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Old Rice Farm

Image: At Old Rice Farm

A Cabin in Kentucky

A visit to family in Kentucky in December 2011 gave chance to update on the Old Rice Farm project described below.

My daughter Victoria (photo, bottom row, right) and her husband Jay (cooking pancakes in the picture next to Victoria) have land in ‘The Hollow’ – pronounced ‘holler’ by local folks. For Vicky and Jay it’s a place for weekend trips – at least at the moment. And it’s a lovely place for the children to explore as they grow up.

That ‘cabin’ is what in the UK we might consider a house. It has all the usual mod cons (though internet and mobile access is poor until upgrades get carried out nearby), two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, and sitting room. And it has that American folklore staple, a porch or veranda running along the front and side where you can either sit and think – or just sit. Or you can barbecue venison, wild turkey or hog meat as they’re all available in the woodlands around. There is another cabin here now, also timber-built, but this time with porch roof supports planed smooth, not cut from young trees and left rustic, and that’s maybe why it’s actually referred to as a house.

The land is spread round Old Rice Farm, late 18th century by origin and close to the location of Daniel Boone’s exploration base of Station Camp on the Red Lick valley. The settlement by European-origin people spreading west of the original thirteen colonies was led by the Boone expedition from here after its famous crossing of the Cumberland Gap from Tennessee. Other white explorers had entered the lands earlier, but it was Daniel Boone’s party of loggers who cleared and built the trail that opened up a route for settlers to move west more easily.

It’s difficult for city visitors – especially those from Britain – to appreciate the feel of this kind of landscape where towns are small and scattered, with many miles of wooded hills and small-farmed valleys in between. Standing on a hill as Daniel Boone famously did to view the land gives much the same panorama that he would have had – tree-covered horizons still, now with habitations like dots in the cleared valleys. At night – darkness; none of the glowing sky that canopies urban landscapes.

The cabin, that house and a work-shed/barn under construction occupy sloping ground draining by a creek out into the valley of the Red Lick as it works towards the Kentucky River. In December winter had stripped the trees of leaves but had not yet added snow. Clear skies prevailed, bright with sunshine in the short day but cold in the hill shadows that followed during the late afternoon. The creek – not yet given a name – has no bridges, but little rain had fallen to deepen its flow, so careful placing of boots made it easy to splash across. Making a trek into the woods meant a gradual climb between the trees, avoiding brambles where possible and working round fallen trees. This hollow of around 250 acres is gouged out from the hard rock hills. It rises steeply on three sides to a sharp cliff-edge which has to be climbed with care. The woods grow wild. As the trees grow old and fall they lie where they hit the ground to rot away undisturbed. Once, narrow tracks were cut for timbering, a careful selection of trees felled and taken out commercially. Only once so far. And good practice will demand a wait of a decade or more until another carefully cutting takes place.

There is open space around Old Rice Farm itself at the roadside edge of the hollow, but the people living there do not farm but rely on work in town several miles away. Between the new cabin, house and barn the ground is rough but cleared. We spent an afternoon taking out fallen trunks, brushwood and old waste timber clogging the edge of the creek, making a blazing bonfire of it all. This was not being wasteful. The woods are rich with fallen trees where the cycle of rotting and renewal can take its natural course on a grand scale.

We moved indoors as darkness fell. Coffee was poured, visitors welcomed, the four-year old played and the month old baby was fed. Brady, who built the cabins, and his partner, had arrived. That’s him in the hat.

This is not city life. Nor is it anything like the way hill-country Kentucky is often portrayed in the media – simple-minded, unsophisticated and backward. There is a sense of community which is welcoming and supportive with a strong sense of what it wants to be. What it wants to be might be quite different from what city folk want to be – but this is not the city, it’s a scattered rural community set between farmland valleys and wooded mountains. It shapes its life accordingly.


Image: Old Rice Farm 01

Old Rice Farm. An eighteenth century building by the road in Red Lick Valley, Estill County, Kentucky. Behind it stretches a side valley, steeply sloping up to a rim cutting into a tangle-wooded mountain. The green space around the old farm is good, level land on the property and there is more further back into the wooded valley. Other shelves of space exist within the woodland on which cabins can be built ... as part of a family's hopes for creating a small community of residents and visitors enjoying the scenes and life style of the country first opened up to new settlers by Daniel Boone.

