Netflix series, Ozark, has a simple plot with big challenges for a deceptively mild-mannered accountant. “With wife Wendy and their two kids in tow, Marty (Byrne) is on the move after a money-laundering scheme goes wrong, forcing him to pay off a substantial debt to a Mexican drug lord in order to keep his family safe.” Marty’s new money-laundering theater of operations is Missouri’s vacation destination, Lake of the Ozarks.
As is often pointed out in the script, this dragon-shaped reservoir has “more shoreline than the state of California.” The floodgates of Bagnell Dam closed on the Osage River in 1931, creating the lake, as detailed in our book Damming the Osage. Its real-life creation does indeed have something in common with the Netflix show.
As our subtitle, The Conflicted Story of Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Dam, indicates, often there are nefarious and hidden motives for building dams. The dam and the lake that piled up behind it were the products of two schemes that could be considered money laundering. The motive for building Lake of the Ozarks had to do with the benefits of financial manipulations—not the production of hydroelectric power. Researching the origins of Lake of the Ozarks, we found subterfuge was integral to the whole scheme to dam the Osage.
A tale of Mexican drug cartels invading the lake’s shores is perhaps not too far-fetched. There is a long tradition of the Ozarks as a homeland of crime and refuge for outlaws. In the nineteenth century, it was known for the brutal irregulars of the Civil War, the James Gang, Younger Brothers, Alf Landon, bushwhackers and later Bald Knobbers. Meth dealers and dopers portrayed in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone updated the Ozarks’ outlaw reputation to the twenty-first century.
Lake of the Ozarks, on the other hand, didn’t come from backwoods outlaws. It was the brainchild of the president of a Kansas City Land Bank, Walter Cravens, and his partner, Ralph Street. Catastrophic loss of value of farm property and product began soon after World War 1. Long before 1929, farm price values were punctured. Cravens faced bankruptcy having financed hundreds of Kansas farms that were now in foreclosure. Kansas City lawyer Ralph Street had an obsession with building a dam on the Osage. Together they cooked up a scheme to ”launder” the bank’s “underwater” Kansas farms, for Osage River farms that would literally go under water if the dam were built. When Guy Huston, his principal financier went under (bankrupt) Cravens turned to Dillon Read, a New York financial institution, which then hooked into Union Electric.
Union Electric (UE) had no need for hydropower, but—as later revealed in federal charges—UE was running an extensive kickback operation to fund lobbying. This was proven long after the lake was built. We suspect UE went ahead with the lake project to rake off slush funds and probably enrich the management. It was a complicated scheme that we covered in Damming the Osage. Louis Egan, Union Electric’s “moose-tall aristocratic president,” regarded the Lake of the Ozarks as his own private pond where he wined and dined politicians, family, and friends at his twenty-nine room Adirondacks-style log lodge—now called Willmore Lodge, a venue for group or corporate events and home to the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. Undoubtedly, it was the site of bribes and kickbacks that would ultimately lead to his downfall.
Both Cravens and Egan did time in federal prison: Cravens for his Lake of the Ozarks land-laundering scheme; Egan for his subsequent slush fund conviction.
Walter Cravens appealed his 1928 conviction on 88 counts, but the appeal was denied and in 1933 he began serving a six-year sentence in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth Kansas. “He paid his $25,000 fine in installments. No. 43517 was discharged on February 7, 1937, having served three years and nine months of his six year sentence.” (page 126, Damming the Osage)
“Egan was convicted of violation of the Corrupt Practices Section of the Holding Company Act of 1935. UE paid an $80,000 file. Egan paid $10,000 and was sentenced to two years. His appeals failed and on December 31, 1943, the $68,000—year former executive entered the federal penitentiary at St. Petersburg, Florida.” (p. 127)
We didn’t have this photo when Damming the Osage went to press or we would have used it.
