Tom Eblen

He clears brush, rebuilds stone walls at nature park. Keeps him busy at 92.

Bill Crankshaw, 92, pulls out a honeysuckle limb he has cut at Lower Howard's Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve.
Bill Crankshaw, 92, pulls out a honeysuckle limb he has cut at Lower Howard's Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve. teblen@herald-leader.com

When one of his younger volunteers at the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve couldn’t get the all-terrain gator started, Bill Crankshaw climbed behind the wheel and fired it up.

Then he drove his crew lickety-split — down a rocky hill, across a creek and over narrow wagon trails from Daniel Boone’s time — to the section of the forest where they would be working that day.

As they do almost every Tuesday, Crankshaw and his helpers planned to spend five hours sawing, chopping, digging and spraying invasive honeysuckle bushes the size of small trees. When winter comes, they clear trails and rebuild old stone fences.

It was hard work on a hot and humid day, but you didn’t hear any complaints from these 70-something volunteers. That’s because Crankshaw, their leader, is 92.

“Bill is the Energizer bunny; he can just go and go and go,” said Clare Sipple, who manages the 424-acre Clark County nature preserve. “He’s also good at attracting like-minded people, and they work just as hard as he does.”

Crankshaw is a retired forest ecologist and forestry professor who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, taught at Ball State and Purdue universities in his native Indiana and spent much of his career in California and South Carolina. Before that, he served in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Crankshaw and his wife, Marilyn, moved to Central Kentucky in 2000 to be near the youngest of their four children, Ned Crankshaw, a University of Kentucky professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture.

While restoring an old house in Winchester, the Crankshaws looked for volunteer opportunities. A lifelong outdoorsman, Bill volunteered at Raven Run Nature Sanctuary and the UK Arboretum. Sipple, his next-door neighbor at the time, recruited him for Lower Howard’s Creek.

Crankshaw works most weeks with a dedicated team of six or eight retired men. He is always looking for new volunteers — especially younger ones, if they can keep up. (Write him at: wbcrankshaw@gmail.com.)

“He’s an inspiration,” said Jerry Redden, 75, a retired toolmaker who has volunteered for several years. “I want to be like Bill when and if I get to be his age.”

Crankshaw said he enjoys working in the woods with a hand saw, a pair of limb loppers, a bottle of Roundup herbicide and a Pulaski, an old forester’s tool that combines an ax and mattock. Since 2001, he and his crew have cleared 160 acres of honeysuckle, built six or seven trails and rebuilt several hundred linear feet of pioneer stone fences.

Lower Howard’s Creek was settled soon after nearby Fort Boonesborough was established in 1775. Within a few years, the valley had become the largest manufacturing center west of the Allegheny Mountains. It had gristmills, sawmills, distilleries, barrel makers, leather tanneries, a woolen factory, a warehouse, blacksmith shops, a store, a tavern and a boat yard.

The area’s fortunes declined after the Civil War and most people had moved out by the early 1900s. Nature steadily reclaimed the landscape, although remnants of stone mills, houses and foundations can be seen among the trees and wildflowers.

The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund acquired 228 acres in 2001 and it was designated a state nature preserve owned by Clark County Fiscal Court. Since then, 196 more acres have been acquired for the preserve, which has a public hiking trail that starts beside Halls on the River restaurant. The rest of the preserve is open only for guided hikes. (Information: Lowerhowardscreek.org.)

Like other areas of the Palisades, the biggest threat to Lower Howard’s Creek is invasive plant species, especially bush honeysuckle, whose seeds are spread by birds. The Asian plant chokes out everything else in the forest.

“The difference he has made is exponential,” Sipple said of Crankshaw. “Where he’s cleared, all of these native plants just take off again. The difference is amazing.”

Crankshaw and his wife have been community volunteers all their lives. For relaxation, he canes chairs and she knits. “When your parents tell you idle hands are the devil’s workshop, you kind of take that seriously,” he said.

Crankshaw leads wildflower hikes through Lower Howard’s Creek each spring. After hiking several miles with his guests, his only concession to age is riding the gator up the big hill out of the gorge at the end.

“Each year I wonder if this will be my last,” Crankshaw said. “But the best way to keep moving is to keep moving.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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