A View of the Past
Like many young Missourians growing up in the ’50s, I always considered a family outing or school field trip to the massive hydroelectric plant at Bagnell Dam and Lake of the Ozarks exciting, as if I were visiting one of the Eight Wonders of the World. When was it built? How big is the dam? How deep is the lake? The tour guides breathed a sigh of relief when I finally left the building.
Although many of the places I experienced when I was young now seem small and insignificant in retrospect, Bagnell Dam and the Lake of the Ozarks remain monumental achievements a half century after my initial “Wow!” I still ask those same questions today, but now I also think about what all the development of and around the Lake of the Ozarks means for Missouri life and even America itself. Big lake, big questions, I suppose.
And historic Willmore Lodge overlooking Lake of the Ozarks is the perfect vantage point to view all these changes. Its National Register nomination says that the lodge “will house the history of its region,” but Willmore Lodge does even more than that. In nearly eight decades, Willmore Lodge has seen the wheel of Progress come full circle.
The lodge was the first “development” caused by a monumental effort to generate new development of the Osage River region, and its history actually embodies the story of the Lake of the Ozarks.
Historic Willmore Lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It now splendidly houses the Lake of the Ozarks Chamber of Commerce as well as a wonderful museum that explores every aspect of the dam’s construction from bedrock geology to current events, one dam thing after another. It’s also become a lively focal point for special events like weddings and educational programs. The lodge was built by Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation for $135,000 (one condo today) between 1929 and 1930 as the administrative and entertainment headquarters for Union Electric officials overseeing construction of Bagnell Dam along with the vast infrastructure improvements needed to service the dam.
Willmore Lodge was designed in the Arts and Crafts style by noted St. Louis architect Louis LaBeaume. LaBeaume was the former president of the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Architects, member of the City Planning Commission, and president of the St. Louis Art Museum, as well as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. In Willmore Lodge, LaBeaume, who studied architecture at Columbia University in New York, created a rustic retreat reminiscent of the Adirondack Mountain resorts from the ’20s. Respect for local character characterized the Arts and Crafts style, and Willmore Lodge wraps around its site and blends easily into its beautiful natural setting overlooking the lake. Although the hand-notched timber frame structure was built in the Pacific Northwest and then reassembled on the site by hand, the structure used local stone quarried nearby and also features hand-forged chandeliers with intricate vegetative patterns typical of the Arts and Crafts style. The Arts and Crafts style reacted against the Machine Age and industrialization, offering a retro look back toward nineteenth century American craftsmanship, but that was not the future of the Lake of the Ozarks.
From its perch about one-half mile northeast of Bagnell Dam, Willmore Lodge oversaw the metamorphosis of the Osage River valley from a severely depressed, rural backwater to the intensively developed and rapidly growing region it is today. A dam was originally intended to provide power for southeastern Missouri and mighty St. Joseph Lead Company, but by the ’20s, St. Louis-based Union Electric Company envisioned the need for more energy to support the growth of the St. Louis region. The Great Osage River Project was the last major privately funded dam project in the United States and the prototype for major federal hydroelectric initiatives during the Great Depression, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and Hoover Dam. The whole nation looked on with considerable interest. Hungry workers streamed to the area from every state of the Union and lined up for miles in response to new job openings. The Bagnell Dam project created around ten thousand new jobs, and more than 20,000workers participated during the hardest of the Hard Times. Many of them later went on to work on vast federal dam projects in the American West. By the end of World War II, the lake and its spreading shoreline had begun to fill up with new development.
The lodge was sold by Union Electric in 1946 to prominent St. Louis developer Cyrus Willmore. Although Willmore passed away just four years after purchasing the structure, Willmore Lodge became the name everyone used. Cyrus Willmore envisioned wealthy St. Louis sportsmen coming down to the lake region in search of hunting and fishing opportunities at numerous small rustic resorts not unlike Willmore Lodge, but that dream of upper-class exclusivity quickly faded.
As Dwight Weaver, the Lake region’s historian and storyteller observed in Lake of the Ozarks: The Early Years, around the Lake of the Ozarks, “an increasing number of filling stations, roadside eating places, tourist camps, novelty stands, and brightly painted signs with arrows pointing along winding dirt and graveled roads indicated a widely publicized recreational area.” The Lake of the Ozarks had become a democratic, Route 66-kind of American place, where bunches of Baby Boomers like me made pilgrimages with their families and schoolmates.
