March 17, 2015
Wendy and I spent the second day of our Spring Break getaway in Branson. We visited the odd Ralph Foster Museum at the College of the Ozarks and hiked some of the trails at Lyle Owen’s Lakeside Forest above Lake Taneycomo just off the strip.
Ralph Foster Museum
A bird collection in a men’s dormitory basement at the School of the Ozarks grew over time to include a multitude of items which eventually took over the entire dorm, turning it into the self-proclaimed “Smithsonian of the Ozarks.” The possibly unintended humor of that description applies to what became the Ralph Foster Museum when that radio mogul of southwest Missouri, founder of KWTO (“Keep Watching The Ozarks”) and of 1950s television’s Ozark Jubilee, donated money and a considerable number of artifacts. Repeated expansions have created a building that is as disjointed as the collections, which range from museum-quality displays of guns (and animals shot by guns) to cringe-worthy amateurish displays of someone’s treasures which others might term junk. A glimpse of the diversity of the collection is provided by its online Artifact of the Month entries.
Admission was $6 each, and my heart sank upon discovering that the front half of the first floor was a poorly lit assemblage of “special collections” of antique dolls, clocks, and furniture. Thankfully it turned out the museum shows its worst stuff first, hiding better displays upstairs.
The museum’s most famous item is there on the first floor: the cut-down 1921 Oldsmobile Model 46 Roadster which was the truck used in the original Beverly Hillbillies television series. The show’s producer, Paul Henning, also created Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. If you know those shows, you can guess that he grew up nearby and drew upon his background for those rural comedies.
Henning bequeathed to the state over 1500 acres for a conservation area and gave to the School of the Ozarks the famous truck, which visitors to the museum can pay to sit in and have their picture taken, with Uncle Jed, Granny, Jethro, Ellie May, Mr. Drysdale, and Miss Hathaway as backup. Wendy and I declined to spend over $10 for the privilege. Instead we took, in the dim lighting, blurry but free photos of the truck and the creepy dolls lurking nearby. It turned out that Rose O’Neill, the inventor of the Kewpie doll, spent much of her life in the region.
Wendy liked the 1940s-era wood carvings by a Mr. Gallagher and was intrigued by the coral jewelry on display, which was worn in the Civil War era. I admired a 1931 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Continental automobile.
The other half of the first floor was the art gallery, which had a few nice works and some execrable ones. My favorite was the oil painting Spring by Mary (Lee) Ilena O’Neill, the younger sister of Rose O’Neill of Kewpie doll fame. The painting is deteriorating badly but was intriguing with its personification of the season in a tree forming into a human figure.
Our favorite part of the museum was on the upper floor, with an 8,000-pound mountain diorama with goats, coyotes, and other North American animals along with many other stuffed animals, including lions and a number of bears. There were some interesting poses, and Wendy participated in one exhibit. I used my camera to menace some museum guests with one of the polar bears, while Wendy used hers to make a lion peer over a wall at us.
Back to Branson
After we toured the museum, we drove north into Branson for lunch at Godfather’s Pizza. The previous night Wendy had been delighted by the 43′ tall chicken at the Great American Steak & Chicken House, so we drove by for daytime snapshots of it and its disturbing gaze. Then we drove just a block off the strip at the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area for a day hike.
The Lakeside Forest
The area that is now the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area was first homesteaded in the mid 1800s by Bill Berry, who settled his claim to the land by trading for it a mule and a barrel of molasses. Wilbur Winchester built a three-room stone vacation home on the land in 1911. In the early 1930s, 90 acres were sold by Winchester, at $14/acre, to Dr. Lyle Owen, who taught economics at the University of Tulsa. During the McCarthy period some people referred to him as “Red Lyle”, with a graduate student explaining, “His ‘hue’ consisted of, (1) trying to get the students to look at economic systems as they really were, not as the propaganda said they were, and (2) giving assistance to the poor.” The student also related that:
Owen was actually more renowned for his grading system in his introductory course of American Government. All questions were true-false, but he penalty graded, meaning that, if you got a question correct, you received one point, but, if you got one wrong, you lost two points. This discouraged guessing and getting correct answers by sheer 50-50 chance. This could result in a student getting a negative grade. But Owen told his students the first day of class that, in the event they had a negative score, he would magnanimously raise their grade to ‘a respectable zero.’
