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Meramac3Illustrated Photo of The Meramec River by Andrea Watkins.
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Meramac Lodges 1
I settled in my lawn chair for the show.
Silhouetted by a spectacular sunset over a picture-postcard valley, five musicians launched into vocal harmonies punctuated by fine fiddlin’ and pickin’. Their stage was a concrete poolside tarmac. The crowd sat in lawn chairs and on blankets in this natural amphitheater, a gentle slope softened by thick bluegrass.
Traditional bluegrass fans have little tolerance for a band that strays so easily into Buddy Holly anthems. But the crowd loved the Stringtown String Band in this intimate venue where folks mingle with bands like The Amazing Rhythm Aces and Asleep at the Wheel. The lineup this fall is no less impressive with legends Poco, Arlo Guthrie, The Guess Who, and Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
Where is this place? It’s near nirvana. And like nirvana, you take a winding road to get there.
It was late Saturday afternoon. I’d just departed from a delightful walk through Dillard Mill, a relic fixed firmly against a hairpin turn in the Huzzah River, a vigorous Ozark stream often overlooked until it meanders nearer the Meramec. Taking the back roads, I crossed the Huzzah thrice more before descending into Steelville.
As the self-proclaimed Floating Capital of Missouri, the town caters to lovers of the great outdoors. Before there was a Luckytown, Steelville won the lottery. Well, to be precise, the town is the beneficiary of a lottery winner. In 1990, telephone regulators held a lottery to determine which phone companies would provide rural service to the burgeoning cellular phone demand. Among the winners was tiny Steelville Telephone Exchange. The company parlayed that windfall into great service, not only to telephone customers but to the community and its schools.
Just up the hill from Steelville, overlooking the Meramec River valley, sits Wildwood Springs Lodge. For eight decades, the lodge has clung to its lofty perch. And like many of the musical acts performing poolside or in the cozy lobby, the lodge is a survivor. Like most 85-year-olds, the lodge has endured peaks and valleys.
Today the lodge thrives. Owner Robert Bell brings in the talent, including the bands, the hotel staff, and the cuisine. He’s revived a long history of great music and great times at the lodge.
Like a proud grandparent, the lodge displays its photos, visuals of pleasures and performances past. Here, a young St. Louis musician, Gordon Jenkins, honed his chops. Jenkins later became a famous producer for Decca Records. Listen to Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and you’ll witness Gordon Jenkins’s handiwork.
Bill Freeman can tell you about that. A retired state trooper, Bill is affable, polite, and knowledgeable. And he keeps the hotel’s systems running. Bill’s also a walking history book, readily telling stories about the river, the region, and the lodge.
The lobby’s charm overflows, especially when a crowd gathers around Michael Martin Murphy or America playing unplugged before a roaring fire in the fireplace during the Living Room Concerts.
The long dining hall could be a movie set. Its hardwood floors, linen tablecloths, and gorgeous floor-to-ceiling French windows serve up splendid scenery. The guest rooms’ comfortably Spartan appointments offer a subtle hint that rooms are for sleeping. Daytime calls for vigorous action in the great outdoors.
Like Wildwood Lodge, the story of recreation on the Meramec River has its own peaks and valleys. In the late 1890s, St. Louisans would hop the Frisco Railroad for a short ride to the Highlands resort and recreation complex, just west of Kirkwood. Anticipating the arrival of thousands of visitors to the 1904 Louisiana Exposition, the St. Louis World’s Fair, developers built the Highlands, offering enough activities to ensure fatigue: swimming, boating, dancing, and tennis. Alas, the Meramec Highlands suffered fatigue and disappeared before World War I. City folk then traveled further upriver to find Meramec hot spots around Valley Park and Fenton.
About the same time, St. Louisans discovered the lodges in the Steelville area, along the Meramec. They’d take the Frisco to Cuba, Missouri, where shuttles would deliver them a few more miles to the river resorts.
Most of those lodges have vanished, victims of time, the Great Depression, increased traveler mobility, and new levees. Along the river, concrete steps remain as memorials leading from the water, up the bank, and into the woods. But a few resorts still stand with Wildwood against the ravages of time and the trend toward corporate conformity. Cobblestone Lodge is an octogenarian, too, and offers an all-inclusive vacation that includes sumptuous meals in a classic dining hall and floating the Meramec, to boot!
Float like I did from Ozark Outdoors Riverfront Lodge, which offers everything from cabins to the Grand Suite. It’s a great place to launch an expedition to check the health of the stream. Look closely into the water to examine some of nearly four dozen species of mussels, including the Washboard, the Pocketbook, the Pimpleback, and the Spectacle Case. Don’t be fooled by their seeming inactivity. Some of these living water filters are better bass fishers than anybody pictured on a cereal box cover. The mussel lures a bass to snap at a fleshy appendage that looks like a minnow. The bass gets injected with a mouthful of baby mussels, who attach to its gills and take a ride for a few days as the mussels grow stronger. Don’t worry, the bass survives to face more challenges.
More challenging is the search for an Eastern Hellbender, a salamander whose numbers are declining. That’s a concern to herpetologists, who wonder why this species is disappearing. With a name that recalls another disappearance from the Meramec basin, Indian Springs Lodge offers individual cabins that honor great Native American leaders including Black Eagle, Red Cloud, and Crazy Horse.
Historic Bird’s Nest Lodge trumpets new log cabins with all the amenities. On the Huzzah, Eagle Hurst Ranch names its 30 or so cottages for permanent residents: trees like the dogwood, redbud, and hickory. The Huzzah Valley Resort features the Huzzah Hilton, Big Bear Bunkhouse, and a pair of original farmhouses. Situated near the Huzzah and next to Courtois Creek, Bass River Resort offers a multitude of cozy cabins, log cabins, A-frames, and hideaways.
The river and the resort business both endure ebbs and flows. But two events nearly changed the face of the region forever. Three decades ago, the specter of a dam loomed in the Meramec valley. Actually, the idea of damming the Meramec goes back to 1830 when the Iron Works at present day Maramec Spring Park near St. James promoted a dam to improve navigation for moving iron ore.
The most recent plan would have impounded 42 miles of the Meramec River, nine miles of the Courtois, and 12 miles of the Huzzah. A group of concerned Missourians realized that many Meramec treasures, including Onondaga Cave, would be lost. Several groups, including the Meramec Basin Association, united to defeat the dam.
The second threat occurred almost 25 years ago in Times Beach, a resort community where Route 66 crosses the Meramec River. To control dust, a contractor sprayed oil contaminated with deadly dioxin through the streets. The federal government made history by forcing an evacuation and buying out the entire town. After many years and an expensive contamination cleanup, the state established Route 66 State Park on the property. The welcome center sits in a venerable old roadhouse called Steiny’s Inn, next to the historic Meramec River Bridge. Ask folks who’ve lived nearby for more than a generation, and everyone has a story about Steiny’s. It’s a survivor.
Yep, the Meramec has endured both natural and man-made disasters. But today, thanks to healthy stewardship, the river has a fighting chance at survival. And the historic lodges of the Meramec offer their silent approval.