An Ozark County business renowned for world-class fly fishing, tranquil accommodations and contributions supporting charities in developing countries has been recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration for recovery from the historic April 2017 flood.
The River of Life Farm near Dora in Ozark County has 500 acres and a mile of access to fly fishing, and it has been rated one of the top 100 fly fishing spots in the world.
The resort wasn’t spared the devastating effects of the 2017 flood that caused the river to rise to historic levels and caused major damage to buildings, roads and bridges on rivers, creeks and lakes in several counties in the Ozarks region.
River of Life Farm lost eight cabins, and the home of owners Myron McKee and his wife Ann flooded to within four inches of the ceiling on the first floor. McKee was moving furniture and belongings out of the home until the force of the water literally burst the doors in.
The first floor of the main lodge, which housed the office, store, restaurant and dining room, plus the Rainbow Springs Lodge were also flooded.
McKee’s first thought when he saw the aftermath was “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
The business was recently awarded a 2019 U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Phoenix Award for Disaster Recovery, given to small business owners that demonstrate “resilience in the aftermath of disaster” and displayed selflessness, ingenuity and tenacity in the aftermath of a disaster, while contributing to the rebuilding of their communities.”
The nominees were selected from a pool of SBA disaster recovery loan recipients. Requirements for the award stipulated the business owner used the funds to rebuild in a way that helped avoid future risk from damage and employed at least 90 percent of the number of employees as before the disaster.
70 YEARS OF HISTORY
The land first came into the family in 1947, when McKee’s uncle, Warren McKee, bought 800 acres with frontage on the North Fork of the White River for $4,000. The frontage ran from about Kelly Ford to Blair Bridge.
In 1950, McKee’s father bought 20 acres below Rainbow Spring for $100. In 1958 McKee’s father drowned while crossing the river on horseback on his way to work at a sawmill.
McKee was sent west and lived in foster care in Phoenix, Ariz., which he described as an “inner city ghetto.” He later went into foster care in Lakeport, Calif.
In the early 1970s, McKee visited a Christian retreat in Mendocino, Calif., and the memory of the cabin there stayed with him. It became his dream to have a hospitality cabin.
In 1982 he inherited his uncle Harold’s 80 acres, and three years later his mother gave him $5,000 as a Christmas gift to build the first cabin, The Chalet, with the idea it would be rented by donation.
McKee worked as a purchasing agent for Perennial Energy in West Plains and wished to make a living with a fishing resort, but wasn’t sure how. He printed up some brochures and approached the members of a fly-fishing organization in Mtn. Home, Ark.
Uncertain how the idea would be received, McKee was told his spot on the river was an excellent fishing spot, and there had already been talk about it among the fly fishermen, who usually like to keep the locations of choice fishing close to their chests.
The Chalet wasn’t quite ready for rental, but was soon in good shape with donated labor and some financial support from family and friends. Taking advice to offer a unique and trendy accommodation, McKee built the first tree house, perched on stilts with a river view and a deck built around the trunks of water hickory trees. It was designed by his wife, Ann.
The resort is named for the River of Life in the biblical book of Revelations, a river of pure water coming from the throne of God.
STRIVE TO CHANGE LIVES
McKee went to Guatemala in 1992, and, based on the living conditions of the street people he saw there and his own experience in foster care, was inspired to find a way to help.
He decided a percentage of the gross income from River of Life Farm would go to the James Project, a Christian charity devoted to the education, housing and physical and emotional well-being of children and women in Guatemala.
The James Project has since been dissolved, but River of Life now contributes to the operation of similar homes, two in Kolkata, India, and three in Myanmar.
“With over 100 million children living on the streets of the third world, we strive to change one child’s life at a time, while providing world class accommodations at River of Life Farm,” McKee says.
In the past, the resort has offered therapeutic retreats for soldiers recovering from treatment of injuries and transitioning either to civilian life or a return to the military.
The recovery, with the help of friends, neighbors and clients, has come a long way, but still not quite complete. Rainbow Springs Lodge, stabilized after the flood, has yet to be restored.
McKee says while River of Life hasn’t quite gotten back to preflood revenues and there is a lot of money to be repaid to the SBA, he is optimistic that within the next five years the resort will be back even stronger than before the flood.
River of Life Farms now has 20 cabins and a lodge with rooms for rent, plus a restaurant in the lodge. Another cabin, the last to be funded by the SBA loan, is still under construction.
“Thankfully, I will be less than 100 years old (97) when the SBA is paid off. Job security can be a wonderful thing,” he muses, displaying some of the determination he has undoubtedly drawn upon during the last two years.
Learn more about River of Life Farm by visiting www.riveroflifefarm.com or following @RiverofLifeFarm on Facebook.