Part II, Finding the Rivers, by Marji Smock Stewart: Bagnell Dam MO
Somehow Monroe Smock managed to get the boat from Green River to the little Osage River to the site that was becoming Bagnell Dam and The Lake of the Ozarks. Did he have a skeleton crew with him; another pilot, an engineer and at least two deckhands?
Bagnell Dam construction
The lake was a construction site initially, a beehive of humanity. The building of a dam is an immense project, even the small one later named Bagnell Dam. It was a project of the Union Electric Light and Power Co. (UELPC) in Missouri, cooperatively with the US government. There was an effort in late 1928 to the 1930s to bring electricity to the remote areas of the country. And remote it was.
The area near Eldon, Missouri had been a small army post; complete with accommodations, club house, a small airport and other amenities to attract workers. I recall hearing that even Lindbergh landed there once and Daddy was in the crowd.
Daddy settled first in a tent. The tent was floored with wooden planks and had wooden walls up about 3-4 feet. In the summer it was comfortable but in the winter quite another matter.
How Mother reacted to taking her girls to live in a tent I’ll never know. I do know that wherever Daddy was, Mother wanted to be. And after all, kids are quite adaptable.
It was summer when we arrived. Mother arranged with Zoll Denton (Leora Smock’s husband) to drive us and our tiny bit of furniture to Missouri. Uncle Zoll probably drove non-stop. He stayed a few days and learned a bit about the Ozarks, then he went home on the bus or train.
Tent to “three rooms”
Mother had a lot to do making the tent livable. Daddy worked long hours piloting the Sarah Mac all over that big hole that was to become the lake. The area was quite hilly with sharp rocks, so nobody went barefoot. Betty busied herself just being a quiet helper to her mother. All of us made friends with the few scattered neighbours in tents among the trees. Today, lovely expensive homes are in the area; a prime real estate development.
Before long, we were promoted to the “three rooms” housing. A mansion compared to the tent. A one floor house but built on a hill so the back was two stories with stairs to the sloping rocky back yard.
This was when I learned to paint. I found the small can of expensive green enamel that Mother had bought to paint her second-hand table and chairs. Mother was ill and took a rare nap. So I thought it would be a nice surprise to paint the rough weathered back steps. I thought I did a beautiful job on them. But Mother didn’t appreciate my artistic talents. It took a long time to get the bright enamel off me, and my little dress was ruined. I ended up promising NEVER to paint again!
Worked together, played together
Mother and Daddy slowly became integrated into the group that worked and lived at the lake. That experience was a great equalizer. A small group, probably less than fifty families, was almost like a commune. They worked together and played together. Many nights were spent down on the lake side, having open fires on the rocky beach and toasting marshmallows, or hamburgers or fish over the fires.
Some of the men were engineers or administrators; many were college graduates. Yet others, like my folks, fit in and were accepted because they were just good people who worked hard. It was a magic life compared to the Great Depression the rest of the country was experiencing. This was about 1931.
Lake of the Ozarks
At some point Bagnell Dam was finished and operational. Tourists were drawn to the area for obvious reasons. It was a natural paradise. Daddy piloted one of the excursion boats in the summer as well as being the private pilot for Mr. Eagan, an UELPC executive from St. Louis.
We swam a lot when he had a day off. Both my parents learned to play bridge and loved it. Mother also played once a week with the women. They rotated between different homes. A small white Irish linen card table cloth and napkins are all we have left of those days. Mother longed to have “nice” china and silver like the other women had. Nobody noticed but her. Served with her superb goodies and coffee, who cared?
Five rooms and two cedar trees
We weren’t in the three room house long until we were able to move to the “five rooms”. The company had planted two small cedar trees in the front of each house. Thirty years later, in the early 1960s, Mother, Daddy and I took a trip back. It was a sweet trip but had lost the magnetism of the early years. Thomas Wolfe might have been right; you can’t go home again. Those little cedar trees, however, seemed to reach to the sky.
Then in 1978 I took a brief sabbatical from the University of Kentucky and drove through the lake region. Much of the dam area as we loved it was totally commercial. It looked like a second rate carnival had come to town and stayed. I was glad the folks weren’t with me. Let their memories live on. Those really were glory years for all of us.
Next time: Gladewater, Texas
In 1936 Daddy and Mother decided it was time to pull up stakes again. We moved to East Texas so Daddy could work in the oil fields. A mammoth oil source had been discovered there.
Also see Part I, Monroe Smock, Kentucky