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By Sam Perry
In the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella walks through his Iowa cornfield, trying to make sense of his life so far and musing about his future, when he hears a whisper, coming from deep within the recesses of the corn: “If you build it, he will come.” Inspired by the voice, Kinsella embarks upon a fool’s errand to make a dream come true and resolves a lifelong conflict between his past and present life. Although more pragmatic than mystical, Col. Robert F. Collins, U.S. Army Reserve and Supervisor of the Cumberland National Forest, may well have had a similar experience when he embarked upon a crusade to build the Yahoo Falls Recreation Area.
Enamored by Daniel Boone from his youth, Collins sought to incorporate as much of the legendary Kentucky frontiersman as he could into the massive swath of Federal land for which he was responsible, going so far in 1966 as to change the name of the Cumberland National Forest to the Daniel Boone National Forest. So, it came as no surprise to those who knew Collins that he would be attracted to a small creek on the Stearns Ranger District, in McCreary County, when the time came to construct a tourist attraction in that part of the Forest. For it was on that isolated waterway that Daniel Boone had, according to legend, killed a Yahoo (pronounced Yeah-Hoe) Man.
The Yahoo Man killed by Boone was an early version of the popular Bigfoot of today. That Boone was a master of hyperbole, and that nobody had ever seen the Yahoo Man, before or since, much less killed one, meant little to Col. Collins. If Boone said he had killed a Yahoo Man on that obscure creek in McCreary County, enough said. The case was closed.
Mythology aside, Yahoo Creek did contain something more significant than any tall tale. From a sharp-edged precipice, some five miles from Whitley City, Yahoo Creek plunges some 113 feet into a pool of water and a dark ravine that can only be described as magical. I have been in love with the place ever since my first visit, when I bushwhacked through the forest with my father to find it in the late 1950’s.
As an employee of the Forest Service, Dad had wanted to see for himself, the place being talked about around conference tables and in the cabs of pickup trucks. So, on a Sunday afternoon in March, he pulled the family car off the graveled Alum Road and we set out to find the waterfall and, possibly, even catch a fleeting glimpse of the fabled Yahoo Man.
No roads existed at that time that would take us to the waterfall, but the ridgetops were mazes of old intersecting logging tracks that would lead an unsuspecting hiker in circles if he didn’t have a good sense of direction. Fortunately, I was traveling with a man who could not get lost in the woods. For more than an hour we picked our way through the detritus of previous timber sales and thickets of mountain laurel, huckleberry, and clinging green briar until arriving at the edge of a gorge that housed some of the largest trees I had ever seen. Beyond the reach of the double-bitted axe and the chain saw, those trees had escaped the loggers and had remained in their natural state, a tiny fragment of old growth forest in a land surrounded by the by-products of human civilization. Weeks before the spring green-up, they stood, devoid of obstructing vegetation, as magnificent specimens of an earlier time when McCreary County was home to Native Peoples and untouched by European hands.
Although we could hear Yahoo Creek as it fell into the gorge, we never could get a clear view of the cascade that would lure so many visitors to it in the coming years. There was simply no route into the gorge that we could see. The perpendicular cliff line that had sheltered the great oaks and hemlocks for centuries, served also, to keep us out. So, when we tired of staring at the tops of the trees and listening to the murmur of the water as it splashed into the pool below, we retraced our steps. We hadn’t seen the Yahoo Man, but we were convinced that Col. Collins might not be the nutcase we thought he was, but might, actually, be on to something important.
In the coming years, and as funds became available, Collins never lost sight of his dream of opening the Yahoo Falls gorge to the public. By the summer of 1959, crews from the Stearns Ranger District had built a crude trail to the gorge, enabling hikers to visit the site. To encourage visitation, Collins ordered that a picnic table be set up, thereby creating a rudimentary picnic area. Few took advantage of the opportunity to eat potato chips in the middle of nowhere.
Undeterred, Collins persevered and lobbied his supervisors in Atlanta for money to create something better than a picnic area. His efforts paid off in 1961, when, on September 28, Richard E. McArdle, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, announced the designation of 230 acres on the Stearns Ranger District to be the Yahoo Falls Recreation Area. Development of the Area would include additional trails, overlooks, and interpretive signs so visitors could better understand the near-natural conditions represented. Commercial timber cutting and other activities would be modified to enhance the central features of the Area.
With funds from the Public Works Acceleration Act, development of the Recreation Area was swift. By 1965, an all-weather road had been built to the Area, but getting visitors to the base of the waterfall remained problematic. In mid-summer of that year, Collins received a gift that he could only have interpreted as divinely inspired, when an infusion of free labor and skilled craftsmanship arrived in the form of the Pine Knot Civilian Conservation Center. Within months, a network of hiking trails meandered throughout the Area and an elaborate steel stairway had been anchored to the wall of the gorge, enabling visitors to descend to the bottom and to the great cavern behind the waterfall.
Development was not without controversy, however. Technicians from the ranger district scratched their heads when they were ordered to dig a “grave” at the entrance to the Recreation Area and erect a marker honoring a mythical figure from McCreary County’s legendary past. Only the foolish contradicted Supervisor Collins, though, and they did not ask any questions, but dug a shallow pit, tossed in a cigarette butt, and covered it up. They, then, set up a stone memorializing Jacob Troxel and surrounded it with a rustic rail fence. The “grave” would attract history buffs, argued Collins, rationalizing his deceit.
Robert F. Collins passed away on January 3, 1999. Time has proven him to have been a progressive land manager and wise user of available resources. For seventeen years, he led an organization of individuals dedicated to the restoration of a land ravaged by neglect and abuse, and turned it into refuge for those seeking solace away from the distractions of the modern world. Much of what we enjoy in the Daniel Boone National Forest can be directly attributed to his administrative abilities and public leadership.
It could be claimed that Robert F. Collins, like Ray Kinsella, heard voices, urging him to build the Yahoo Falls Recreation Area. Without doubt, it was a personal obsession of his, and he labored long and hard to achieve it. The difference between Kinsella and Collins, however, is obvious. The former is fictional. The latter is not. Field of Dreams is the product of a novelist’s imagination. Although it, too, is the product of a dreamer, Yahoo Falls Recreation Area is very, very real. The hundreds of visitors to the site each year are proof enough that if “you build it, they will come.”