When Richard "Dick" Shely Jr. was a boy in rural Clark County during the 1930s, his father often sent him hiking into the valley of Lower Howard's Creek to count the family's cattle.
Decades later, Shely confessed to his friend, Clare Sipple, that he'd go to the creek as instructed and count a few cattle, but he'd spend most of the day swimming, fishing or wandering in the woods.
Shely later became wealthy in the construction business, but he never forgot those idyllic days. When he died last year at age 88, Shely left a bequest of $500,000 to the Lower Howard's Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve, which now encompasses almost 340 acres in the deep valley where Shely loved to roam long ago.
"It's a wonderful gift, and so unexpected," said Sipple, who now manages the nature preserve on Athens-Boonesboro Road in southern Clark County. "I just think that when Dick was completing his will, he must have been reminiscing about growing up down here and his affection for this part of the country."
Shely's bequest, the largest gift ever to the Clark County preserve, goes to the Clark County Community Foundation for the sole benefit of the preserve. It will more than quadruple the preserve's endowment to support operating expenses, foundation director Will Hodgkin said.
"The endowment is about $145,000 now, but this will push it up to almost $650,000," Hodgkin said.
Shely's bequest was made public earlier this week, after his estate was settled.
Owned by Clark County, the Lower Howard's Creek facility is an official Kentucky state nature preserve. It includes woods, waterfalls, wildflowers, about five miles of trails and several historic sites, said Don Dott, executive director of the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.
Dott said that when Kentucky pioneers began expanding out of nearby Boonesborough, many moved to Lower Howard's Creek, where they used its abundant water power to establish mills to grind corn or other grain. Remains of several such stone structures stand in the preserve, he said.
Sipple said Shely's great-grandfather owned one of the last mills in the creek valley.
Many years later, Lexington businessman and philanthropist William T. Young acquired some of the Shely family land from Richard Shely's sister, Pat Shely of Winchester. When Clark County officials decided to start a nature preserve on Lower Howard's Creek in 2000, the first land they bought was from Young.
Hodgkin said Young had wisely kept the land undeveloped.
"To his credit, when he realized the historic significance of the land, he never touched it," Hodgkin said. "He left everything just as it was."
Sipple said the preserve has added several more parcels in recent years through funding from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund. Preserve officials recently opened a public hiking trail next to Hall's on the River restaurant on Athens-Boonesboro Road, and they hope to acquire more land in the next year or so, she said.
Sipple, who met Dick Shely in the late 1960s and often went horseback riding with him in the area along Lower Howard's Creek, said Shely's gift wold help keep the preserve flourishing for years.
"Land needs management, and we're always removing brush, clearing invasive species and shoring up some of the old stone structures," she said. "You can't go down there and not be moved by the grandeur of it all."