Lake of the Ozarks has always been rumored to be a vacation destination for the St. Louis underworld (mob). We’ve written extensively about tourism in the Ozarks. It would be an exaggeration to call the Lake Sodom and Gomorrah. Branson, founded on Harold Bell Wright’s moralistic, bucolic novel (Shepherd of the Hills), is a stark contrast to Lake of the Ozarks and its Party Cove and cigarette boat races. And now Netflix’s series tags it with Chicago money laundering and drug cartels from Mexico. In Ozark, the ultra violent local criminals are apparently trying to avenge the loss of their land to the lake Cravens started and Egan completed.
We don’t detect much realism in the series but there is a certain poetic resonance. The image of crime in the Ozarks has now entered the twenty-first century. No longer is it just the subject of yellowing newspaper articles, fading sepia photos or local legend. Now, it is the homeland of a mass media mythology.
NOTE – We now have a special running. You can buy Damming the Osage and our new book, James Fork of the White: Transformation of an Ozark River for $52.50, postage paid (a $17.50 savings for the two books).
Following the gravel road east from today’s crossroads known as McDowell, we found the remnants of a mill that once took its power from Flat Creek. Footings and foundations still resist the work of water, but the building has been gone for a while.
Milldam of the McDowell water mill on Flat Creek. This stream has an average fall of seven feet per mile and with good water can be floated as high up as McDowell – noting obstacles like this milldam.
Water mills were not unique to the Ozarks, but they flowered in the region due to isolation imposed by the deep river-cut terrain and the abundance of spring-fed streams. There were five water mills on Flat Creek alone.
Mills powered by running water were constructed soon after settlement. Overshot wheels drove most, but turbines were common after 1880. Some even employed steam power at the close of the local milling era. The handsome building (below) was the McDowell Roller Mills, which unlike many could produce flour from wheat. Most early mills used stone burrs to grind corn into meal.
Vintage photograph shows a mill at McDowell. This one utilized rollers designed to process wheat. Photograph is courtesy of the Barry County Museum.
James Fork of the White, page 80
As the release date of James Fork of the White approaches, I’ll be posting some samples of what you will find in the book. All research is not done in libraries or other books. To write a book on a river, you have to learn the river, its people and places. Over the last several years, we have explored the watershed of the James, its tributaries – large and small, the byways, backroads and the small and large towns of its landscape.
We met people and pets, sportsmen with their catches and families recreating on the banks of creeks, playing at Table Rock, or floating the river. We found remnants of past mercantile enterprises. We ate chicken at Crane’s Broiler Fest, joined the crowds at River Jam and sought out the source of the river in Webster County.
Greene, Christian, Barry, Stone, Webster, and Taney counties. Creeks and larger streams. Dams that slow or halt the flow; a dam that wasn’t built. Drainage systems and sewage treatment. We visited them all…
Railroads, highways, dam projects, tourism, the growth of towns, agriculture, industry, media and art, political will, and cultural values—all interact. The river we see today is an outcome of all these forces. Even though transformed, and still changing, the watershed of the James Fork of the White is still in many places scenic and beautiful, and where it lacks aesthetics, it is interesting.
James Fork of the White, introduction
Near where the Branson Entertainment Strip (a.k.a. state highway 76) meets highway 13, in a little town once known as Lakeview (now Branson West), hidden in a deep hollow are the decaying facilities of the Lost Silver Mine Theater, which opened in 1983. Not quite lost to history – yet – the concrete steps/seats are gathering moss, woooden letters occasionally flutter to the ground from creaking signage. In the amphitheater at the bottom of the hollow, remanants of stagecraft are melting into the ground. Here the story of the Lost Silver Mine and the Yocum Dollar played out summer nights in the early Branson ‘boom’.
The Lost Silver Mine theater was owned, operated and supplied with a creative narrative by Artie Ayres, who like his father, was obsessed by the legend of the Yocum Dollar. Numerous different story lines have described the origins of the fabled coin (no authentic one has ever been found) and the silver mine where its ore was dug. Despite extensive searches and diligent research, no authenticatable specimen has yet been produced.