But the times were changing. Willmore Lodge was sold in 1969 to another prominent St. Louis developer, Harold Koplar. The ’70s brought improved highway access to the Lake region and witnessed new developments around the lake such as Tan-Tar-A Lodge and The Lodge of Four Seasons. More and more “weekenders” uninterested in rustic resorts flocked to the lake to escape the city but brought traffic and increased demand for city comforts with them. The Lake of the Ozarks was evolving once again into an extension of big metropolitan regions like St. Louis and Kansas City.
During the ’80s, developers bought and sold stocks and companies and communities as if they were the little characters in a computer game of Pong. A large, national development organization called the North Port Company bought Willmore Lodge and its surrounding site in 1988. The company planned to demolish the lodge and build condos and a major golf course development around the site. But “man plans, God laughs” as my grandmother might say, and the development company went bankrupt in 1996. The fate of Willmore Lodge now rested on the Camden County Courthouse steps.
Union Electric (soon to be renamed AmerenUE) purchased the orphaned child at a foreclosure sale in 1996, then agreed to lease Willmore Lodge and its grounds to the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce for ten dollars annually if the Chamber would renovate it for its offices and a museum showcasing the region. With the aid of a state grant and an enormous outpouring of community support, the Chamber of Commerce quickly turned the imperiled lodge into a community focal point.
Ron Hill, Union Electric’s manager of real estate, announced in March 1997: “This arrangement extends the life of a building that is important to the lake’s heritage. It protects a valuable resource and the land around it. Perhaps just as important, it preserves from commercial development one of the most outstanding views of the lake and Bagnell Dam you’ll find anywhere.” Preserving the first development site from further commercial development meant that the wheel of Progress had come full circle since the Great Depression. So now what?
Karen Kopis, the knowledgeable and enthusiastic director of Visitor Relations for the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, observes that people expressed “horror and dismay” at the possibility Willmore Lodge might be demolished. They also consistently remark in the Lodge’s visitor comment book upon the great view of the lake, the remarkable natural setting of the lodge, and its marvelous craftsmanship. She also noted strong demand exists from visitors for the small, rustic resorts that condominium development has now pushed aside, perhaps reflecting that same impulse that gave rise to the Arts and Crafts style of Willmore Lodge itself.
Tourism today increasingly emphasizes sustainability and awareness of the natural environment. For example, Karen notes the growing popularity of the annual Eagle Days at Lake of the Ozarks, held in January and led by a Department of Natural Resources naturalist. The event enables visitors to view our national symbol both lakeside and riverside. She says that the number of Eagle Days visitors quickly outgrew Willmore Lodge’s capacity to accommodate them, so the lodge now serves as the event’s headquarters instead. As private development of the lake accelerates, the great public view from Willmore Lodge, so evident at times like Eagle Days, becomes even more valuable to ordinary visitors like myself.
Residents and visitors are also increasingly interested in the region’s heritage. The museum at Willmore Lodge depicts all aspects of Bagnell Dam and its construction; the museum and its handicapped-accessible layout replaced the former dam tours I remember. The museum tells the fascinating story of the region’s transformation with original photos, maps, artifacts, and interactive exhibits designed for that kid with all the questions, with occasional glimpses of the lake and dam punctuating the museum displays. You can play with an exhibit showing how Bagnell Dam generates your electricity, step back in time by viewing old photos of the untamed Osage River and its lost Atlantises—Linn Creek, Zebra, Passover, Arnolds Mills, and Nonsuch that now exist only in the memory of the museum—or follow a cutaway map all the way to the bedrock core of the dam itself.
The Lake of the Ozarks is no longer just a haven for wealthy sportsmen, a tourist paradise, or a playground for fleeing city dwellers; it has evolved into a metropolitan region that is now rapidly developing on its own. I doubt if many people want to turn back the clock to before Bagnell Dam, but from its eagle’s perch, Willmore Lodge poses a constant reminder of the challenges facing sustainable regional development. It seems to ask: What will last here? Who will care? From Willmore Lodge, we can learn how difficult it really is to develop in a rocky, hilly, marine environment; how to respect your setting and heritage in creating new development; and how to become part of the place itself.