The men who lived along the Osage River in central Missouri before European settlement were ferocious, sported tattoos, and shaved all but the backs of their heads. Most were six feet tall. Warriors often soared to 7 feet. The most feared natives by homesteaders, the Osage numbered about 5,000 at first encounter with the French in 1683. When settlers finally prevailed, the remaining Osage hit the Trails of Tears to live in Kansas and Oklahoma.
I learned this in the museum in Willmore Lodge near Bagnell Dam. The party lake with countless coves that filled behind Bagnell figured prominently in Ruth and my early years. If fact, we honeymooned at Lake of the Ozarks. Back after too many years, I hadn’t planned to write about such a familiar place, but it proved so fascinating that I left with lots of information as we discovered both old and new.
Lake of the Ozarks now covers the Osages’ ancient hunting grounds, and 22 towns had to be drowned or moved. Towns like Linn and Passover had attracted men to work in the timber industry. Railroad ties were the chief product.
The Osage, the longest Missouri River tributary, begins in Kansas. To dam it was first proposed in 1912 at the beginning of the electrical era, but it wasn’t underway until 1929, two months before the Stock Market Crash. The dam, which was completed in 1931 after 30,000 acres of trees were cleared, unexpectedly became a magnet for out-of-work men from all over the US. The 129-mile-long snake of a lake that filled behind Bagnell was the largest artificial body of water in the world in 1931 with a shoreline longer than Lake Michigan’s. Nothing like this had been attempted before. It was also unique in that the entire project was funded, not by the federal government, but by Union Electric, now Ameren UE. This means that development along LOTO’s shore, even docks, are privately owned ventures, not the case on Government owned lakes that came about later in the 1930s after the creation of the TVA. So LOTO resulted from the last and largest major dam in the US built by private enterprise.
To keep part of the shoreline wild, a State Park was proposed early on but didn’t happen until the 1970s. Now most lakefront property southwest of the Grand Glaize Bridge is part of forever wild Lake of the Ozarks State Park.
Known for fine golf courses and great sport fishing, 14 % of all fish caught in Missouri are reeled in here with largemouth bass, crappie, white bass, catfish, and walleye being most popular.
Adirondack-style Willmore Lodge was built in 3 months in 1930 with pine logs shipped from Oregon. Over its life, Willmore has been an administration building, a guest lodge, a private residence, and now a historic site with a popular museum about the area.
Almost in State’s center, LOTO is just about equidistant from St. Louis and Kansas City. Along with Branson, it continues to be a major Missouri recreation spot. A just opened expressway, improved Highway 54, cuts diagonally through the area and makes getting around easier. A major new luxury resort, Chateau on Lake of the Ozarks, will be underway soon on a promontory near the Grand Glaize Bridge. But Lake supporters have done a notable job of preserving the past so anyone who hasn’t been to the Lake for a while, like us, will still spy a lot that’s nostalgically familiar.