It's a big damn birthday


Saturday, Apr. 29 2006

LAKE OZARK, MO. • Lloyd Slone recalled the morning more than 75 years ago when
he showed up to land a job on what would be the Great Depression’s largest
construction project — building Bagnell Dam across the Osage River.

“Daylight come, you couldn’t see the end of the line,” said Slone, now 93.
“People tried to get ahead of you; fights broke out. They were fighting for
jobs.”

The year was 1929, and although he was just 17, Slone held his own in the
skirmishes and attracted the attention of the hiring boss. He got a job cutting
brush, directing mule teams — anything he could to earn his pay.

“You were supposed to be 18 to get hired. I was 18 on that day,” he said with a
smile.

Bagnell Dam was completed in just 22 months, a phenomenal accomplishment that
would be hard to duplicate even in modern times. Some 20,500 workers were
employed on the project, and Slone may be the last one standing.

“He’s the last living worker on the dam as far as we know,” said Alan Sullivan,
consulting engineer with AmerenUE, the owner of the dam and the land beneath
the 54,000-acre Lake of the Ozarks. Sullivan, who is Slone’s nephew, has worked
at the dam for 29 years and said his uncle prides himself in saying his work
gave the boy a job.

“I found his and my grandpa’s name on an old payroll book,” Sullivan said.
“They were paid 35 cents an hour and there were deductions for room and board
in the bunkhouse.”

Slone lives in Eldon at an assisted-care home, where he met Sylvia, his wife of
three years. “Saw her from all the way across the dining room. I said, ‘Boy, I’
ve got to meet that gal.’ I had to get to work.”

Sylvia has her own version of love at first sight: “Lloyd’s kind of lost his
eyesight, and I have a car.”

Bagnell Dam will celebrate its 75th anniversary this summer, and a lot has
changed over the years. The dam still produces electricity through water power,
providing pollution-free energy that is especially important during peak usage
periods. But the community that grew up around the lake has evolved from a
sleepy fishing destination to a small city of designer outlet malls (110 top
names), signature golf courses (17) and pricey vacation homes (some rent for
$1,100 a day).

Because the land by the lake was privately owned, it could be sold right at the
water’s edge. Mom ’n Pop resorts with fishing docks were the first wave, but in
the last decade have been replaced by sleek condos and multistory homes with
seaworthy boats, the bigger the better, in the slips.

Sullivan said Union Electric Co., which built the dam and later became
AmerenUE, owned most of the real estate around the lake in the 1940s. “We were
told by the Federal Power Commission to either be in the power business or the
real estate business; we couldn’t do both,” he said.

“Bad choice — we took power,” he said with a grin. “Nobody had a clue what this
was going to become 75 years later.”

This is not your grandpa’s fishing lake anymore, although you can still find a
quiet cove to cast for crappie away from the main channel, especially on
weekdays. Still, on a four-day search for the past, I found remnants of the
bygone era hanging on.

The classy Blue Heron Restaurant still has the best view and sells battered
lobster tails on a bed of shoestring potatoes. Open the outhouse at the
Dogpatch souvenir shop on the dam’s tacky “strip” and the hillbilly inside
still yells, “Close the door! Cain’t you see I’m busy?”

And age-old Bridal Cave, which has its own boat dock, still serves as a
backdrop for weddings. The tally’s at 2,026 and counting. Manager Dave Thompson
said some old-timers resent the growth at the lake, but it has allowed
businesses such as his to prosper.

“It’s not so much a ghost town in wintertime,” Thompson said. “Ten years ago,
there’d be days when we’d have no tours. Now, that’s a rarity.”

A lake within a city

The Osage were the first known residents of the river valley, followed by
French trappers in 1714, and white settlers after the land became part of the
Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Small towns such as Lively, Nonsuch and Zebra had
grown around water-powered grist mills by the time a Kansas Citian named Ralph
W. Street proposed damming the river in 1912.

But Street ran out of money, and Union Electric took up the project on Aug. 6,
1929. When completed in 1931, at a cost of $30 million, the dam was half a mile
long, rose 148 feet from bedrock, held back 600 billion gallons of water and
was said to produce enough electricity to provide 45,000 homes with a year’s
worth of power.

The dam was named after William Bagnell, founder of a tiny village bearing his
name that grew in the 1850s four miles downstream from the dam. Politicians
wanted to name the impounded water Lake Benton in honor of Sen. Thomas Hart
Benton, but a feud erupted in Jefferson City and UE stepped in to declare it
the Lake of the Ozarks.

The village of Bagnell has grown little; Jerome Schulte today is mayor of its
89 residents. The main business in town is Schulte’s Camp Bagnell Fish and
Steakhouse, where steaks are cut and sold by the ounce. “If you’re a big eater,
we’ll cut you a 36-ouncer,” said Schulte.

H. Dwight Weaver, a historian who has written three books about the Lake of the
Ozarks, said the dam originally was planned 80 percent for hydropower and 20
percent for recreation.

