Carl Bonnell drove his all-terrain vehicle up the steep, grassy hillside and parked at the treeless top to admire the spectacular view.
“Every time I come up here, I see something new,” said Bonnell, who is a superintendent for Missouri State Parks. “There’s potential to do a lot of neat things up here.”
The dominant feature standing on the horizon, high above the forested mountains just showing autumn colors, was the Shepherd of the Hills Inspiration Tower, a landmark on the Branson entertainment strip in Taney County.
The tower is part of the complex that features an outdoor play of Harold Bell Wright’s 1907 book about Ozark folklore.
“Old Matt and Aunt Mollie probably traipsed through these very hills,’ Bonnell said of the book’s real-life characters.
The hills, as tall as 1,300 feet and bald of trees at the top, are known as knobs locally. They gave the name “baldknobbers” to hooded vigilante groups, who were said to meet on the barren hilltops. The Baldknobbers also is one of the oldest entertainment families on the Branson strip.
Four knobs, home to specialized plants and animals that thrive in the rocky, sun-drenched conditions, are located on the 1,011 acres that will make up Ozark Mountain State Park, one of three tracts purchased by Missouri State Parks for future parks.
The second, Eleven Point State Park, is located in Oregon County near Alton and has six miles of frontage on the Eleven Point River. The third is Bryant Creek State Park in Douglas County near Ava and has old-growth oak and pine forests and nearly two miles of bluffs along Bryant Creek.
Filling Gaps in the Park System
Ken McCarty, chief, Natural Resources Management Section of Missouri State Parks, said the purchase of the three properties is part of a strategic concept outlined in 1992 called “Missouri Masterpieces.”
“Our goal has been to have represented within our park system all the major ecological regions and natural landscapes that were historic in the state,’ McCarty said.
“The tracts represented gaps in our state park system and these three acquisitions fill those gaps,” McCarty said. “These are three important pieces in the natural history of our state.”
Each of the tracts, McCarty said, has unique characteristics that make it worthy of preservation as a state park.
“In Oregon County, you have six miles of direct river frontage on the Eleven Point River. It’s a Wild and Scenic national river, and it’s truly wild and scenic through that corridor.
“You have the glades and bald knobs in Taney County. The White River drainage has the greatest concentration of glades in the whole world. It’s an open, grassy, flower-filled landscape of hilltops rising up above the forest and river valley and Ozark hollows.
“Bryant Creek has impressively large oaks and short-leaf pines. The creek is lined with bluffs on both sides and three tributary hollows go through uncut forest down through sandstone outcrops with a tremendous amount of character.”
The state park system purchased the 4,162 acres in Oregon County for $8 million. The 2,927 acres along Bryant Creek in Douglas County was $4 million. The Taney County purchase totaled $2.8 million.
Money for the purchase of the new parks came from settlements reached with companies that had operated in the state.
“The settlements provide for remedial funds to restore lands that were damaged, and for funds to compensate Missourians for losses of natural resources,” said Bill Bryan, Director of Missouri State Parks.
The purchases of Ozark Mountain State Park and Bryant Creek State Park also utilized some state park funds designated for land acquisitions.
Bears and Bluffs
The new Echo Bluff State Park, on Highway 19 between Salem and Eminence, was designed to be family friendly, with lodging, a restaurant, RV facilities and a playground.
The three new parks will have minimal development, and will cater to floaters, anglers, hikers, nature lovers, campers and backpackers, Bryan said.
“Bryant Creek and Eleven Point state parks will provide a gateway for people to get into the backcountry, either on foot or by water,” Bryan said. “Ozark Mountain State Park will be more of a day-use park where people can get away from the bustle of Branson.”
The Oregon County tract includes two former cattle farming operations. Most buildings will be razed, although one with a historical footnote will be preserved.
A large house on what was known as the Pigman Ranch hosted the Beatles during a break from their 1964 tour of America. The house’s exterior displays the Ozark style called “giraffe,” because the irregular sandstone slabs of the walls resemble the hide of a giraffe.
The prime attraction at Eleven Point State Park is the six miles of frontage on the Eleven Point River. A floater could get in at the access at Riverton, and float through the park nine miles to the Highway 142 access, which is known as The Narrows.
“It’s different, there’s more quiet and more solitude, which is saying something on our Ozark rivers,” Bryan said.
Because nearly 1,000 acres of the Oregon County land has been heavily grazed, prescribed burns may be used to bring back the natural landscape of grasses and wildflowers beneath an open woodland of scattered post oaks.
Ozark Mountain State Park includes 2.2 miles of Roark Creek, a clear stream with white slab rock. The land abuts the Henning Conservation Area, which is on the west end of Branson’s Country Music Boulevard and offers a popular respite for hikers and birders.
“I think there will be an opportunity to hook up to their trail system,” said Bonnell. “Using the old road beds that lead up the knobs, it wouldn’t be that hard to cut a trail system in.”
Hiking to the top of the knobs would be a breath-taking experience, literally.
The property includes an old one-room schoolhouse that served the long-gone community of Garber. The charming building has an unusual architectural feature – two front doors, side by side.
“Maybe the girls went in one door, and the boys the other,” Bonnell said. “There was an old metal bucket nailed to one of the trees; the kids used that as a basketball hoop. They didn’t have a basketball; they used rocks.”
Bryant Creek, which has a reputation for excellent smallmouth bass fishing, is the most primitive, and pristine, with its old-growth rees, sheer dolomite bluffs and deep, dark hollows decorated with mosses and ferns.
“On the ridgetop, it has a beautiful pine forest with views up and down the valley of Bryant Creek,” said McCarty, the park system chief of natural resources.
“When staff was down there recently, they flushed two black bears out of the canebrake on the river bottoms.”