Lyle Owen was born in Kiowa County, Oklahoma Territory in 1906, and the family later lived in Oklahoma City, moving to Erie, Kansas when he was 12 and on to Branson in 1923, where he finished his final year of high school, living with his parents across Lake Taneycomo along Coon Creek. In 1987 he related this tale about his move to the hilltop site in Branson:
I still have an amusing memory of my early moving, from my folks’ Coon Creek home to my new-bought house on the opposite side of Branson, about a four mile move. I bought my place 46 years ago, in 1934, when still in my twenties, and our family didn’t have a car then, to take over the things I wanted to borrow from them for use at the new place. I needed first a bunch of tools, and also our old iron-wheeled wheelbarrow. So I pushed that contraption, loaded full of tools, the whole rocky, rattling distance. Those four miles were all unpaved then, and my load made quite a racket. I pushed down the Coon Creek trail, around the Seven Falls way and along the present Lakeshore Drive, across the old Main Street bridge leading into town, up that long Main Street hill, and on out what is now West 76 Highway to Fall Creek Road, where I turned into my place. I am amused when I think about how impossible that wheelbarrowing would be now, what with West 76 traffic competition and all. But I did it way back in those simple, unpaved, days. My house is about 300 feet higher than the river, so there was a good deal of uphill pushing. And the barrow had the iron wheel of those days, not a modern pneumatic rubber tire.
His mother moved into the house in 1936 and lived there for over 30 years. His father was a wanderer who finally settled in his final years at the house in Branson with his wife until he died in 1962 at age 95. Dr. Owen retired there himself in 1973, and his mother died in 1981 at age 104. In 1998 Lyle Owen sold all but the seven acres around his home to the city for use as a public natural wilderness area and passed away a few years later. In 2010 the city acquired the homestead itself, and there are now six different trails on the property. Dr. Owen remarked in 1999:
One wonders, as the years go by, and he gets older and older, what he ever did that was wise. In thinking back, one of the things I think I did that was right, was buying the land and preserving it for the present and the future. And so I hope that people enjoy it for many years, as I have during my long ownership of that land.
The trailhead and parking lot, with a good restroom, is located right off Highway 76 on Fall Creek Road. Wendy and I hiked all of the Bluff Trail, following its route off the park map all of the way to the east property line. Our return was along parts of the Stone Wall and Owen Drive trails for a total hike of about three miles. The trails begin on level ground at the top of the property, and we walked about one-half mile south to the stone house. There was a sweeping view of a curve of Lake Taneycomo 250 feet below us, and on the opposite shore were the green lower fields of the College of the Ozarks. We could see a guy using a tractor out on the fields. With my camera’s zoom lens I could get a good view of the Keeter Center where we were staying.
The trail intersected the first flight of a total of 338 stone stairs which Dr. Owen and six paid laborers, including his brothers Max and Dale, installed down the bluff in 1937 and 1938 to reach a ledge above the lake which has several caves. Their work was well designed and quite durable, including nice curves. At the bottom, one step is inscribed with a start date of August 5, 1937 and a finish date of August 10, 1938 and the names Dave Layton, Layne Russell, Max Owen, Lyle Owen, Dale Owen, C.W. Sare, and Wilbur Lee. Another inscription reads:
Let those who tread here not forget, that these steps were not made of stone and mortar alone, but of sweat, blood, and agony.
We were certainly glad to benefit from their hard work! I later discovered the stairs were the aftermath of a project that built 360 feet of mortared wall flower beds and 200 feet of retaining walls around the home. The large pile of unused rock at the end of the wall-building program set off the stairs project.