Image: Old Rice Farm 2

We are used to a big-business approach to tourist attraction development in which expensive market research precedes product development with a big budget to launch the project. This is a very narrow view, though it is the one favoured by academic authors, perhaps because they and their publishers see commercial tourism companies as a large part of their market. Think of the range of UK attractions: the national museums (eg British Museum, Science Museum, V&A etc), the local city museums, the properties cared for by the National Trusts and the heritage quangos, the charity-run attractions like science centres, botanical gardens and wildlife centres including those of the Wildfowl Trust and the London, Chester and Bristol Zoos. There are many more. We are also used to thinking of the UK conservation, building and statutary planning rules that govern how attractions are developed.

Victoria and Jay Stevens, in Kentucky, USA, have taken the first steps in creating their own tourist attraction and how it began and is developing is giving an example of just how different things can be. Their project is not in a less-economically developed country but an advanced one which is a mixture of conservative attitudes to change and a vigorous acceptance of the entrepreneurial spirit. It is called Old Rice Farm and it occupies around 250 acres of land set in a valley close to the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains. Victoria and Jay have taken the first step towards 'developing' their property by having a local woodworker build them a cabin. It will provide them with a weekend base away from their full-time jobs in Cincinnati - Vicky in market research and Jay in jet engine maintenance. With a new baby less than a year old and busy lives back home they see it as a long term activity. Ideas are still churning around in their minds. Cabins for people to own or rent are in amongst the basic plans with hopes for small craft workshops and music events some of the prefered options. But already the nature of the 'holler' - the regional name for this kind of closed-ended side valley - and its neighbouring people has produced a fascinating glimpse of a very different way of life. Tourism planning here is at the grass roots - the blue grass roots just about as it's close to the famous horse country of Kentucky - and not up in the dark canopy of big business.

Image: Old Rice Farm 03

Small-scale projects like Old Rice Farm gradually evolve. They might be set up as businesses but the priority is often, as in this case, not a way of making big money but to create something which comes from the heart as well as the head. People think about what way of life they want to lead, what kind of world they want to inhabit and what their contribution to it is going to be. Academic text books don't explain how these projects come about because as often as not the ideas whirl around in someone's mind for years, gradually being shaped and tested and turned into a vision well before practical planning and product development take over.

Here's the crew. The family. Jay is an aircraft engineer. He has a daughter already and she is in university. Victoria is a market research analyst. Darvik arrived on the scene late in 2007 so he's still chewing over the ideas that the older generation have ... well, generated. They live in Kentucky.

Now, Kentucky might seem to some folks raised a long way away on a diet of television and country and western music as a hill-billy sort of a place. Well, the Dukes of Hazard might be lurking in the nearby Appalachian foothills but Kentucky is sharp in business, steeped in history and rich in culture. Folks here keep up their traditions, sure: the way they do things is particularly their own. They farm, they tend woodlands, they run industries - and they extend warm hospitality to people who visit.

Victoria and Jay have mostly lived in cities but love the countryside. In America that might mean flat fields of corn or untidy urban margins but it famously also means mountain wildernesses, Joshua-tree deserts, lakelands or forests. Along the southern hill country of Kentucky it means parallel ridge-and-valley country. Rivers and streams - licks - wind through the corrugations of the Daniel Boone National Forest. This is the scenery that met the pioneering Boone after he crossed what is now famed as the Cumberland Gap to open up a route into the mid-westerm plains. It was in this country, after months of searching, that Jay and Victoria found the land on which they could build their dream.

Image: Old Rice Farm 04

A Shaker Property?

Above is the farmhouse which at the entrance to the little valley that Victoria and Jay bought.

Victoria describes the building: "The house was built in the 1850’s and we think it’s a cedar log structure under the siding [the wooden exterior panelling]. It’s a Shaker design where there are two separate staircases to keep the male and female sleeping quarters separate upstairs. People may not know a whole lot about the Shakers – I think they’re mostly American - but around here Shaker things generate a lot of interest. Eventually, we want to turn the house into a restaurant, capitalizing on the historic roots of the building". Like all old, timber buildings, it needs work doing to it to correct some problems. An interesting point is the namne, which might well be a corruption of 'Rhys', a common Welsh name, there having been many Welsh settlers in the area. By coincidence Victoria is descended partly from a Welshman of that name herself.

