20 Years on Bugle Mountain
It’s a beautiful day on Bugle Mountain. The air is clean and fresh. Storms ravaged the area last night, but the lush green Ozark hills held their own. Now named for the Rocky Mountain elk that bugle on its pastures in the heart of Taney County on the Beaver Creek Elk and Cattle Ranch, this particular hill was once known as Bee Bait Bald. Locals used it to lure bees there and track them back to their hives. Even though James Leon Combs grew up in the area in the ’40s, he first set foot on Bugle Mountain in 1989.
Leon grew up nearby in the small community of Bradleyville. He thought once that he would never return—until his wife, Dorothy, caught sight of it and caused Leon to see it through different eyes. “It’s a beautiful, wonderful place,” she says. “Who wouldn’t want to live here?”
Their first home in the area was on 120 acres in a hollow near their current home. It was a small house, which they call the Reese House after the former owner, Albert Reese. As properties became available, Leon and Dorothy bought adjacent farms and now own 3,300 acres of pastures, forests, and streams nestled along the Mark Twain National Forest.
The first dynamite blasts into the mountain went off in the fall of 1995, and in the spring of 1998, the Combses moved in. “You could never see the sunrise or the sunset,” Dorothy says, from their first home in the hollow. From their veranda now, not only can both the sunrise and sunset be enjoyed but also the night lights of Branson, Springfield, and Ava.
It’s a large house. At 14,535 square feet, it could house several families, and often does. One of the factors that went into the size of the house was the lack of lodging in the area and the size of the Combs’ family. They have seven children between them and fourteen grandchildren who come twice a year. There are five bedroom suites, each with its own bathroom and private entrance. There is also a conservatory, a craft studio, a recreation room, a library, a maid’s quarters (though they don’t employ any live-in help), and a gym, complete with a whirlpool spa and a sauna. Eleven bathrooms are scattered throughout the home, and ten furnaces and ten air conditioners provide climate-controlled zones.
“This is a very comfortable house for two old people,” Leon says. “Course, we don’t need a house like this, but when we get all of our kids together—and they all come—they come in droves. When you’re raised like I was, in a poor family with no electricity, no running water, no telephones, it’s quite a change in lifestyle,” he adds. As a teenager, he swam in Beaver Creek, which runs through the ranch for three miles, and hunted, fished, and played basketball. To hear him tell it, he had a great life. But at the same time, in the ’40s and ’50s, he felt deprived because visitors who came seemed more fortunate. At seventeen he left Bradleyville, went to college, became the No. 1 salesman for Jostens for fifteen consecutive years, bought Sanford-Brown College in St. Louis in 1981, and opened truck-driving schools in Crystal City, Missouri; Granite City, Illinois; and Dayton, Ohio. He worked hard to make a living and credits his work ethic to his parents, Etcyl and Susie Combs.
So when he returned to the area with Dorothy and began construction on the home, he says: “I told the builders, ‘I want this to be a first-class Ozark home. I want it to reflect the hills. I want it to be something that my local friends can come in and be comfortable in.’” Designed by the late Steve Busch of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the home is European country, with the flavor of the Ozarks blended in beautifully. Steve had designed several upscale homes in southwest Missouri and was the third architect to design a home for the site. His vision is nothing short of a castle, high on a hill overlooking the Ozarks below.
Because the home sits on a hillside, terrain was one obstacle the builder, Ron Middleton of Middleton Homes of Nixa, had to overcome. Another was the design of the home itself. “The way that it was cut up, there weren’t too many straight walls,” he says. His first priority was to construct the foundation with the best materials possible because then the rest of the home comes together well.
Limestone boulders, an abundant material in the Ozarks, were brought in from along Highway 125 near Chadwick as well as quarried on the property from Kentucky Hollow, named after settlers who came from Kentucky, some of which were Leon’s ancestors. Stones were custom cut for the home’s exterior, as well as for each of the three fireplaces.
To complement the natural look and feel of the limestone, an exhaustive search was made for a complementary brick. In the end, it was the old world charm of the Kansas City railroad yard that emerged. Seventy thousand historic pavers from the streets of the yard took up a new residence on the exterior of the home. Historic elements are a passion for Ron, who’s been building houses since 1975. He also found large 125-year-old heart of pine beams from textile mills in North Carolina that now grace the home’s ceiling and floors.
“We’ve always tried to use old materials, best we can,” Ron says. “The old bricks and beams, that’s just what I’ve done over the years; I’ve gone all over the country snooping for that kind of stuff.” The grounds that surround the home have been developed with just as much attention to detail. Samson, a giant bronze bull elk, keeps watch over Bugle Mountain. The sculpture, created by Wyoming artist Chris Navarro, is bolted into a limestone base just off the main driveway. The pool and waterfall also feature natural stone found in the area. Water spills over a negative edge drop from the pool to Lake Jordan, or at least it appears to do so. The waterfall is actually split into two sections: One recycles the pool water back up to the pool, and the other pumps water from the lake up the hill to cascade down the hillside, providing aeration for the fish in the lake and giving the impression of a singular stream. Lake Jordan, named after a granddaughter, was created with the grandchildren in mind for fishing, canoeing, and paddle boating. It also serves a secondary purpose: three million gallons of water for fire insurance.
More than size or materials, the Combs’ home was built for sharing. Weddings and fundraisers, schoolchildren and complete strangers have enjoyed Leon and Dorothy’s Ozark hospitality. On more than one occasion, the curious have also ventured onto the grounds. “It’s just people, good people who want to see,” Leon says. “If I’m here, I’ve gone down and opened the gate and shown them around. “You don’t see this around everywhere. It’s kind of a gross display of wealth, and I didn’t think about that until it was done. I thank God everyday. I don’t know exactly what caused this to happen except I’ve worked hard.”
The Combses also host fundraisers as well as Bradleyville community events. In his “retirement,” Leon sits on the board of directors for Skaggs Hospital in Branson, University of Missouri Press, Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Boys and Girls Club, and more, as well as authoring several books. (He sold the movie rights to his book Hicks from the Sticks, which tells the true story of the state champion ’62, ’67, and ’68 basketball teams from Bradleyville. The movie is still in the production stage.) Dorothy especially enjoys having the area schoolchildren come out for an annual pool party and having friends out for the annual girlfriends’ weekend.
Leon also has a soft spot for the kids in the area. Fourteen years ago, along with Lonnie Combs, one of the Hicks from the Sticks and Leon’s first cousin, he established a scholarship for Bradleyville students continuing their education at a college or university. Every student, based solely on the fact that they went to Bradleyville High School, receives a one-thousand-dollar scholarship each year they attend a post-secondary institution. The scholarship is funded though an annual Bradleyville Run/Walk each May, after which the Combses host an open-house party at their home. To date, more than $250,000 have been awarded.
“You know, the Combses are wonderful people,” Ron says. “They’re not selfish people.” He notes that Leon’s intentions always seemed to include the community."
“This home is meant to be shared,” Dorothy says. “After we’ve had people out, they always say, ‘Your house will never be the same,’ but it always is.”