Although the landscape and communities surrounding Central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks have changed significantly since their humble beginnings, visitors can still get a glimpse of the authentic Ozark experience that attracted the area’s first tourists in the early 1930s.
“Anyone looking for an authentic Ozarks experience can find it here,” says Lagina Fitzpatrick, executive director for the Lake of the Ozarks Tri-County Lodging Association. “The Lake of the Ozarks’ history is rich with stories of the innovative and industrious folks that settled here before and after the impoundment of the Lake. Many of those stories and icons live on at the Lake.”
The historic Bagnell Dam Strip, located immediately to the west of Bagnell Dam in Lake Ozark, is the area’s original tourist hotspot dating back to
1931. “The Strip” has an eclectic vibe with more modern additions next door to some of the original hallmarks that greeted travelers in the beginning. A towering fiberglass icon – “Chief Bagnell” – of the 1960s, known as a “Muffler Man,” waves hello to vacationers as they make their way down the “Strip” and enter what is known as the “Dogpatch Complex.” This string of shops includes Grandma’s Candy Kitchen, featuring homemade chocolates and 20 flavors of award-winning fudge; the Leather Man store, which specializes in customized leather goods and apparel; the Dogpatch Arcade, a traditional arcade featuring Skee Ball as well as some of the most popular video games from decades gone by, and the iconic Dogpatch store, which opened in 1947. Dogpatch sells souvenirs of all kinds and has a wide variety of Ozark-themed toys, t-shirts and other interesting gifts.
The “Strip” is home to swimwear shops, ice cream parlors, an old-fashioned diner and the Old Time Photos studio where vacationers can dress up in costumes for commemorative photographs. The Bagnell Dam Strip’s nostalgic vibe creates the perfect backdrop for two of the Lake’s popular classic car events – the Magic Dragon Street Meet Nationals and the Hot Summer Nights cruise-in summer series. Attendees have said attending these events feels
like walking onto the set of the classic movies “American Graffiti” and “Grease.”
Additionally, there are several buildings along “The Strip” that embody an Ozark construction hallmark — “giraffe stone.” Around the 1930s, throughout Missouri’s Ozarks, a trend emerged in the building trades making use of the abundant flagstones found throughout the area for the building of homes and business. The varying patterns, shapes and colors of the stones, coupled with the white mortar typically used to bind the pieces, resulted in what regional historians now refer to as “giraffe stone.” This do-it-yourself style is unique to the Ozark region and can still be found throughout the smaller communities dotting the Lake of the Ozarks area.
For a more in-depth peak into the area’s Ozark heritage, guests will discover a wealth of cultural history at the Lake of the Ozarks’ different
museums. The four historically-focused museums offer a glimpse into the storied tapestry of life in the area from the original Native American inhabitants to early European settlers and beyond. Visitors can learn about the area’s role in the American Civil War, the lost and nearly forgotten towns that now lay under the six billion gallons of water that make up the Lake of the Ozarks and the first glory days of the Lake of the Ozarks. The Bagnell Dam History Museum, located in the historic Willmore Lodge, is a great place for visitors to get their bearings when arriving at the Lake. There, vacationers can learn about the creation of Bagnell Dam, which was a massive undertaking during the heart of the Great Depression that resulted in the creation of the largest man-made lake in the world at the time. Additionally, the Lake area’s notable people and places come to life through interesting exhibits and fascinating artifacts at the Camden County Museum in Linn Creek, the Miller County Museum in Tuscumbia, and the Morgan County Historical Society and Museum in Versailles.
For a more hands-on glimpse of what the area looked like before the construction of the Bagnell Dam and before most of the area was settled, the Lake of the Ozarks’ two celebrated state parks have preserved much of the area’s historical charm and natural beauty.
According to local folklore,
Ha Ha Tonka State Park‘s curious name is derived from the tribe of Osage Native Americans that lived in the area and is believed to mean “laughing waters,” in reference to the park’s large natural spring. In addition to the spring, the ruins of a 1900s-era “castle” stand out amid the scenery of this park located near the popular Lake community of Camdenton. The stone structure that sits atop a bluff overlooking the Niangua arm of the Lake is all that remains of the dream of a wealthy Kansas City businessman who began construction on this elaborate country estate in 1905. The skeleton of the home is now the centerpiece of the park. Ha Ha Tonka offers 13 walking trails covering more than 15 scenic miles throughout the park. The trails allow visitors to see the topography of the area, complete with sinkholes, natural bridges, the state’s 12th largest spring and several caves that were used by members of the Osage tribe and later as hideouts for bandits on the run.
Lake of the Ozarks State Park was initially established in the mid-1930s as part of the National Park system. As such, the park features architectural structures from that era, including log buildings, rustic bridges and concrete dams constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp. As such, it is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. This park includes activities for every member of the family. Boat rental, public ramps, docks and a self-guided aquatic trail are perfect for boating activities and fish are abundant in the cool waters. Given the massive size of this state park (over 17,000 acres), it offers an ample amount of pristine hardwood forests and undeveloped shoreline for a true sense of what the region looked like upon its settling. On land, 12 trails, ranging from 0.8 of a mile to 13.5 miles, wind through the park. And, hidden below the surface of the park is Ozark Caverns, which features a large, impressive “Angel Shower,” one of only fourteen in the world and the only one in the U.S. available for public viewing. Informative park interpreters offer hour-long hand-held lantern tours of the area’s underground beauty from mid-May until mid-September.
Travelers willing to take a less-beaten path at the Lake will find two hidden gems of the Ozarks – the famous “Swinging Bridges of Brumley,” located just a short drive from the Ozark Caverns visitor center. Designed by the acclaimed Missouri bridge builder Joseph Dice, these two suspended bridges are a sight not to be missed at the Lake of the Ozarks. Located on Swinging Bridges road off of MO Highway 42 near Brumley, the first bridge, known as Mill Creek Bridge, features steel planking and was constructed in 1925 and spans roughly 35 feet across Mill Creek. The second is the Grand Auglaize Bridge, known locally as the “Big Swinging Bridge,” and it is one of the longest wire-suspended bridges in Missouri. Constructed in 1920, the longer bridge spans 500 feet and is composed of wooden planking and provides an exciting and nostalgic trip afield. Although the bridges are no longer in service and vehicle traffic and foot traffic are no longer allowed, visitors can still see these two historic marvels and take photos of these unique icons from a bygone era.
Vacationers at the Lake of the Ozarks have a variety of options to choose from when it comes to comfortable accommodations for overnight stays, including some of the longstanding
smaller mom-and-pop resorts from the Lake’s early days. In addition, there are full-service large-scale resorts as well as charming bed and breakfasts, rustic cabins and quaint cottages. There also is no shortage of fully furnished vacation rental homes and condominiums and a selection of familiar hotels and motels at the Lake of the Ozarks. For those who prefer sleeping under the stars, there are spacious campgrounds and RV parks interspersed throughout the area.
To learn more about all the fun events, attractions, activities, and available dining and lodging options at the Lake of the Ozarks, visit www.FunLake.com. Or, call the Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitor Bureau at 1-800-FUN-LAKE (386-5253).