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Rustic River Outfitters: a history

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CAFE: Attached to the retail store is a cafe whichwill serve ice cream, coffee, waffles and more.
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OWNER: Kevin Smith shows old photos of what the saw mill used to look like. Behind him is a wall made of metal from a gas station, Joe and Peg’s, that used to be down the road and a framed photo of what the saw mill used to look like.
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RENTALS: Kayaks are stored in a wooden barn that is original to the piece of property.
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PHOTOS: Smith has many old photos of what the action inside of the old saw mill used to look like.

BY HEATHER COX - hcox@h-ponline.com

Kevin Smith was raised in Warren and grew up spending time on the river. That area of the county holds a lot of local history in general, but especially for his family.

His grandma was baptized at the Bellville dam just south of Warren and lived nearby. His grandpa’s brother worked at the Ole Sawmill in Mt. Etna. Smith said he doesn’t know anyone in the area that doesn’t at least know of someone who worked there, purchased items from there or would just stop by to visit.

Places like the sawmill helped create history for the surrounding communities for generations, and it’s that type of local history that Smith said he loves.

He grew up around the sawmill and always liked the property, so when he had the opportunity to purchase it, that’s what he did.

Smith said the original owner of the sawmill abandoned it with cash still in the cash register and a dog still inside. He said local people came to shimmy the door open to get the dog out, but the owner wouldn’t sell the property to him. When the property went up for tax sale, Smith said he missed his chance, so Paul Abbott purchased it.

But Smith, who does architectural millwork full-time, still wanted to give it a shot, so he eventually bought it from the Abbotts. Originally, he said he didn’t think he could save the building on the property, but after buying the property, he walked around observing what was there and found it too interesting to bulldoze what was left.

That’s when he really started to dream about what he could turn all of it into.

First of all, being the father of three, Smith explained he wanted to give them something to do to keep them in the county.

“I’m 54. I can’t hardly name any of my friends who have kids that haven’t moved away, and it’s simply because there’s nothing here to do – there’s no hope. We’re going backwards. There’s nothing going on. But I like my kids, and I want them close to me,” he said with a smile.

When his daughter was attending a university not too far away, the track and cross country team came to run the trails that go through Smith’s property, and they swam in his pond. This inspired Smith to create the business he owns now – to give people a place to come together and enjoy being outside.

The desire to create something for his family and community, his experiences with hosting outdoor activities on his personal property and his love for local history all fed into what is now Rustic River Outfitters (RRO).

RRO offers canoeing and kayaking opportunities as well as the potential for a variety of events, including running events, wedding receptions, family reunions, graduation parties and more. The on-site retail store offers boats for sale or an assortment of refreshments like ice cream and coffee.

The building that houses the retail store was fixed up using what was left from the sawmill, occupying the same footprint in which the Ole Sawmill once sat.

Smith and his family along with a few friends, recycled the majority of the wood and built it into their rustic facility. Even a table that sits near the front counter used to be pieces of wood covered in inches of dirt but is now one of the more popular places for customers to stand and chat.

The wall which stands directly behind the front counter isn’t made of wood, but still has historical value to the area and sentimental value for Smith.

“One wall has metal from an old gas station, the old Joe and Peg’s gas station which is an icon in the area,” he said. “When I was a kid, my mom and dad were divorced, and she moved to Warren and got remarried when I was three, while my dad lived in Wabash. He would come every other weekend and pick me up, and we always stopped for a bottle of pop at Joe and Peg’s. And my mom grew up with Peg …”

Along with the history behind what the facility is made out of, historical photos of what the sawmill used to look like line the walls and shelves.

Though Smith bought the property back in 2016 and was able to open for business during the late summer of 2018, he’s not exactly in the clear quite yet.

Smith has endured a long process of being approved for a full permit. He has run into a list of issues with Huntington County’s Department of Community Development, which has set his business back on multiple occasions over the past two years.

In fact, his original thought to keep his kids in the county, may not even work out after all.

Though he said his son, who is still in high school, has invested a lot of time and energy into building the business and has felt a sense of satisfaction upon opening, the obstacles his family has faced could potentially steer his daughter in a different direction.

Originally, Smith said his oldest daughter who has recently married, wanted to buy a piece of property off of him to build a home. He said now that she has seen all of what he has gone through to try to get a business off the ground to invest in the county, she’s not so sure she wants to stick around.

He said she’s thought about moving to Wabash County instead, where Smith said they welcome small businesses with open arms.

Though Smith said the business has already given him the opportunity to aid a handicap man in kayaking with his family for the first time, has helped raise his neighbors’ property values and has attracted future potential business ventures, at one point in time he though about selling the property just to get away from the obstacles he has faced for the past two years.

He’s still working toward receiving a permanent permit and ironing out the last details, but he said it’s been a process full of frustration –one he said other businesses have faced too – when trying to get started in Huntington County.

Editors Note: The Herald-Press will be running a two-part series on a Huntington County man’s attempts to set up a business in Mt. Etna and the issues he’s facing from the County. Part one will focus on the background, while part two will focus on the issues he’s run into.