One of the last great places on Earth

Posted on Saturday, January 4, 2014 at 9:30 pm

River Place

River Place on the Clinch in Kyle’s Ford is a bright blue ongoing recreational operation providing something for everyone.

The husband and I were hopeful about finding some Virginia fall color late in the 2013 season, when we accidentally found River Place on the Clinch.

It was one of those Sunday mornings that opened with the urge to drive the little car on country roads. With no obligations and clear weather, we had a perfect opportunity to explore at will.

The Tribune has published several articles and photos regarding River Place, so I recognized the blue painted building up ahead on the left, as we crossed the bridge on Highway 77 in Kyles Ford, not far from the Virginia border. The bridge is pretty much at the center of the Kyles Ford Preserve and the Tennessee Wildlife Preservation Agency’s Kyles Ford Wildlife Management area.

As we got closer, to my surprise, there were cars parked in front of the former Willis family grocery that is now the River Place Market and Café. The business is operated as part of the community-based ecotourism development that includes a number of tourist-friendly attractions on the upper Clinch River.

I had assumed, wrongly, that everything would be shut down during the winter months. As soon as we opened the front door, we were greeted with a burst of welcoming warm air and the smells of home-cooked breakfast.

The store is a Mecca of eclectic grocery and sundry items and provides lengthy entertainment for the curious-minded. The River Place on the Clinch website advertises everything from shampoo to fencing nails, in addition to ice cream, snacks, pet food, fishing and hunting supplies, along with Kyles Ford souvenirs and Pointer brand overalls.

I think their marketing department got it right.

But the food smells were so distracting.

Since it was nearing 11 a.m., I opted for a bowl of soup beans with cornbread that I got for under $5. The cornbread was wonderfully crispy on the outside and cake-worthy moist on the inside. The beans tasted as though they had been slow-cooked with a mild seasoning at least 24 hours before, and the extra standing and refrigeration time left them savory and satisfying.

While we ate in a cozy dining room featuring vintage tables and a variety of chair styles, a regular stream of locals came in and out of the front door to buy newspapers or milk, all of whom talked more than they shopped.

The store cashiers are Cathy Lumpkin and Rhonda Stewart. The cooks are Elizabeth Moore, Kayla Russell and Vickie Jarnigan.

Moore explained the magic behind the beans. They are not the product of any professional chef.

“I’ve been cooking my whole life,” she said. “I was just raised cooking, watching my grandmother.”

Moore joined River Place seven years ago and was already familiar with the concept of the we-sell-whatever-you-need grocery.

“I needed a job, and they needed me,” she said. “I grew up knowing the Willis’ They were always really friendly and really kind to their neighbors. I like to think that we are following their example. We’re here if you need us. We’ll help you out however we can.”

Along with bright red shutters on the front windows, the two-story grocery and café building has been outfitted with generous upper and lower decks with views of the river and Clinch Mountain. The second floor has been transformed into a large dining area that includes a fireplace and home place-style décor that attract out-of-state guests.

“I’ve never been out of this area myself, but they come in and they’re just fascinated with the old feel of things,” Moore said. “You step back in time, kind of, when you come in here. It’s a more slow paced, family oriented place. We try to make it a happy, pleasant place for you to come and bring your family.”

River Place on the Clinch was developed as a sustainable means of supporting conservation efforts related to the Kyles Ford Preserve while simultaneously creating jobs that constitute sustainable development that has both a positive affect on the community and a low impact upon the local culture, according to the website. Preservation efforts have focused on reinforcing Kyles Ford and Hancock County’s culture and traditions while restoring historical structures on preserve property.

In addition to the market and café, the development includes cabin and cottage rentals, bike, canoe, and raft rentals, camping and a conservation center and retreat located at the Kyles Ford preserve on the river.

According to Moore, the cabins are popular during the winter.

“Years before, people came and spent Christmas here,” she said. “It’s peaceful and quiet, carefree. There’s no rush. Quite a few people come to have a good weekend away from everything.”

As soon as the weather turns mild enough for people to want to get out on the river again, usually mid-April according to Moore, the market and café building features live music every Friday night and in the busy summer months, every Saturday night as well.

During the recent off-season months, River Place has featured the six-man group, TN Borderline Bluegrass, pretty regularly on Saturday nights. The development’s Facebook page is a good way to stay up-to-date with the entertainment and special dishes offered at the café.

According to Moore, the doors to the market and café open at 9 a.m. and close around 4 p.m. on Sundays during the winter season. Effective Jan. 1, the establishment will be closed on Monday and Tuesday. Typical winter operating hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

For more information, call 423-733-4400 (toll free: 877-483-7211). River Place on the Clinch is located at 2788 Hwy. 70. Construction work continues on the nearby bridge, and single lane closures should be expected.

- By Glenna Howington, Tribune Staff Writer

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