Like Tom Sawyer, Lex Brown spent many of his boyhood days sneaking off to the river that borders the fertile bottomland of his family's beef cattle operation in Cleburne County. Brown's family realized he was hooked on floating, fishing and hunting the scenic Tallapoosa River when their son bought a flat-bottom boat with his own money at age 12.
|Lex Brown and his wife Robin prepare for a trip.|
Now 31, Brown has supplemented his town job and cattle income by turning his childhood playground into a profitable venture known as Tallapoosa River Outfitters. TRO, which opened for business in April 2005, was Brown's longtime dream, a dream he now shares with his wife, Robin.
Thanks to the efforts of Loyd Owens, a director of the Cleburne County Farmers Federation and district supervisor with the Cleburne Soil and Water Conservation District, funding for boat ramps and campsites along the river opened the door for Brown's dream when the Loyd Owens Canoe Trail officially opened June 25, 2004.
To start his river outfitting service, Brown needed canoes, kayaks and a way to haul equipment and people to different access points on the river. He converted an old square-bale hay trailer into a hauler for canoes and kayaks. After that, he bought a 1990 model Chevrolet Suburban that allowed him to haul up to 10 people, and he put a rack on the roof to haul four additional watercraft.
Now, one year later, Brown uses the hay trailer, a gooseneck-style canoe hauler, and is currently converting a third utility trailer to keep up with the demand for his rapidly growing business.
"I want to expand the business to be able to handle groups of 40 to 60 during the weekends with the goal of adding rental cabins," says Brown.
According to Brown, this section of river is great for beginners or even experienced canoeists just wanting to relax and see wildflowers and wildlife.
"We want to offer a family- oriented atmosphere by targeting church, Boy Scouts and corporate groups," he says. "The river is mostly calm, flat water, but there are a few Class One rapids that offer some excitement."
Brown says there is flexibility on trip length because there are many suitable spots to put into the river above the take-out point on his property.
"Most customers request the three- to four-hour trip or the five- to six-hour trip," he says. "We offer primitive camping at the take-out spot, and we also use a public campground up the river at Dryden's Mill where there are restrooms, picnic tables and covered pavilions." TRO offers overnight trips up to five-night, 50-mile trips.
Brown runs a shuttle service for customers who bring their own boats. "This allows customers to arrive in one vehicle, and we can shuttle them up river so they don't have to have a vehicle at both the beginning and ending point," he said.
He says he plans to add a small shop near the campground where paddling and camping accessories will be available for rent and sale.
"Our campground is located adjacent to a two-acre sand bar that is a great play spot for the kids," Brown said. "We felt like this would be a good gathering spot for the outdoor shop.
"The main thing people comment on when they float this section of the Tallapoosa is the beautiful, undisturbed scenery," said Brown. "The U.S. Department of the Interior designated the 40-mile stretch of river running from the Georgia line to U.S. 431 in south Cleburne County as the cleanest river east of the Mississippi."
The Browns' family farm and outfitting business is three miles south of Interstate 20 on Alabama 46.
"We are blessed by having areas close by such as Cheaha State Park, the Talladega National Forest and several wilderness and wildlife management areas," Brown said. "Customers could spend the morning hiking on Cheaha Mountain, and come down to the Tallapoosa River for canoeing and camping that evening."
The land on which he runs his business has been in the Brown family since 1892. "The campground spot is where my great granddaddy ran a grist mill and general store off the bank of the river," said the young entrepreneur. "This was known as the Bell's Mill Community, a thriving area during the early 1900s."
Brown and his wife now live in his grandparents' house that overlooks the river bottom and surrounding Tallapoosa River. "The original house was built in 1894," says Brown. "It burned and was rebuilt in 1940." He restored the house to its original 1940-era style and added on living space once he and Robin married.
Brown has always had a desire to live the rural lifestyle. "We knew we wanted to live on the family farm overlooking the river once we were married," he said. "The completion of the canoe trail makes where we live a perfect fit for this business."
Brown also serves on the development committee for Cleburne County. His river outfitting business is in line with the goals of the members of the committee. "Instead of strip malls and urban development, we want to see more development of natural resources, tourism and the farming community," he said. "So far, Tallapoosa River Outfitters has shown that rural areas can be developed without compromising the rural setting."
Brown completed his master's in business administration in December 2004 and works at First South Farm Credit in Oxford. He balances the canoe outfitting business and his beef cattle operation on the weekends. "If the business continues to grow like it has this past year, hopefully, Robin will be able to stay home and run the outfitting business, keep an eye on the farm, and we can raise a family so she doesn't have to work a public job."
In addition to his banking, farming and outfitting business, Brown also serves as the Federation's Cleburne County Young Farmers chairman.
Even though his schedule keeps him quite busy, he manages to keep the young Tom Sawyer in himself alive through the Tallapoosa River.
John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin, Alabama.