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Lake of the Ozarks' Willmore Lodge offers glimpse of history

Lake of the Ozarks' Willmore Lodge offers glimpse of history

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Accommodations abound around the Lake of the Ozarks today, but that wasn’t the case in 1930 when Egan Lodge opened. The lodge had just five guest rooms and was reserved for executives of Union Electric Co., predecessor to AmerenUE, and their guests.

Those lucky enough to land an invitation to the power company’s getaway, completed in three months at a cost of $135,000, were treated to such rare amenities as private baths with hot and cold running water, air cooled in the summer and heated in the winter, an electric tram to the lakeside and an outdoor buzzer system capable of sending an electrical signal from each guest room directly to the full-time servants’ quarters. And the chandeliers, which still hang in the lodge today, were all electric, of course.

“Remember this was 1930 in rural Missouri,” said Karen Kopis, of the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. “So I actually refer to it as the Ritz-Carlton of the lake for its time.”

And, though visitors to the lake still can’t rent a room, the building — now known as Willmore Lodge — is open to the public as a museum that highlights the history of the lodge and Bagnell Dam, which created the 26,000-acre lake that transformed the area into the tourist draw it is today. The museum includes displays dedicated to the local geology, Native American history, the modern-day flora and fauna of the man-made Lake of the Ozarks as well as the construction and operations of the dam itself, completed in 1931 at a cost of $30 million.

The exhibits occupy the former guest rooms named for towns flooded by the creation of the lake. Highlights include an arrowhead collection, old-fashioned tools used in the dam’s construction, videos of historic interviews with dam workers and the second-largest paddlefish ever pulled from the lake. Visitors can even see old newspaper ads asking locals to rent spare rooms to some of the more than 20,000 workers who built the dam over two and a half years in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Not that they spent much time sleeping, according to H. Dwight Weaver’s “Lake of the Ozarks: The Early Years,” since men worked in shifts that spanned 24 hours, no matter what the weather, to complete the huge dam in such a short time frame.

The rest of the lodge, which included a two-story living room, a kitchen, servants’ quarters and an executive suite, now houses the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and can also be rented for weddings and other events.

It’s easy to see why the lodge would offer an idyllic setting for a rustic lakeside wedding. Willmore’s biggest charm is in its Adirondack-style construction, lush grounds and picture window that offers “the best view of the lake anywhere,” according to Alan Sullivan, a consulting engineer for Ameren at Bagnell Dam’s Osage hydroelectric plant. The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, adds to that view and to visitors’ sense of the past, says Sullivan, whose grandfather and uncle worked on the dam for 35 cents an hour and also laid some of the groundwork for the lodge.

‘BIG LINCOLN

LOG SET’

But, while local stone laid in 1929 makes up part of Willmore’s foundation, the log structure itself was finished far from the dam and the lakeshore it would soon create. The lodge’s unusual construction plan started with western pine logs from the Pacific Northwest that were fully assembled in Oregon before being personally inspected and approved by Louis Egan, Union Electric’s president. The lodge was then disassembled and numbered before being shipped by train and reassembled at its current site.

“The lodge is what I would describe as a big Lincoln Log set,” said Sullivan, who has historic photos of the reassembly process. “There was obviously great care in getting this building to be and look just right.”

Careful craftsmanship almost wasn’t enough to save the lodge from the voracious demand for lakeside land in the years after local developer Cyrus Willmore bought the lodge from Union Electric as a personal residence in 1945. The lodge that still bears Willmore’s name was later sold by his estate to businessman and KPLR (Channel 11) founder Harold Koplar, who used it to house some employees working at one of his projects, Lodge of Four Seasons, in the late 1960s. Eventually, Willmore Lodge was sold to North Port Development Co., which used it as a sales office in the 1990s and had plans to raze it and build new properties on the site.

“But, unfortunately for them and fortunately for us, they got into financial trouble and had to sell the property,” Kopis said.

Thanks to some aggressive lobbying by a lake-area Union Electric employee, the power company regained ownership of the lodge and its grounds in 1996, agreeing to lease it to Lake Area Chamber of Commerce for $10 a year. The company and community launched fundraising efforts to restore the lodge to near its original state. Rehabilitating the lodge took well over $1 million before it opened its doors as a museum on New Year’s Day 1999, offering visitors an alternative to the dam site tours discontinued several years ago because of safety and security concerns.

Amazingly, a few pieces of the lodge’s original furnishings survived all the changes in ownership and are now on display in the main hall. But, like the lodge itself, both the ornate handmade fire screen and bear skin rug evident in the earliest photos of the lodge faced close calls before being restored.

“During the renovations in the 1990s, workers discovered the fire screen in a trash heap in the cellar of the building and realized immediately they had an incredibly valuable piece of history,” Kopis said.

The giant bear skin rug took a more circuitous path back to its place in history, however.

“Over the years, the rug disappeared and no one had any idea of where it was or who had it,” Kopis said.

Over the years, a few news stories mentioned the runaway rug. Museum developers got a call from a man who somehow ended up with the rug, probably thanks to the type of youthful shenanigans that so often seem to happen at Lake of the Ozarks.

“But everything and everybody comes back to the lake at some time,” said Kopis, who added the caller was happy to return the rug to its historic home.

That’s certainly the case for many museum visitors who have a personal connection to the lake, whether it be through a family member who worked on the dam or memories of a stay there when it served as Cyrus Willmore’s lakeside home. Today, the lodge that started as an invitation-only executive haven serves as a place where everyone can learn more about the massive construction project that created the Lake of the Ozarks and made the area one of Missouri’s top tourist destinations to this day.

“To think it was actually scheduled to be torn down by a developer,” said Sullivan, also a member of the nonprofit Willmore Lodge Foundation. “Now, we believe that we have a significant landmark here.”

For more information • willmorelodge.com, funlake.com

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