“When the dam was being built, it was the largest tourist attraction in the
Midwest,” Weaver said. “People sold everything they had and came down and
opened resorts and cafes. Unfortunately, a lot of them went broke. There wasn’t
enough money flowing through year- round.”

Development started in the three-quarter-mile entertainment strip, with
Dogpatch one of the first souvenir stands. Growth spread in the 1950s and 60s,
with improvements to Highway 54 in the 1970s funneling traffic, and interest,
to the Osage Beach area.

“We had early condos in the ’70s, but they weren’t these towering monuments,”
Weaver said. “You began to see them sprout along the lake 10 years ago, with it
really taking off in the last five years. What it’s becoming is a city with a
lake in the middle. It’s already the third-largest city in the state during the
summer.”

Last one in

Joel Pottinger was a schoolteacher in Iowa in 1976 when he visited the Lake of
the Ozarks and decided to pull up stakes and start a new career as owner of the
Three Seasons Resort. The resort is now a condo, and Pottinger is winding up a
20-year stint as mayor of Osage Beach and head of the lake’s convention and
visitors bureau.

Pottinger estimated there are some 8,000 condo units on the 1,150 miles of
shoreline, “with another 7,000-plus under construction, a number that continues
to get larger.”

About 15 percent of the condos are rented by their owners to vacationing
visitors, adding to the 7,500 lodging units available at hotels and motels. The
lake area also has some 1,500 camping spots, most at Lake of the Ozarks State
Park. The lake’s second state park, Ha Ha Tonka, is known for its scenic spring
and castle ruins.

“The average age of our visitor is 48,” Pottinger said. “They stay 4 1⁄2 days,
which is longer than the state average of two days. They are more affluent than
average.”

Pottinger said the economy of the Lake of the Ozarks has changed in the past
decade from being driven by visitors to being dominated by the second-home
owner.

“We wouldn’t have all these shops and restaurants if it weren’t for the
second-home owner,” he said. “But it’s a wonderful thing for the tourists. You
can stay for two weeks and not eat at the same place.”

Tourism to the lake may increase, Pottinger said, with the building of a new
$122-million, eight-mile expressway through Osage Beach, scheduled to be
completed in 2010, and the addition of a proposed exhibition center to attract
year-round conventions.

“Some people are concerned that our lake is overdeveloped,” Pottinger said. “On
a weekend, when the weather is nice, you have to have a pretty good-sized boat,
32 feet or more, to get out on the main channel.

“But I always say that the last person who moves to the Lake of the Ozarks
wants to be the last person to move to the Lake of the Ozarks.”

Enduring legacies

Two St. Louis entrepreneurs were the first to realize the potential of the lake
as a playground for city dwellers. Builder Burton Duenke opened his original
Tan-Tar-A cabins in 1960, and Harold Koplar, owner of the Chase Park Plaza,
followed with the Lodge of the Four Seasons four years later.

Both men are deceased, but lived long enough to nurse their projects through
the growing pains and create legacies that linger today. Tan-Tar-A and the
Lodge remain the lake’s two upscale resorts, with the first aiming at families
while the latter caters to the golf-and-spa desires of adults.

Columbia Sussex, which has corporate headquarters in Kentucky, bought Tan-Tar-A
from Marriott in 2001 and has added a 133-room tower, bringing the total number
of rental units to 497 on 420 acres, which includes 27 holes of golf.

But Fred Dehner, the resort’s general manager, was proudest of the new outdoor
swimming complex on the lakefront and the $5-million indoor water park, both
designed with families in mind.

“If they stay here, we’ve got everything they need — from miniature golf to
horseback riding to full-service marina to bowling alley to arcade,” Dehner
said. “With the addition of the indoor water park, it’s not just a summer
destination.”

At the Lodge of the Four Seasons, the big new addition is the $2-million Spa
Shiki, with a full range of services, to go with 63 holes of golf, including 18
holes across the lake at the new Porto Cima development.

You can get to the west side of the lake because of the opening in 1998 of a
toll bridge. It was financed by local investors, including a corporation formed
by Peter and Susan Brown, owners of the Lodge. Susan Brown is Harold Koplar’s
daughter, and easy access to the west side makes the 2,400 acres he bought
there a gold mine.

The Browns’ Porto Cima development of homes and condos on the west shore is the
toniest address on the lake, with a yacht club, clubhouse, swimming pool and
Missouri’s only Jack Nicklaus signature golf course.

“We have more golf than anybody in the area and built the spa at the right
time,” said Mark Brown, the Browns’ son, who grew up on the lake and now runs
the Lodge. “I don’t think we’ve lost a lot of lake lovers because of traffic
and crowds. There’s room for everybody, the lake is so huge.”

An irritated hillbilly

When development and traffic bypassed the old entertainment area near the dam,
it left the three-quarter-mile strip of taffy shops, souvenir stands, flea
markets and skee ball arcades sitting in a time warp. Mike Page prefers it that
way.

Page owns Dogpatch, the souvenir shop opened in 1947 by Walter Tietmeyer, the
P.T. Barnum of Bagnell Dam. Tietmeyer brought in piano-playing chickens,
wax-faced fortune tellers and hillbillies who squawked when you disturbed their
privacy.