Around the farm house is open space. The road serving the valley farms runs past its frontage and across that is the flat floor of the Red Lick valley whose stream flows in to the larger Red River. The country here is less well known than some parts of the Appalachians which means it offers the chance of retreating deep into quiet, attractive mountain scenery and small towns which have not been overcome with the crowds who frequent the Blue Ridge country, the Great Smokeys or places like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. So small, 'grass roots' accommodation and attractions are appearing ... like the one which will be the subject of the next Old Rice Farm posting.

Image: Old Rice Farm 05

The Model Of Snug Hollow

Just a few miles away from Victoria and Jay's land in the Red Lick Valley of Kentucky (see the earlier postings) is Snug Hollow. This is described in the States as a B&B accommodation but in the UK it would probably be known as a guest house. Snug Hollow Farm lies in a long valley running back in to the hills, wooded on the steeper slops to either side but with open grazing along the valley bottom where streams drain towards the Red Lick. To get to it means a drive up a twisty, up-and-down tarmac road past some other properties but then beyond a gate across the road the scenery is empty of buildings until Snug Hollow is reached.

The accommodation is run by its owner, Barbara, helped by a local lady and they give visitors a warm welcome to the main house and a 'cabin' below. The house is two storey, timber framed with verandahs offering comfortable seating and views up and down the valley. There is a large dining room - though normally only breakfast is served to guests who, being mainly Americans, are used to driving into Irvine or another nearby town for their other meals. The cabin is also two storey, smaller, but with plenty of bedspaces suitable for families - or small groups happy to share space on the upper floor (pictured) and the ground floor sitting area where there are two single beds. It might sound cramped, but US property allows much more space and timber-frame walls and dividiers help screen off areas a little. There is a homey feeling, rustic, cottagey even, with hand-crafted furnishing and decorations, rocking chairs, sofas, that kind of thing. There is a kitchen so people staying here can cook. The reputation of the Farm has grown. In March '08 the National Geographic Magazine printed a feature on Appalachian tourism with one of the fold out maps so favoured by the magazine. Snug Hollow was one of the few B&Bs in the area to feature. Magazine staff heard about the place, visited, and went away impressed. Word of mouth followed by word of print has pushed up the bookings.

Within this part of Kentucky small tourism projects are becoming more common and the local council - Estill - wants to see more in order to help the economy. Barbara is a well known pioneer, having set up the accommodation with a lot of style and enthusiasm which is infectious. As with most 'grass-roots' enterprises of this kind there is little use of text book theory but a lot of seeking and sharing experience and skills with the neighbours. So Jay and Victoria got to know her well and have taken on board a lot of her approaches - that of working with the people in the community and not against them. A key example of that was the way in which they had a valley man build their first cabin - which will be the subject of the next posting.

Image: Old Rice Farm 06


When Jay and Victoria Stevens bought their land in Kentucky to develop as accommodation and possibly a craftwork location with events and perhaps a restaurant [see previous postings], they had to win over local support. There are no statutory planning procedures in Estoril County, Kentucky, to be followed. On the other hand anyone trying to build what local people dislike is going to finish up without the support from the community that any developer requires.

Jay and Victoria spent time discussing their ideas with Barbara, the owner of Snug Hollow Farm, and took her advice. They then approached somone to build them their first cabin so that they would have a base from which to work on other tasks: a washed-out stretch of track up into the valley would have to have a rough-timber bridge built for vehicle access. Some clearing of wood and scrub was necessary longer-term to allow further cabins to be put up. Some of these jobs would not happen just yet - it's a long term project of maybe ten or more years. Fast build for quick returns isn't the style here and not what they wanted anyway as existing jobs, raising a family and recent changes in the economic situation all must come into play. But there is another consideration that doesn't come into the text books. Changes happen in this kind of community by organic growth. New projects must be grafted on to some existing branch of the growing life of the neighbourhood with care. Something just dropped into a convenient hole won't grow because it will be isolated from the slow-maturing valley culture. Incomers need to work with local folk, not apart from them.

Victoria and Jay had been recommended to talk to a local man, Brady, about the cabin that they wanted. Now Brady knows Red Lick Valley and the surrounding hills. He's the man who can fell timber, leave it to season the right amount, cut it into planks and poles, four-by-four framing strips and roof joists and panels. Brady isn't a natural go-by-the-book man. He wields a chain saw or a ripsaw to cut what he sees his buildings needing by eye and the measure of his hands. Joints, wedges, pegged connections are made by hand and they are in the long-established style of this part of the Appalachians as used over many long decades. What's more, Brady is one of a number of brothers who were brought up each to handle a part of the house-building trade - Brady the woodcraft, another brother the ironwork for hinges, latches anhd fixings, others for piping and wiring for the services everybody relies upon.

