Shuttered lodge complex still scheduled for razing by end of year

The anticipated date for demolition to commence on the old inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park has been pushed back to at least the end of this month, according to state officials overseeing the project.

The plan had been for crews to start dismantling the 1970s-era hotel and conference complex by next week. But word now is that, because “contract negotiations took a little longer than expected,” the project won’t begin until the end of this month.

A spokesman for Tennessee’s Department of General Services said this week that work teams will likely begin removing the old hotel’s interior by the beginning of September, a process that should take about three weeks. When that’s complete, they’ll start tearing the buildings down.

“At present we expect it will take a little less than two months to tear down the structure, haul off materials, and secure the site,” Dave Roberson, director of communications for the department, wrote in an email to Center Hill Sun.

Roberson said the Brentwood-based company Bell and Associates Construction is handling the project.

The state’s plan is to build a new hotel and open it sometime in 2020.

The total cost of the project is expected to run close to $30 million. The old lodge ceased functioning in April.

Fall Creek Falls Park Manager Jacob Young said there’s been a noticeable falloff in visitation to the park since the inn and restaurant shut down, especially during weekdays. He said staff are expecting the typically busy autumn to fade into winter off-season faster than normal as a result as well.

Check back with Center Hill Sun for updates.

Cool respite from stuffy summer doldrums; Backwoods-style river adventures inside McMinnville city limits

Set amidst a remarkable panorama of thickset woods, rolling pasturelands, rugged mountain slopes and soaring yonder plateau scarps, McMinnville has for two centuries served as a regional hub of commerce, culture and active leisure.

Writing for the intro to the 2009 “Images of America Series” photography book celebrating the town’s bicentennial, authors Monty Clell Wanamaker and Chris Keathley described how “the sheer exceptional beauty of the ancient and mystical mountains and forests with their spiritual attributes” mesmerized early 19th Century travelers and settlers in what is now Warren County.

So too did “the numerous rivers and streams overflowing with fresh water” that twisted down valleys and cut through the land.

“It was that beauty and grandeur of the region that enthralled the area’s first white settlers,” wrote Keathley and Wanamaker, who passed away at the age of 79 in January. “It would draw to its wilderness many anxious, industrious and learned men who had come to build their homes and lives. And so it was that McMinnville came into being.”

You could say the area has always attracted people who appreciate exploration and seek adventure.

Mickey Heath at Smooth Rapids

So in 2012 when four hometown buddies who grew up together decided to start up a kayak-rental and shuttle service to help introduce visitors and locals alike to the aesthetically fertile Barren Fork and Collins Rivers, they were actually on pretty solid ground historically.

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boathouse

Early on, they really didn’t envision their enterprise evolving into a full-service launchpad and laid-back landing zone for paddle sport river recreation. It started off just a side hustle from the back of a pickup.

“We bought some boats and were renting them out of our truck — when we’d make a little money we would invest it back in the company,” said Mickey Heath, who along with Michael Lockhart and brothers Jimmy and Todd Barker founded the company that came to be Smooth Rapids.

Located just a few blocks from Main Street McMinnville and the town square on a formerly rundown piece of backstreet river-bottom residential property, today Smooth Rapids is a buzzing restaurant, campground and outdoor music venue.

These days, renting 100-150 boats makes for a pretty good weekend, Heath said, adding, “If you were to tell me that six years ago, I would have said you were crazy.”

Smooth Rapids Outfitters sits on the banks of the Barren Fork River, which gathers from a web of runoff veins in western Warren County. It flows eastward for 23 or so serpentine miles before meeting the Collins River, a tributary of the Caney Fork, just east of McMinnville. The Barren Fork’s lower eight miles shape a lovely and languid course through and then around the edge of town.

Smooth Rapids is aptly named. The lower Barren Fork’s mostly unhurried currents make for typically mellow paddling, requiring only elementary navigation maneuvers.

“This is not whitewater kayaking. It’s more lazy river floating — that’s what the rivers around here are like,” said Heath.

The beauty is hypnotic, though, somehow enhanced by the knowledge you’re floating near a population center, which is often easy to forget as scenes of secluded sylvan riverscape float placidly by.

Learning to Love to Float

Because of the Barren Fork’s gentle descent grade, beginners of all ages can get the hang of handling a kayak in short and safe order.

Smooth Rapids puts a special emphasis on hosting and organizing floats for kids. Getting youngsters out on the water, piloting their own boat, can be a highly enjoyable confidence-building experience they’ll long remember and draw on.

Heath said all the Smooth Rapids crew tend to “love pretty much everything to do with the outdoors.” So introducing kids to the river who may never have had an opportunity to paddle before is exceptionally rewarding, he said, especially if they’re from more urbanized areas or at-risk backgrounds and maybe don’t often get the opportunity to get out and genuinely encounter nature.

As for the food-serving side of the business, Heath said the river “feeds our restaurant.”

Their decision to open a restaurant was based on straightforward and consistent observations made though firsthand market analysis. “When people get off the water, they are typically hungry. When they get here, they are ready to eat,” Heath said.

The moving-waters theme is apparent on the Smooth Rapids restaurant menu, where you can dive into a fleet of appetizers and craft brews. The entrée list contains a boatload of chicken baskets and sandwiches with names like the River Monster, the Riviera, the Daytripper and the Barren Fork Burger.

Confluence of Commerce and Recreation

In addition to their aim of luring people into a lifelong paddling habit, Smooth Rapids is seeking to promote greater visitation to the region by hosting festive outdoor events like the Aug. 3-5 reggae festival and the Sept. 22 McMinnville Mountain Crawl, an annual endurance-testing “adventure race” consisting of caving, biking, and kayaking around the vicinity.

Heath said he’s big believer in the idea that the rising tide of Warren County tourism commerce will ultimately lift more than just Smooth Rapids’ boats. All McMinnville profits from raising the area’s profile for dynamic outdoor-recreation potential, so it behooves local businesses to work together to make everybody’s visit a memorable one, he said.

“We really consider ourselves partners with the other restaurants in town — we don’t look at them as competition,” he said. “We all work together, because if somebody is going to come into town, maybe like to take in a show at Cumberland Caverns, then they may go to Collins River BBQ on Friday night and then come eat with us on Saturday night and then go to another restaurant on Sunday afternoon. This is what you want, everybody working together to keep that out-of-town traffic in the community having fun and spending money.”

To get in touch with Smooth Rapids, call 931-452-9251 or visit online at smoothrapids.com.