By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
SEDALIA, Mo. – John Homer Bothwell would have approved of the Radiant Trail, which rambles for three miles through the fields and forests of Bothwell Lodge State Historic Site.
“He would hike great distances on a whim, get out in the woods and start walking and who knows where he would end up,” said Charles Wise, who guides visitors through Bothwell’s castle-like home.
“People would think he was a hitchhiker and try to pick him up – they felt sorry he was walking, he felt sorry because they had to drive. The trail goes through such a natural part of the property, places he himself would have been out walking with his friends.”
Motorists on Interstate 65 north of Sedalia can’t miss the turreted stone lodge, which sits 120 feet high on a bluff looking down on the countryside. The lodge is open to tours on winter weekends and can be combined with a stay in the renovated Hotel Bothwell, a historic landmark in downtown Sedalia, for a short trip into the distant past.
Bothwell’s story is a fascinating blend of tragedy and a life well lived, and it is told through the personal belongings lovingly preserved throughout the 31-room, multi-level mansion.
Born in 1848 in Maysville, Ill., Bothwell came to Sedalia, a bustling rail hub, as a young lawyer in 1871. He married Hattie Jaynes, the sister of his law partner, but the marriage was just two years old when misfortune struck. Hattie gave birth to a stillborn child, and was believed to have died of complications from the pregnancy. Bothwell never remarried, never had children.
Entering politics, Bothwell served four terms as a state legislator and ran unsuccessfully for governor. He failed in his bid to have the state capitol moved to Sedalia, but did secure the permanent home for the Missouri State Fair, which began its lengthy run in the city in 1901. Although schooled in law, he made his fortune with the West St. Louis Water & Light Co., which supplied water to St. Louis County and Kirksville on the other side of the state. He served as president of the company until 1926.
Enthralled with nature, Bothwell discovered a picturesque wooded bluff outside Sedalia and decided it would be perfect for a weekend retreat. Using native stone, he began construction of the house in 1897, and built it in four phases, the last completed in 1928.
The 12,000-square-foot estate became his personal home, and he lived there until his death at the age of 80. But Bothwell was by no means a recluse. The home had 10 guest bedrooms that often were filled, and he was a surrogate father to two nieces and a second cousin who had their own quarters in the lodge.
Bothwell was a generous citizen. He gave the city of Sedalia $150,000, which helped finance the building of the Hotel Bothwell and a hospital that is still in use after several additions. In his 22-page will, he left the lodge to a group of 38 friends and relatives for the creation of the Bothwell Lodge Club. When the original 38 fell to below five in number, the will stipulated that the land go to the state for charitable and educational purposes.
Missouri got the property in 1974, and opened the house for tours as a state historic site in 1991, administered by the Department of Natural Resources. The original land has been expanded to 247 acres and the Radiant Trail makes a loop around the grounds, showing off the natural beauty that first attracted Bothwell.
“The trail is named for his favorite poem, ‘Life in Abundance’ by Elbert Hubbard,” Wise said. “It talks about aspiring to live a radiant life.”
The poem reads, in part: “I desire to radiate health, cheerfulness, sincerity, calm, courage and good will. That is to say, I desire to be radiant – to radiate life.”
Bees in the wall
The home is decorated in the Arts and Crafts style, and most of the furniture is original. Without a feminine touch, the interior resembles a gentleman’s hunting lodge. Antique carpets cover the hardwood floors. A trophy sailfish, brought home from a trip to Cuba, hangs in the dining room.
“The house ended up with five and a half bathrooms – that was a time when houses out in the country still had outhouses,” Wise said during a tour. “The last bathroom was put in in 1926 and had a shower, which is something you didn’t see in private homes.”
Bothwell eagerly adopted the latest technology. An air tank and pump provided water pressure. The house had a top-of-the-line steam heating system with radiators. A generator and bank of batteries provided electricity. He even tried to provide air conditioning by venting cool air from a cave in the bluff up a stairwell into the house, a venture somewhat successful.
The library, with its cozy fireplace, is one of the most welcoming rooms.
“The library was for recreational reading,” Wise said. “There were more than 1,000 books in the room, over 2,000 in the house total. The books were so prized by him that he had a house rule – you had to wash your hands before reading any of the volumes. That’s why the wash room was in the hallway just outside the library. “
The Gothic tower contains some surprises. Bee hives, which still produce honey, were concealed behind wall panels. Bothwell’s office was in the top floor of the tower, where a ladder leads up to the roof for a sweeping view of the landscape.
In the main hallway is a replica of Bothwell’s personal flag.
“He had a habit of flying his homemade house flag and the American flag outside to show he was home and accepting guests,” Wise said.
“We get a lot of visitors who love old houses; they come to see the woodwork, the furniture – they like history,” Wise said. “We also get a lot of people who drive by and just want to see that big house on the hill.”
Tours of the house are $4 for adults, $2.50 for children six through 12. Tours are available during the winter from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the hour on Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. The Radiant Trail is open to hiking and biking. The three-quarter-mile Stoneyridge Trail leads to a stone gazebo and shelter. The grounds have picnic tables, a playground and a reservable pavilion. Call (660) 827-0510 or visit mostateparks.com. Hotel Bothwell is at (660) 826-5588 and hotelbothwell.com.