Several hundred years ago, the tall, handsome Osage Indians roamed the hills and valleys of what is now Missouri's Miller, Camden and Morgan Counties, which surround the Lake of the Ozarks, the northern foothills of the Ozark Mountains.
Pause for a moment, at the top of a bluff, and gaze at the Ozark forests and the water below. Imagine tribes of Osage Indians pushing patiently through the trees hunting deer, turkey and other wildlife. By the streams, they fish and capture beavers.
As the Native American hunters move through the woods, they leave their signal to those who follow the thong tree. They select a white oak sapling and a green-forked limb (thong) from another tree and bend them together. With the sapling bent horizontal to the ground, it points toward a spring or cave for the other members of the tribe. Look around on your walks and hikes through the local woods, as thong trees can still be found in the area today.
Caves abound in the Ozarks , offering temporary shelter to the Osage Indians. Ha Ha Tonka State Park is an excellent example of local "karst" topography which is characterized by caves, sinkholes, underground streams, large springs and natural bridges. Just beyond and between the hills and rocky cliffs, the transition areas of plateaus, where prairie grass grew and where the Native Americans planted their crops of corn, beans and pumpkins can be found. Farmers in this three-county area continue to turn up arrowheads as they till their fields...constant reminder of the land's predecessors. Picture the white man moving from the Mississippi onto the Missouri River, then through the tributaries of the Osage and Niangua Riversto this beautiful, lush new land.
Possibly the earliest meeting of the Osage and explorers was in 1710, when a Frenchman named Claude DuTissent visited and hunted with the Osage tribes. But it wasn't until a century later that the natural wonders of the Ozarks were described by Lewis and Clark as they explored the frontier.
The French were responsible for the name of this section of the country. They had established a post on the Arkansas River, and the name was shortened to Aux-Arcs... pronounced Ozark. The term means, literally, to the Arkansas or to the Arkansas Post.
Gradually, commerce began between the traders from St. Louis and the Native Americans. The Osage bartered beaver and other animal skins which found their way to the eastern colonies of the United States and Europe, where they were fashioned into top hats for men and capes for women. As the traders moved into the area, the Osage ceded parcels of land to the federal government which eventually took a familiar action. In 1825, the Osage tribe was moved to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma.
The Ozarks then became wide open for settlers who came primarily from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Among them were hunters, such as Daniel Boone, who made a livelihood of trapping animals for their skins. However, most of the newcomers were farmers who built their log homes and churches and tilled their fields with oxen and mules. They grew crops of hay, soybeans and corn, and raised cattle and pigs to meet their needs of self-sufficiency.
Life in the Ozarks wasn't all work. The pioneers also met their need for social interaction by gathering as small communities, enjoying box suppers and music played for square, round and clog dancing. These are activities which have been passed on through generations and which visitors can enjoy today in the small town street dances and festivals, and in the music shows where mountain music, country, bluegrass and gospel tunes are an inherent element.
Fascinating examples of the necessities of pioneer living can be found in the historical museums of Camden, Miller and Morgan Counties. Spinning wheels, knitting machines and weaving looms can be seen at the Camden County Museum where small rugs can still be ordered. Clothing, furniture and glassware are among the many items donated to the Miller County Museum by families of early settlers. The Martin Hotel in Versailles, dating back to 1877, now houses the Morgan County Museum. Each of its 23 rooms depicts pioneer life through its antiques and artifacts.
The tranquility of this area of the Ozarks was disrupted by the Civil War. There were no battles here, but there were skirmishes between small numbers of non-commissioned soldiers who came upon their enemies by chance as they moved about the countryside. It was said that the winning side could be determined at any given time by whether Union or Confederate soldiers were registered at the Martin Hotel in Versailles. The sympathies of both rural and townspeople were divided nearly equally. About 600 men from the area were known to have registered to fight for either the Northern or Southern armies, although the number who actually went to war isn't known.
The Civil War had a devastating effect among friends, with fear and suspicion aggravated by bushwhacker attacks. Individuals suspected of aiding "the enemy" were killed; property was burned. Often prominent leaders were compelledat the risk of their own livesto save their communities from guerrilla attacks. For years following the Civil War, Missouri was known as the "robber" state because of armed bands of guerrillas who found the hills of the Ozarks and the many caves ideal hiding places.
Gradually, in the latter half of the 19th century, civilization took hold and small businesses in the Ozark towns were formed. Education and appreciation of the arts brought the Chautauqua circuit by train, performing classical music and lectures.
Families celebrated at County Fairs, showing farm products and fine livestock including mules, which were used as working animals. It was a mule from a Morgan County farm which received the Mayor¹s Award and $10,000 at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. Thus, the term "Missouri Mule" originated. Mule teams were used in the construction of Bagnell Dam. Many were sold to the army for use in WW II.
The construction of Bagnell Dam and the formation of the Lake of the Ozarks in the early 1930¹s brought about changes, not only in topography, but also in growth. New towns sprouted up, offering meals of tasty home cookin and entertainment for visitors as well as soldiers stationed at nearby camps.
After the war's end, the boom began... slowly at first, to satisfy the fishermen and tourists who came to vacation in the midst of nature's beauty. Visitors were drawn to Lake Ozark where The Strip (just above Bagnell Dam), grew into a family entertainment and shopping center, featuring a ski show, various carnival style rides and games. Lee Mace's Ozark Opry opened the first Ozark country and gospel music show in 1953.
In the early 1970's, another community was quietly forming, as Mennonites moved from Pennsylvania, Indiana and Kansas to farm lands north and east of Versailles.
In many respects, the Lake of the Ozarks has come of age in the past two decades, and today, continues to draw visitors to what has become Mid-America's premier family fun vacation destination.