“Walter had a petting zoo, a snake pit and a caged lion,” Page said. “The
schoolhouse was just across the street and the kids said they could hear the
lion roar when the windows were open. When I bought the place in 1993, there
was still a chicken walking around.”

Dogpatch still sells beaded Indian belts and salt-and-pepper shakers made of
homegrown cedar and shaped like tiny outhouses. You can get your fortune told,
put a quarter in the player piano or check your sexual prowess for a dime on
the Love Tester. I squeezed the handle and it registered “harmless,” while “hot
stuff” and “uncontrollable” stood at the top of the heap.

“We had a developer last year who wanted to bulldoze the whole strip and start
over,” Page said. “I looked at his plans and right here it had ‘New Dogpatch.’
I said, ‘What’s wrong with the old one?’ ”

In the yard out back, I opened the outhouse door and recognized the voice. The
old recording had worn out, and Page did a nice job imitating an irritated
hillbilly on the new one.

“You go to the outlet mall in St. Louis or someplace, it’s no different,” he
said. “You come down here, and it’s part of the fun. It’s got a nostalgic feel,
and we want to preserve it.”

tuhlenbrock@post-dispatch.com | 314-340-8268

If you go...

For more information: For listings of the hotels, motels, condos and other
lodging available at the Lake of the Ozarks, call 1-800-386-5253 or visit
www.funlake.com.

Where to eat: The area has 100-plus restaurants. These are a few we sampled:
Plaza III, which operates a renowned steakhouse at Kansas City’s Country Club
Plaza, has opened another Plaza III (1-888-346-4949 and www.oldkinderhook.com)
in the luxurious Old Kinderhook development off U.S. 54 near Camdenton. The
filet and sautéed jumbo shrimp were fabulous. Windrose at Tan-Tar-A and HK’s at
the Lodge of the Four Seasons also offer gourmet dining. Camp Bagnell Fish and
Steakhouse is at 1-573-365-1000 and www.campbagnell.com. Tonka Hills Restaurant
and Stewart’s near the dam offer food good enough for the locals to eat. The
Blue Heron on Highway HH is at 1-573-365-4646.

Tan-Tar-A and the Lodge of the Four Seasons: Tan-Tar-A (1-573-348-3131 and
www.tan-tar-a.com) has family rates of $99 a night for four-night stays, $109
for three nights. Lodge of the Four Seasons (1-800-843-5253 and
www.4seasonsresort.com) has rates from $100 in the off-season to $179 in
season, and also has multinight packages.

State Parks: For information on recreational activities at Lake of the Ozarks
or Ha Ha Tonka state parks, call 1-800-334-6946 or visit www.mostateparks.com.

Scenic cruises: A good way to see the sights is aboard the Tropic Island, a
150-passenger cruise boat that operates out of the Lodge of the Four Seasons. A
90-minute cruise is $15 for adults, $10 for children 4-12. The boat has snacks
and beverages, including beer and mixed drinks, and is available for private
charters. Call 1-573-348-0083 or visit www.tropicislandcruises.com.

Bridal Cave: Open daily at 9 a.m. year-round. Tours are $13 for adults, $6.50
for children 5-12. Call 1-573-346-2676 or visit www.bridalcave.com.

Research: H. Dwight Weaver has written the “History and Geography of Lake of
the Ozarks,” “Lake of the Ozarks, Vintage Vacation Paradise” and “Lake of the
Ozarks, The Early Years.” They are available through Arcadia Publishing at
1-843-853-2070 and www.arcadiapublishing.com.

BY TOM UHLENBROCK

_________________

Harbor Hop, May 6

The 9th annual Spring Harbor Hop is set for 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, May 6,
at the Lake of the Ozarks to kick off the boating season.

The “poker run” event attracts as many as 1,500 participants, who cruise among
46 check points, drawing cards for a potentially winning poker hand.

Prizes are awarded for first through 10th place. Amounts are based on money
raised from entry donations and paid in the form of gift certificates
redeemable at the Harbor Hop sponsors.

Call 1-800-386-5253 or visit www.funlake.com.

Big birthday party at the lake will include — who else? — the Beach Boys

A Beach Boys concert is among the activities for the big weekend, Sept. 8-10,
celebrating the 75th anniversary of the building of Bagnell Dam. The concert
will be on Sept. 9 at the Horny Toad. Call 1-573-365-5500 for information and
tickets. Proceeds will benefit the YMCA.

AmerenUE will offer “last chance” tours of the dam from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. that
weekend. The company stopped giving tours 10 years ago. For groups of 10 or
more, call 1-573-365-9314.

The 6th annual Fall Festival will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Osage
Beach City Hall. Call 1-573-302-2000, Ext. 258.

Other events are scheduled throughout the season: The Independence Day weekend
will include fireworks on the water from several sites, and the Laurie
Hillbilly BBQ Cook-off is the weekend of Aug. 4-5.

For a list of events, visit www.funlake.com/events.

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