The legend itself has been around for 150 years or more. The Yocum (Y-o-a-c-h-u-m is an earlier spelling) brothers arrived in the upper White River country sometime after the War of 1812. They traded with the Delaware Indians who, as the legend says, happened to have a silver mine in the area. The details vary in different versions or more elaborate tellings, but tales of lost mines and buried treasure are not uncommon in this region. One rumored location of the lost mine was at the junction of the James and White Rivers, now under 150 feet of water. Artie Ayres, owner of the Lost Silver Mine Theater and author of Traces of Silver about the legend, has most likely had the best return on this silver investment of all the generations of fortune hunters and tellers of tall silver tales.
Find more extensive background for this entertainment relic on our new book, James Fork of the White.
When working on our new book, James Fork of the White, we were struck by the continuity of sporting activities from a century ago to today.
On opposite pages we put a circa 1910 George Hall real photo postcard of giggers on the James River at Camp Yocum with a recent photograph of the Nixa Sucker Day festival. One difference—the gent in the center of the boat in Hall’s “flashlight” photo is wearing a necktie and coat. I doubt if today’s giggers dress so formally.
Nixa has a celebration based on an unprogressive method of catching an Ozark bottom-dwelling fish. Sucker Day has been held in the spring since 1957 when Finis Gold, barber, one-time mayor, and American Legion commander, invented the event. Suckers are rarely caught on hook and line. When they ascend creeks to spawn they can be snagged. They are also gigged in the winter when the rivers are clear and stockpiled in freezers. Though boney, sucker are delicious when scored and deep fried. The event has grown from a novel fish fry to include talent competitions, a Little Miss Sucker Day pageant, pie-eating and bubblegum-blowing contests, numerous craft booths and musical entertainment by bluegrass groups.
James Fork of the White, page 110
COMING This Fall: JAMES FORK OF THE WHITE: Transformation of an Ozark River.
Sample pages from this new book can be seen at www.beautifulozarks.com
Our earlier ‘river book,’ DAMMING THE OSAGE, can be seen at www.dammingtheosage.com
Although unmarked, this circa 1890 cabinet photograph of a family gathering was acquired locally, and really looks like it was taken beside an Ozark river. Guitars, guns, and gatherings in riverine settings are Ozark traditions. Our ancestors seem to have dressed up a little more for such outings than we do today, but the strong connection between family kinship and nature remains constant.
In The Ozarks: Land and Life, Milton Rafferty described the relationship of Ozarks people and their landscape:
Generations of the same family often lived in the same community so that family history intermingled with the landscape in an uncommon way. Life is integrated with the landscape in a natural way that is understood by everyone. Thus the Ozarker is a kind of homespun Lockian who thinks of the landscape as an object that penetrates the mind and alters the man.
From Chapter 3, “Gravelly Geography,” of our forthcoming book, James Fork of the White: Transformation of An Ozark River.
In 2012 we published a 304-page book about the transformation of a big, muddy river that rises in the tall grass Kansas prairie then cuts into the northern flank of the Ozark uplift before emptying into the even muddier Missouri River. Damming the Osage is a history of engineering interventions justified by questionable hydrologic theories. Human cupidity orchestrated many of these unharmonious projects.
This October, we will publish our second “river book”: James Fork of the White: Transformation of an Ozark River. In this we look at the watershed of the river that rises in Webster County near Marshfield, wends its way to Springfield, running along its eastern edge and then drains south to Table Rock. The James – unlike the Osage – feels the effects of a major metropolitan area on its watershed. The James was a storied Ozark float stream; the Osage, a prairie-born, rich but unspectacular stream, home to a prehistoric fish.
The James is definitely a different river and this is a different book. More pages (352), more illustrations (because we have more pages!) to examine, discuss and showcase that different river and the people who live and recreate along its course.
Look for it this fall!
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