So they asked him to build them a cabin and he said no.

It wasn't clear at first why he was reluctant, but after a bit, says Victoria, it turned out that what he feared was some city slicker telling him what to build, in what shape and just how it should be fitted together. And he wasn't about to get involved in that.

So the Stevenses took a deep breath and said to Brady "OK, we want a cabin to stay weekends. You build it how you think it ought to be built - the sort of place people round here like to see".

So he did. Two floors, plain shape, much bigger than we in Britain would expect something called a cabin to be, but definitely not a big yankee house. It got a verandah along the front for sitting and talking and admiring the view. It got another verandah along the end by the place where the car gets parked and folks step up into the doorway. And out back it has a neat little shed with a large hole in the ground within and a lavatory seat placed just where it ought to be 'cause that's all you can have there until a modern septic tank can be installed.

Result: perfection. Built in the woods from the woods that grew on these hills. Slowly the plumbing and wiring will go in and staying overnight will become a natural thing to do, watching out for the deer and turkeys in the woods. And keeping a lookout also for the bears that are said might just be living round these here parts. Not seen one yet? Well, pour yourself another Jack Daniels and keep looking ..... you never know.

Image: Old Rice Farm 07

More About Brady

Each year Brady has a party to which everyone around is invited. To get to his cabin takes a drive into the mountains up a side valley for half an hour (well, it's all of a mile) a 4x4 or a horse and buggy, like Brady uses, helps, because its a tricky ride along a running creek further up the valley. Cars which don't make it are left to one side and the owners walk. It's quicker.

At the cabin Brady has been roasting a whole hog since the day before the party over a coal-fire pit. A huge potluck is ready to share amongst the neighbours. Some prayers are said and gospel read. The feast begins.

After the main courses comes the ice cream, and this is special, because it's made on the spot by a one-horse-power ice cream maker. A horse. Brady leads his horse onto a sort of cart (in the photo) which has a treadmill. As the horse walks the treadmill turns a shaft connected to the mixing machine, and before long ice cream is on the way. When the dessert is finished the horse is put between the shafts of a buggy and hay rides are given to the kids. At the end of the fun and games everyone makes their way back down the creek, splashing through the water and deciding what the best bit of the day was: roast hog, horse-driven ice cream or hay rides. Or neighbourhood socialising, catching up with the gossip, and admiring the Appalachian scenery.

Image: Old Rice Farm 08

Red River Furnace

This area of Kentucky contains a number of relatively small, community-based projects – in other words they are being run by people living in, and contributing to, community life rather than by outside companies. Other components of the tourism mix are looked after by public sector organisations – Estill County, the State of Kentucky or the US Government. Red River Furnace is an industrial monument cared for by the US Parks Service. It stands close to the river for which it is named (though it might also be found listed as Fitchburg Furnace) and is in a remarkably good state of preservation, though without the buildings which would have served it. It consists actually of two furnaces or stacks, Blackstone on the left and Chandler on the right. The sandstone structure reaches 60 feet high. The raw materials – iron ore, limestone, and in this case charcoal, were tipped in from the top. When lit and burning an air blast was applied to raise the temperature to the melting point of iron. The furnaces were constructed in 1869 and were operational only until 1873 when a financial panic caused a recession and they were blown out. As charcoal-fired furnaces they were in fact old technology. At the same time bigger supplies of iron ore in Alabama were reducing the demand for Kentucky iron ore.

The Red River Furnaces now stand a distance away from some local dwellings, but are fairly difficult to find unless you know what you’re looking for and are determined to look out carefully for the very few signposts placed at nearby road junctions. While in the USA as in the UK there are many people in to industrial archaeology, it remains true that this particular monument is of specialized interest. There are a few other industrial remains, including furnaces, dotted around Kentucky, but they may not of themselves cause a large influx of tourism. Other historic centres exist which could be linked in to an historic trail however and these could be the basis of a growth in tourism with B&Bs and small hotels supplying accommodation. Grant aid is available from the government anxious to breath new life into the economy of the region. Jay and Victoria’s Old Rice Farm project could become a useful part of this strategy.

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