There exists a place in nearby Hancock County that remains virtually untouched by time and the pollution of industry; A peaceful place where locals and visitors alike may escape the rigor and routine of daily life to experience "old fashioned friendliness" and observe the beauty of nature in a preserved setting. This hidden gem is known as River Place on the Clinch.
On the Clinch River, deemed "one of the last great places on Earth" by The Nature Conservancy, sits River Place on the Clinch, a non-profit, ecotourism project of the Clinch-Powell Resource Conservation & Development Council, Inc. (RC&D) dedicated to protecting the environment, fueling the local economy and preserving the cultural heritage of the rural community of Kyles Ford, Tenn.
The Clinch-Powell RC&D, which serves East Tennessee, acquired a historic building - originally called the Wallen Store - and surrounding land in Kyles Ford in 2006.
The historic Wallen store was erected in 1940 and operated as the local general store in Kyles Ford for many years, later changing ownership to become and remain the Willis Store until the building was purchased by Clinch-Powell RC&D in 2006. Clinch-Powell RC&D partnered with Appalachia CARES/AmeriCorps and immediately began restoration of the store and conservation of the land and the adjacent Clinch River, giving the development area the name River Place on the Clinch.
"With the help of Appalachia CARES/AmeriCorps members, [Clinch-Powell RC&D] cleaned, repainted, refurnished, rewired and revamped, and in 2007, the store, the cabins and the cafe were opened," said Leslie Ann Ellingburg, Community Outreach Liaison for Appalachia Cares/AmeriCorps.
Ellingburg said River Place has six fully-furnished, low environmental impact cabins that can house four to six people each as well as a Conservation Center and Retreat, once the Testerman family home, which was remodeled in 2008. "We have it through a grant with [Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA)]," Ellingburg added. The retreat is "right down the road" and capable of sleeping 21 visitors. There are also camping spots (without hookups) available for those looking to "rough it."
In 2009, River Place Outfitters, where guests may rent canoes, rafts, funyaks and float tubes to use on the Clinch River, was opened on the lowest level of the old country store.
"So, every year River Place is evolving" Ellingburg said. "It's kind of like a one-stop-shop. You rent your cabin. You can come over here and eat. You get your canoe here and we'll even shuttle people for float trips...You have everything you need here."
Ellingburg said River Place has an inside market equipped with supplies, and local goods and sundries. Attached to the market is the cafe, which between the main level, the patio and upstairs (once the living space for the Wallen and Willis families) has seating for 150 people. There, customers can relish the taste of real, downhome cooking like fried catfish, chicken and steak, and fried green tomatoes prepared to order.
"Here we say we make fresh food not fast food," Ellingburg said with a smile. "We also host special events like the upcoming classic car Cruise-In on Aug. 9 as well as live, local music on the deck every Friday of the year and every Saturday of the summer.
"This in the non-Dollywood experience," Ellingburg examined. "You're not going to experience traffic, congestion, crowds, lots of noise. You're going to have a peaceful, relaxing time."
Ellingburg said outside of being so serene, River Place on the Clinch is proud to be one of the largest private employers in Hancock County. The not-for-profit mission project provides close to 30 jobs for individuals and generates revenue for the entire county.
The Clinch River, around which all the activity lies, is a phenomenon in and of itself. The river runs from Kyles Ford to Sneedville, Tenn., and the Kyles Ford watershed has one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world, housing many rare mussels indigenous to the location.
"There are over 40 species of mussels and there's over 100 species of fish that's in the Clinch River," said Ronald Lambert, Land Protection Specialist with the Clinch Valley Program of The Nature Conservancy. "Basically, with the bio diversity that we have, that leads us to the fact that this is one of the cleanest river systems in the state of Tennessee, if not the eastern United States, and it's largely due to its rural isolation."
Ellingburg added that Hancock County has no interstate or railroad, leaving the land and likewise waterways largely undisturbed. "So, that's one of the reasons why the reserve is what it is," she explained.
"The things that make River Place so special is a lot of the same things that makes the country here so special," Lambert said. "On the Clinch, you can truly see the way things used to be."
River Place on the Clinch is located at 2788 Hwy 70 in Kyles Ford. For more information, visit them on Facebook or at www.clinchriverecotourism.com. Or call 423-733-4400.