Flood can’t wash away Myron McKee’s dream
This story, by Jim McCarty, editor of Rural Missouri magazine, is reprinted with permission. It has been edited slightly for space and to add local information.
Standing on the deck of his latest rental cabin high above the North Fork of the White River south of Dora, Myron McKee waves his arm in an arc that takes in the pristine valley he shares with guests at his River of Life Farm.
This is a stage, he points out. But unlike the elaborate sets created by Hollywood producers, this one is real.
“What we have done at River of Life Farm is set a living stage and poured massive amounts of love into the cabins for people to walk onto that stage and have their honeymoon, their anniversary, birthday celebration, family get together or father-and-son fishing trip,” he says. “The Good Lord takes care of the lighting. Every morning he makes a fireball come up in the east and then at night he sometimes does a full moon. He keeps the trout swimming in the right direction and makes the stone flies and caddis and nymphs for them to eat. We try to train the bald eagles to do a flyby when you walk out on your deck.”
From his vantage point, the Howell-Oregon Electric Cooperative member points out the silvery flash of the native rainbow trout population in the river below. Pointing upstream past a sandbar, he shows where he spent part of his childhood. He tells the story of how his mother washed clothes in the river from the front of a boat. Young Myron once earned her wrath when he leaped into the boat, launching her into the river.
For a moment, memories take him back on a long journey to the time before his father drowned in the same stretch of river. Then, just as quickly, he follows the long road back on a rocky path that included foster care, drifting across the U.S. as a teenager and meeting his wife, Ann, while following the fruit harvest in California.
An uncle offered Myron a small piece of the Ozarks near where he now stands, and he asked Ann to return with him. “She fell for the line of being a pioneer wife in the Ozark Mountains and perfecting poverty with me,” he says with a chuckle. In time, another uncle died, leaving Myron several hundred acres that included what is arguably Missouri’s premier stretch of wild trout water.
Determined to share ... the peace
Myron believes with every fiber of his being that God helped him on every step of his journey. He never considered keeping the beautiful setting for himself. Instead, he was determined to share it with others so they could find the peace missing from so many lives these days.
“I had this dream inside of me,” he says. “I just knew what I wanted to accomplish and I knew I wanted to be back on this river. I wanted to resurrect my father’s fishing resort here.”
Starting with just one cabin, the couple slowly turned the dream into reality. River of Life Farm’s trademark became the “treehouse” cabins, elegant sanctuaries seemingly hanging in space above the scenic North Fork River.
As the calendar turned to 2017, Myron was poised to have his best year ever, with 20 cabins and a lodge available, along with a resident trout fishing guide, a restaurant and a river float business.
But the Good Lord giveth, and the Good Lord taketh away. As April turned into May this past year, Myron watched in horror as floodwaters swept away much of what he had built.
A 50-foot flood
A chart of historic flood levels in his office tells the tale. On Aug. 1, 1915, the river crested at 35 feet. It hadn’t topped 30 feet in all the years hence. But on that fateful May 1 the river didn’t stop rising until it reached 50 feet.
“We got a tremendous rain at the end of April,” Myron relates. “The last day of April the river started rising and rising. We’ve seen the river rise for 60 years. Usually once it starts rising it comes up a foot an hour and then crests and then goes down a foot an hour. It’s kind of predictable.”
A friend living 30 miles upstream gives Myron a warning of what to expect when the river is on the rise. “He will say something like, ‘We had a 25-foot rise,’ which is a lot. Historically, 10 hours later I’ll get half of that.”
This time, however, there was nowhere for the floodwater to go. Every stream in the area was swollen. When the flood hit River of Life Farm it was a raging torrent that caught the owners off guard. “We were just doing the normal flood things, getting things up, turning the sump pumps on,” Myron says. “It just kept coming up, higher than I had ever seen it.”
He focused his attention on saving items in the basement of his home, which had never flooded. Soon he heard a horrific crash. Floodwaters had smashed through the front door. The force of the water was so strong it broke interior doors in half.
Eight cabins, gone
In time, the river crested and began to go down. Myron grabbed a few hours sleep on the couch. When he awoke, dawn had arrived, revealing the damage.
Debris hung from pine trees in his yard. Trailers holding canoes were missing. The lodge and office were a wreck. Power from Howell-Oregon Electric Cooperative was out, with miles of line destroyed. Mud covered bedding intended for guest cabins. Worse, eight cabins built above the historic high-water mark had been swept away.
One couple had been staying in the resort’s Cedar Chest cabin. As the water rose, they fled up the hill, spending the night in a cave.
When his family arrived to survey the damage, there was a tearful reunion: Myron’s wife and children thought he had perished in the flood. “My son Tommy looked at me real serious, with strong eye contact, and he said, ‘You built it once; you can build it again.’ That’s what I needed to hear. Because that’s what we needed to do, build it again,” Myron says.
Myron describes what followed as miraculous. “Volunteers just started coming in. People came and helped and helped and helped.”
They carried bedclothes home to wash. They brought food and cleaning supplies. They moved debris and cleaned mud from the resort.
A landscaping company from Springfield brought its entire crew and equipment to the resort, opening up the roads. A backhoe operator agreed to work for a fraction of his normal wages.
‘A real survival act’
Through it all, the resort never closed. While some guests asked for refunds, others opted for gift certificates good for future dates or told Myron they would stay wherever he had a place.
“It was a real survival act,” he says. “We had so many people that just encouraged and helped us and prayed for us. Along with the $25,000 in deposit refunds we made, there were people who said, ‘Hey, we will come later.’ Or, ‘We will come for our normal vacations and stay in a tent.’ ”
One close friend came to Myron and pulled out his checkbook, asking what was needed. Myron surveyed the extensive damage but looked beyond the carnage to the four orphanages he had been funding for years with money made at the resort.
“We didn’t have the money,” he says of the support for 100 orphans. “We were putting every penny we had from the business into paying our carpenters, our insurance and the bank notes.”
The friend paid the $5,500 Myron normally sent to the orphans.
Another miracle came from the Small Business Administration, which granted a disaster-relief loan for $1.4 million that allowed Myron to pay the carpenters and buy materials to begin rebuilding the lost cabins. A sympathetic SBA employee literally walked the loan application through the process.
By Memorial Day weekend, three new cabins were ready to rent. “After we got the cabins finished it was a matter of stalling people in the office so the last piece of artwork could be hung,” Myron recalls. “It was that close.”
‘I sensed something different here’
Today it’s hard to see the effects of the flood. The river is back in its banks, playing a cheerful tune as it winds past The Falls, a landmark on the river.
Work continues on more cabins, this time placed high on the bluffs with stellar views of the river valley. Guests continue to arrive, seeking the solace that comes with listening to the river and reconnecting with nature. They are welcome to explore the many miles of manicured trails located on the property. Landmarks such as Billy Goat Falls, River of Life Spring and Inspiration Point can be reached along the network of trails.
“We try to make every guest in every cabin feel that they’ve got a deed to all 500 acres and no neighbors to share it with,” Myron says.
Some find it hard to go home.
“There is a special dimension to River of Life Farm that people constantly testify to,” Myron says. “They will say something like, ‘As soon as I turned in your driveway I sensed something different here.’ I’ve had people check out of their cabin in tears when they give the key back to me.”
For more information about River of Life Farm, call 417-261-7777 or visit www.riveroflifefarm.com.