Red oak, chestnut oak, black oak, scarlet oak, white
oak, poplar, pine, chestnut, hickory, red hickory, buckeye, walnut, cherry, hard
and soft maple, bass wood, mountain birch, water birch.
Trees of a forest; not just any forest, the forest of Mountain Trail.
The Mountain Trail snakes lazily along the ridge between
Lewis and Greenup County with offshoots and branches for easier access all along
Bill Chain Road and McDowell Road. The
trail creates several loops, the largest of which connects with McDowell Road
for a 20 plus mile adventure.
are no maps of this well used trail – just a hand sketched, not-to-scale
outline on the backside of a 2004 desk calendar page.
Bone Yard, Jug Point, Kite Point, and Lookout Tower
etched onto the crude drawing, denote known locations.
Each named stop along the way has a story, a history, a fond
recollection, and above all a reason for being.
It all started in the quiet, remote town of Garrison
which is nestled next to the Ohio River in northeastern Kentucky.
Just nine miles from the Lewis County seat of Vanceburg, Garrison is far
from metropolitan. According to a 2006 survey, the Lewis County population is
about one third of the average population density of the rest of the
Commonwealth. While the
average Kentucky County has over 100 people per acre, Lewis County has about 30
people per acre.
Historically Lewis County is known for the production of
oak hardwood. Much of the 1,500 acre
mountainous region of Lewis and surrounding counties is owned by Molpus
Woodlands Group; often simply called “the company”.
Thirty years ago logging operations were abundant and the company leased
timber stands to area loggers and sawyers including Jim Riffe.
In days bygone, logs were harvested, milled, and sold
mostly as rough cut lumber for building barns, fencing, and pallets.
Grade logs were put to finer use and marketed to furniture builders.
At one time Riffe’s Sawmill was busy enough to hire five loggers who
harvested trees for the mill. Today
much of the lumber is played out and the forest is quiet.
The old sawmill has passed down a generation and is run by Riffe’s son
who now sells mainly pallet materials and railroad crossties.
For years Riffe worked all week at the sawmill and on
the weekends he rode his mule around the roads of Lewis County, all the while
yearning for a place to ride that was as peaceful as the beloved woods whose
bounty provided for his family.
In 1987 Riffe’s brother Elden, a Sergeant Major in the
US Army, was stationed in West Virginia. Although
he traveled all week; he often returned home to Kentucky on the weekends and
spent time relaxing and riding with Jim.
It was during one of those weekend getaways that the Riffe brothers and
friends Monroe Dummitt of Garrison
and Matthew (Mousie) Howerton of Greenup County conjured a plan to create access
to wooded trails.
With Jim Riffe atop his trusted mule and the others on
horseback; the quartet scouted a mountaintop trail along the ridge of the Molpus
forest. Often Jim Riffe or Dummitt
would lead the small team one direction, only to backtrack, regroup and work
harder to identify the best route.
“It took us a week or so of riding and backtracking to
scout out the Mountain Trail,” explains Jim Riffe.
Once the route was identified, the hard work began.
Members of the former Lewis County Rough Riders Club, spearheaded by Jim
Riff, worked diligently over the course of several months to cut and prepare the
trail. Loggers from Riffe’s
Sawmill also helped with the intense labor.
One weekend Jeff Madden, also of Garrison, brought a crew that included
Floyd Bolander (of Garrison – since deceased) and Bud Vanhoose (of Garrison
– since deceased). Jim Riffe
smiles, chuckles, and says, “Those boys worked off a Saturday night spree
clearing the trail.”
Most weekends Elden Riffe traveled to Lewis County,
borrowed a horse, and helped with the massive undertaking.
“I was travelling for the Army and living in motels five nights a week.
On weekends I could relax, ride, eat lunch, and cut a little brush.
It was good to get relief and enjoy myself.
We’d cut a while and talk a while,” Elden Riffe recalls.
“I was kind of just a helper. I
would have got lost by myself for sure.”
Periodically, as the brothers and company cut the trail,
they discovered unique identifiers. They
found an old jug in one spot, hung it on a tree, and thereafter called the
location Jug Point. Likewise,
further along the mountain trail, a kite was found attached to a tree and that
became known as Kite Point. A
particularly scenic view was dubbed Lookout Tower.
The ominous sounding Bone Yard was named in similar
fashion. There is a location along
the mountaintop that has been used as a burial ground of sorts for local farmers
and animal owners. All kinds of
bones litter the bone yard and it seems each year more carcasses are hauled up
the hill and added to the heap.
The names became common to all users of the trail,
thanks to Bolander who crafted wood signs for each of the named locations after
the completion of the route. Those
signs are long since gone and the points on the map, like Bottle Holler (named
for the water bottle that was hung from a tree as a trail marker) are now known
only by the local, long time riders.
When chided for his peculiar name choices by younger
brother Elden, Jim Riffe simply remarks, “It’s what was there, so that’s
all we knew to say.”