One stairway landing had a large cleft in the rock that could serve as a tight shelter. At the bottom, a rock ledge led northeast along the bluff line to the Grotto, a large rock cutout which has a waterfall during rainstorms. A lady was situated there, awaiting the rest of her party who had made their way across and up to the next trail segment. I was glad she was there to provide scale for the scene.
Wendy and I clambered across to climb the other side and followed the trail onward to the Old Soldier’s Cave, which served as a hideout during the Civil War for local gunsmith Calvin Gaylor. In 1862, at age 38, he sought refuge in the cave to avoid “helping the other side” during the war, when there was a real threat of being press-ganged into service. His wife would sneak out to the cave after dark to bring him food, up above what was then White River. There is a lot of my father’s family history in this area of the Ozarks, with ancestors serving on both sides of the Civil War. Calvin’s story reminded me of one of my great-great-grandfathers, who was shot and killed by Union guards while crossing White River many miles upstream from Branson at Golden Ford near Mano. My father still has the vest his great-grandfather was wearing, complete with bullet hole.
The cave which sheltered Calvin Gaylor has a single room about 20 feet across and up to seven feet in height, with a narrow entrance that was difficult to spot back in the war. As a boy, Dr. Owen was led to the cave by Calvin Gaylor’s great grandson, which prompted him to purchase another 40 acres in 1940 adjacent to his original purchase so as to include the cave.
Farther along the bluff trail I posed along a large rock shelf, and Wendy posed on an outcropping directly above the entrance to a second cave. It was a cleft which wriggled back into the rock some ways before finally shrinking to an end. We could easily walk through most of it.
The next landmark was a large rock outcropping from the bluff with large holes through it. I made a half-sphere photosynth out of it to allow one to view it in 3D, and Wendy enjoyed scrounging for interesting rocks. She managed to find one with crystals, something she always treasures.
Eventually the trail ended at a neglected set of stone stairs leading upward. We climbed them, but the trail only led a short way over to the final stream on the property and then faded away. Descending the steep stairs, whose railings were long gone, we ventured over to the bottom of the final stream, where I shot a full-sphere photosynth.
We then made our way down to the shore of Lake Taneycomo, where a couple of fishermen were out in a boat. The bluff was on our right for the trek back to climb the hundreds of stairs back up to Dr. Owen’s house.
After ascending to the top, we admired the panoramic view of the lake and the fields. Up top were the remains of the gardens where Stella Owen, Lyle’s mother, grew wildflowers and peaches. In the 1940s Dr. Owen’s three children would spend weekends and vacations at the homestead. At the end of each day, they would head down to Lake Taneycomo to clean up, and Lyle Owen would send them down the stairs with coffee cans. Each trip up, they’d bring a can of soil from the banks of Taneycomo for the flower beds and vegetable gardens. After World War II he was able to get the house hooked up to electric power, although it would never have air conditioning, just electric ceiling fans and a wood-burning stove.
Wendy and I plan to return some day to the Lakeside Forest to walk the remaining trails, but the daylight was waning, and the forecast called for rain throughout the next day. So we followed the wall along the northwest side of the homestead northeast until it petered out, and then we followed the old driveway back to the trailhead. Driveway is somewhat a misnomer, given that Lyle Owen sold the only car he ever owned when he graduated from college. He must have been a very interesting fellow; he certainly left a lasting legacy.
Dinner was at a burger joint along the strip, and the next day’s weather would keep us indoors, visiting the Titanic Museum in Branson and then driving westward the full length of Table Rock Lake to reach our rented cabin on Sugar Ridge above Beaver Lake.
UPDATE: In November 2018 I found a copy at Gardner’s Used Books in Tulsa of Dr. Lyle Owen’s 1978 book Memories of an Ozark Mother about his mother Stella’s first 100 years.