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For five years, Rick McCleese searched across the country for the perfect site to fulfill his dream of running his own equestrian campground.
Since 2008, McCleese has operated Elkins Creek Horse Camp in Lawrence County, offering access to miles of trails that wind through the Appalachian foothills in Wayne National Forest as well as campsites, horse stalls and a tack shop. Last year the campground was rated second in the United States on horsetraildirectory.com, with a five-star rating from reviewers. He finally found it, just miles from where he grew up in Scioto County in southeastern Ohio.
But although the rating is nice, that’s not what drives McCleese, a former auto mechanic who grew up on a farm in the tiny town of South Webster, and learned how to shoe horses at the age of 12.
“I’d always wanted a campground to retire in,” the Lawrence County Farm Bureau member said. “I was camping every weekend, so I decided I’d own my own.”
In 2007 he found an old tobacco farm inside the national forest in Pedro, and, still reeling from a failed marriage, bought the property and built a one-room house. A year later he had 10 campsites and 16 stalls; he’s been expanding ever since.
“I never took out no loans ever to build this place,” McCleese said. “And I’ve never borrowed money against it. But I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars trying to get it the way I want it.”
The campground, which started as 9 acres, now is 40 acres with 70 electric campsites, 106 stalls, seven barns, three cabins, three sleeping rooms and three sheepherder wagons for sleeping. McCleese and his wife, Jill Romanello-McCleese, who joined him in 2009, live on site and host campers and their horses from across the country from April 16 through Dec. 14, when the forest trails are open. Large groups sometimes rent out the entire place, but most of the business is from smaller groups and individuals.
Operating the campground hasn’t always been easy. On March 23, 2011, a tornado blew in, knocking the roof off the main house and slamming it into the barn. Both structures had to be torn down.
“Everything he’d worked for was in shambles,” said Romanello-McCleese. “It was raining and muddy and I said, ‘I don’t believe God brought you to this point, and brought me here, to fail. But it’s up to you.’ He didn’t say anything; he just walked over and started tearing boards off the barn.”
With the help of friends, family and Amish builders, McCleese started over again, rebuilding the house and barn and living in a loaned trailer while continuing to operate the campground.
McCleese calls himself the brute of the campground business and his wife the heart; he’s busy with the physical labor of the place while she handles guests and community building.
“When I came here I decided we needed to make connections in the area,” said Romanello-McCleese. They joined the Lawrence County Farm Bureau, where Romanello-McCleese now serves on the board, and set up the Elkins Creek Horse Club, a group of volunteers who partner with the forest and spend thousands of hours a year keeping up the horse trails.
“My nature is caregiving, and his nature is to create and build,” Romanello-McCleese said. “We blend that together so it creates a center that feels like home.”
Helping the economy
The campground also is an economic engine for the area; Romanello-McCleese estimates that every $1 spent generates $5 in the community as visitors buy food, gasoline and other supplies.
“They give back to the community,” said Tami Hicks, who’s been camping at Elkins Creek for seven years with friends and family and is a member of its horse club. She said the campground sponsors a fundraiser for St. Jude hospital once a year and the McCleeses encourage campers to support local businesses.
The site’s amenities also draw visitors, said Hicks, 60, of Cannonsburg, Ky., just south of Ashland in western Kentucky.
“I’ve never been to another (equestrian) campground where they have a hot tub,” she said. Elkins Creek also has a covered outdoor pavilion with a full kitchen, grills, smokers, picnic tables and covered stalls for the horses.
The beauty and history of the trails draws Hicks, too. In April they’re covered in redbud and dogwood flowers and in July riders can pick red wineberries from their horses. Riders often see old cemeteries, Indian mounds and decaying iron furnaces that help tell the stories of past residents.
“It’s just the downhome feel of it that I like,” Hicks said. “Jill makes everyone feel like they’re her best friend.”
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