WELLINGTON — Once again, Broke Leg Falls is coming back from the brink.
The 14.8-acre park with waterfalls in eastern Menifee County has seen more ups and downs in its history than a roller coaster. But the EF-3 tornado that roared through the county last year was certainly one of the low points for the little roadside attraction.
"It was the worst one," said Lola Thomas, executive director of the Frenchburg-Menifee County Chamber of Commerce.
What made the destruction all the more painful was that in late September 2011 — five months before the tornado hit — residents and local officials had just celebrated the park's restoration.
A regional tourism-promotion organization called TOUR Southern and Eastern Kentucky had partnered with the chamber of commerce to help with that comeback. Grant money from the Brushy Fork Institute, an outreach program of Berea College that lends technical assistance to communities, also helped to pay for thousands of dollars in improvements, Thomas said.
The upgrades included a new gazebo, picnic shelter renovations, new picnic tables and improved signage.
"We had put in a campsite, grills and, you know, made it a place where someone could go for a picnic or a day's outing," Thomas said. Nestled in the Daniel Boone National Forest and including fingers of Cave Run Lake, Menifee County doesn't have many attractions, "but we do have nature," she said.
And just as the little park had looked its best in years, nature took it away. The tornado tore through the gorge and left devastation in its wake. Winds flattened hundreds of trees and turned the park into one big bowl of twisted timber.
"It was heartbreaking," Menifee County Judge-Executive James Trimble said.
"The first two times I went up there (after the storm), I just cried," Thomas said. "It just broke my heart to see it like that."
Many trees and stumps have been removed during the past year. But many more will remain where they are because it is simply too difficult to remove them and because the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, which provided grant money for the county's purchase of the park, said it's best to let nature take its course.
In any case, local government and volunteers have done what they can to make the park more presentable and usable for visitors, county road foreman Dwayne Smallwood said.
"We've cleaned up the brush and debris. We built back the walk bridge and we built back the shelter and the concrete steps" that lead to the falls, Smallwood said. "We replaced guardrails. ... We've still got to replace some picnic tables and some trash cans."
The sidewalks, the guardrails and the footbridge alone might total $38,000, Trimble said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is supposed to reimburse the county for the cleanup expenses, but that money might be a while in coming.
Located off U.S. 460, Broke Leg Falls is a short distance west of Ezel and the Morgan County line. Its entrance is on a sharp curve east of Wellington.
The park is a natural wonder. Water from Broke Leg Creek, where local lore says an ox broke a leg, rushes through a rocky cover, passes under a small footbridge and pours over a cliff into the gorge. That 60-foot to 80-foot drop gives the park its name.
The park is thick with Eastern hemlock, yellow poplar, sweet birch, maple, oak and white pine. Pawpaw, rhododendron, witch hazel and a variety of ferns are found on the forest floor.
"What a beautiful spot!" exclaimed a 2008 publication about Menifee County attractions. "If you are looking for a place to spend a quiet hour, or for a spectacular location to try out your new digital camera, this may very well be the ideal place for you. Many who visit here return time and again."
It has been a scenic stop for decades. In the 1940s, visitors were charged 10 cents to see the falls.
Back then, nine tourist cabins on a bank above the falls were usually full, and a sign on the roof of Broke Leg Falls Restaurant blinked long into the night. Music played. People danced.
During weekends, 500 or 600 tourists visited the falls. Jim Bob Wells, whose family operated the popular spot, said in a 1988 interview with the Herald-Leader, "On Saturday night, I was lucky if I got out of here at 2 a.m."
In 1958, the state leased the land from the private owners and made it an official roadside park. The state built walkways, water fountains, grills, restrooms and railings, and it issued colorful brochures touting the scenery.
But when the Mountain Parkway opened in 1963, "it applied a tourniquet to traffic flow on U.S. 460 and squeezed the lifeblood out of Broke Leg Falls," Herald-Leader staff writer Lee Mueller wrote in 2002.
Eventually, small gas stations on the road between Frenchburg and Salyersville faded, along with the Mail Pouch signs on barns.
By 1967, the park had been abandoned by the state, which gradually lost interest in maintaining roadside parks on two-lane highways. Instead, the state concentrated its efforts on interstate rest stops.
The restaurant closed in 1975, and in the 1980s, the state transferred the park property back to private owners. By the late '80s, the parking lots and paths were overrun with weeds. Grills and water fountains had been vandalized. Rusty railings along the cliffs had been smashed by falling ice.
Finally, in 2002, Menifee County Fiscal Court bought the property. The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund approved a $120,000 grant to help with the purchase.
There's no real way to count the rural park's visitors, but Thomas said, "Every time you're there, there are people there."
Officials plan to commemorate the tornado at the park. Three magnolia trees — one for each of the three Menifee residents killed by the tornado — will be planted in the spring, Thomas said. Another magnolia will honor all the people who lost homes or property, and a fifth tree will honor all the volunteers who helped in the storm's wake.
April 30 will be a cleanup day. The county will solicit volunteers to "pick up the garbage and just tidy it up a bit," Thomas said.
"I have told people I will help fix it up one more time," Thomas said. "But then if something happens, I'm going to say that God's telling us, 'Leave it alone!'"
Stories in this series
This is Day 3 in this series. See the first two at Kentucky.com/tornado:
Stories planned for this week include:
Wednesday: West Liberty's doughboy statue has been repaired.
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.