After the mountain trail was finished, the Rough Riders
could ride from the Ohio River in Lewis County to Greenup County and then on to
Olive Hill (in Carter County) where they attended an annual pig roast.
The completed Mountain Trail attracted riders from Greenup and Carter
County and from the bordering state of Ohio.
Much of the land along the base of the mountain has been
sold and is now privately owned. Sometimes
private owners block trail access and prefer not to have trail riders on their
property. Jim Riffe knows where most
of the property lines are located and at least once has relied on his
exceptional knowledge to avoid conflict with a landowner.
“If the private land gives you trouble you can drop down the other side
and get out of trouble,” he points out.
Once on a long ride to the Olive Hill pig roast, the
Rough Riders were threatened to “stay off” some private property.
Jim responded by telling the landowner where the group would travel to
stay on plots owned by the company, thus avoiding misfortune.
In 1990 the group conducted a weeklong ride from the
Ohio River to the Jenny Wiley State Park. The
epic adventure was organized by Bob Coleman of Smokey Valley and Mose
Oppenheimer (of Olive Hill – since deceased).
A truck was arranged to haul food so that the riders all had a hot
breakfast and dinner at each makeshift campsite along the way.
Some thirty enthusiastic riders started the trek and after 7 days on
horseback only eight riders remained to enter the state park.
Two Bostonians rode on borrowed horses. “These fellows
had probably never ridden before,” Jim Riffe disclosed. One
man brought his dog along for company. The
poor canine developed such sore pads that they had to devise moccasins for his
feet. Those leather slippers were no
match for the terrain of Eastern Kentucky. The
poor pooch finally made it to the Jenny Wiley State Park riding atop the
borrowed horse with his master!
In the course of that weeklong ride, the other Bostonian
had an opportunity to talk with Jim Riffe alone.
He pointed to Jim’s mount and asked “What is that you’re riding?”
True to his nature Jim was riding a mule named Old Tiny, and according to
him “You always get noticed when you’re riding a mule!”
Today Coleman is developing a plan to conduct another
incredible ride, this time from Tennessee to Olive Hill.
For more than a decade, Garrison held an annual sorghum
festival, the third weekend of September. One
of the main attractions of the festival was a single horse log pull on Saturday.
Riffe’s Sawmill sponsored the pull, which drew horses from several
surrounding counties and Ohio.
Initially, in the years before the Sorghum Festival, the
log pull started at the Mill, in order to settle a debate about whose horse was
Throughout the lifetime of the log pull there were no
scales with which to weigh the competitors, so a man who was knowledgeable about
horse weights determined the classes for each horse.
In 1988, following the log pull in what would become an
annual tradition; the Rough Riders organized a wagon trail from Riffe’s
Sawmill to the sorghum festival. The
same horses who pulled so hard on Saturday, filed into a line, pulling their
wagons, and paraded along the road part of Mountain Trail and through town to
the sorghum festival on Sunday. Typically
a couple dozen hitches and about 100 people participated in the wagon trail.
As is the fate of many small organizations, the original
Rough Riders disbanded following the termination of the Sorghum Festival in
Despite the lack of a formal trail club, about 5 years
ago an offshoot was added to the Mountain Trail.
The trail extension enables easier access to the Ohio River and Bill
In November 2009 under the leadership of Kirk Collier of
Garrison and with assistance and a grant from the Kentucky Horse Council, a new
Rough Riders Saddle Club emerged. In
addition to hosting rides and membership activities the Rough Riders once again
are working on Mountain Trail. Their
goal is to maintain the trail and work toward guaranteed accessibility for
A photographic collage of Rough Riders past and present
adorns the wall of Collier’s modest stable office.
Many of the images depict rides that originated on the Mountain Trail.
Collier is poignantly aware of the need to preserve the history and
ensure the future of the Mountain Trail.
“Back then the Mountain Trail was just a way to get on
a trail and go anywhere without riding the road.
I understand more now the larger purpose of the trail,” reflects Elden
There is no formal written agreement between Molpus and
the riders that populate the Mountain Trail - nothing to ensure access for
future generations. There is an
unwritten understanding between local managers of the timber stand and area
riders. Collier is currently
exploring possibilities for a long term land use agreement with the assistance
of the Kentucky Recreational Trails Authority.
Jim Riffe claims that the Mountain Trail makes it easier
for sawyers and foresters to ride all terrain vehicles into the woods and
“paint” property line trees. The
relationship is mutually beneficial yet it is difficult to perform needed
maintenance on the Mountain Trail, especially when equipment is necessary.
“”It’s really tough to bring in equipment without an easement for
land use,” notes Jim Riffe.
The Riffe brothers and Rough Riders look forward to a
time when a formal written agreement can be reached.
“Maybe,” Jim Riffe muses “Once we have an official easement we can
open the trail to the public and then we’ll be able to get trail heads and