Shannon County is a poor county, if wealth is measured in money. Thankfully, there are many ways to measure the value of real estate beyond an accountant’s ledger and such is the case with this gem located deep in Missouri’s Ozarks. The folks here are not the least bit pretentious, perfectly content to live in a land where cell service isn’t really necessary and wood heat is a mainstay. The steep forested hillsides and crystal clear streams are the center of their lives, and if you are respectful, you are welcome to share their existence for awhile. Sharon, Tazzy and I spent last week at Missouri’s newest and extremely popular state park, Echo Bluff. This park has a colorful history, much of which is recorded, however; if these hills could talk, I suspect the story would be entrancing.
Echo Bluff began establishing it’s identity as Camp Zoe in 1929. This was a place where young women came from around the country to spend time communing with nature, swimming and hiking the many trails in and around the park. In 1967, Camp Zoe became coed, presumably in an attempt to remain in existence, providing outdoor adventures in a time when more urban activities were becoming popular. Sometime in 2004, the camp was acquired by a colorful musician named Jimmy Tebeau, a member of a rock band named “The Schwag”, a popular tribute band for the Grateful Dead. Jimmy began promoting rock concerts in this very remote location, some of which were attended by as many as 7,000 folks. It was a perfect location for these activities, the remoteness providing some insulation between the revelers and law enforcement, important as these concerts and drug use are closely related. Jimmy owned about 330 acres of ground within what is now the park. Jimmy’s luck ran out in 2010, when various law enforcement agencies, led by the Drug Enforcement Administration, raided the park and seized it in a federal forfeiture action. Jimmy pled guilty to a single drug related charge and spent a year in a prison camp in South Dakota. The photo below is of Mr. Jimmy Tebeau.
Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources purchased the land, at auction, for 640,000, and subsequently acquired an additional 100 adjacent acres. This was the beginning of a politically controversial period of development into what is now Echo Bluff State Park, named for the towering bluff overlooking Sinking Creek in front of the modern lodge. Within the park a beautiful stone bridge was constructed across Sinking Creek, among other projects, which became the subject of some concern given the poor quality of many bridges within the county. Thankfully, the government was not dissuaded and the park was fully developed and opened in the summer of 2016. Although the exact costs are elusive, the improvements within the park are conservatively estimated to have cost around 55 million dollars, not including approximately 10.5 million dollars in federal grants. What does this investment get you, you might ask?
The camping area is, in simple terms, state of the art. The RV parking pads are all concrete, level, spacious and properly equipped for the various needs of users, in terms of water, sewer and electrical connectivity. This area is not currently shaded, however; trees have been planted and will soon provide ample shade. The shower houses and restroom facilities are all first rate, immaculately maintained and convenient. There are considerable tent and primitive camping opportunities close at hand, with parking for those that walk in. Handcarts are available, conveniently spotted around the grounds, to pack in your gear. For those who eschew the camping experience, there are a number of very modern cabins and chalets as well as rooms in the lodge, which is a gorgeous building. Sinking Creek runs through the park and provides wading, fishing and swimming opportunities at a number of locations. Tazzy loves this park and we have named one of the deeper pools on the creek “Tazzy’s Hole”, a place where he swims until exhaustion! In spite of these many amenities, the draw is the setting.
The hills and ridges are densely wooded in pine and hardwood. The hollows are deep and fog shrouded in the mornings, the cool air from the creek practically demanding a campfire in the ring at each campsite. There is abundant wildlife and a resident population of feral horses who have a fondness for such things as watermelon carelessly left out at night. There is WiFi, as some folks do not think they can live without it, and it is surprisingly good. We found it useful only in a drenching downpour, precluding us from being out and about. There are numerous float outfitters close at hand, some of which will pick you up at your campsite, deliver you to a put in and pick you up at the take out, then deliver you back to your campsite or cabin. How convenient is that!
There are local folks who can remember the sounds of blaring rock bands shattering the peaceful hills. There is an occasional local with enough salt to remember the sounds of children squealing in the cold creek waters or coaxing a horse along a trail. I can only imagine what it is like in the fall, when nature displays her colors. I am told that Halloween is a special occasion in the RV park, with folks dressing up and brightly lighting their RV’s as they welcome children on the prowl for treats. If there is a downside, it is the park’s popularity. Make your reservations well in advance as this is going to be one of those coveted destinations where sites are reserved many months in advance.
We will be back, soon. There is much research to be done and many interviews to be conducted. I thoroughly enjoy conversations with the folks in Shannon County who have lived the colorful history around Echo Bluff. The hills will never give their secrets up. The stories that are known only to the ridges, hollows and hills are locked away forever.
If only these hills could talk!