Vicki Wood is a self-employed mother of four grown children living in Mid-Missouri. She was formerly a nurse and is getting back to writing.
Book reviews aren’t something that we feature often, but there is one book that merits examination for residents of Eldon and a couple of other communities that are mentioned. Lake of the Ozarks-My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America takes one back to a simpler, yet eye opening vision of Eldon and the lake.
Bill Geist, a part time worker at the lake’s former Arrowhead Lodge, recounts his teenage years working at the icon establishment in the early sixties. So did a lot of folks from our town. Eldon is mentioned a few times in the book, with Max Allen’s Zoo junction being thoroughly revisited in one chapter.
Geist is a retired Emmy Award winning correspondent from CBS Sunday Morning. He is also a New York Times Bestselling Author. His latest book, Lake of the Ozarks-My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America begins with a detailed description of the kitsch and splendor of what the Bagnell Dam strip used to be, a wonderland, through a young boy’s eyes.
The Mystery Spot where water magically flowed uphill, the fake Indian artifacts for sale at Dogpatch, the Hillbilly Jail, and numerous other recollections. His best memories come from his years at his Uncle Ed and Aunt Janet Popkess’ Arrowhead Lodge, where he served as everything from a bellboy to pool attendant. He shares many stories of the “Arrowhead Cast” of characters, as he calls them, the local entrepreneurs and businessmen that designed and managed the vacation land of the Bagnell Dam strip. Through his book, we get a round table seat at the masterminds of the day holding court in the Pow Wow Pub with Uncle Ed, coming up with the ideas that have become a mainstay of the strip.
Many waitresses and bellhops are mentioned in the book by first name, and some are still living in the area.
The first mention of Eldon comes as Geist relates the journey from Jefferson City to the lake on a two lane bumpy twisting highway 54. He describes cruising past the El Donna Motel, and the stone carved roadside monument declaring Eldon as “Gateway-Lake of the Ozarks.” Next he points out that there were “Monkeys in Eldon!”, recounting roadside attractions on the way to Bagnell Dam. Tom’s Monkey Jungle featured monkeys driving little cars, where tourists could hold and pet them. Max Allen’s Reptile Gardens which allowed visitors to get up close with Gila monsters, and giant Galapagos turtles. Many a young man around Eldon caught snakes to sell to Max Allen’s Zoo. Then there was the Ozark Deer Farm, and Indian Burial Cave as one traveled onward toward the strip, or Midwestern Shangri-la, as Geist called it.
The next mention comes as the author tells the tale of Betty Selby, an extremely attractive waitress working at Arrowhead Lodge in the early sixties. She regularly received 100 dollar bill tips, as well as unwelcome advances and suggestive comments. Betty went to Eldon and bought a fake diamond engagement ring at the five-and-dime. She would put it on to ward off especially frisky customers. She even went as far as to point to a big, burly front desk guy, declaring him to be her fiance. Geist recounts that all of the waitresses used that ring at one time or another that summer.
In one chapter, Geist tells the story of a work downtime adventure off of the strip. He describes a foray down Highway 42, to Brumley which was population 87 at the time. Route 42 is portrayed as a country road. Although his insight of Brumley’s appearance is not exactly flattering, his recount of the backwoods bar he and his buddy went to was. His coworker who had previously frequented the bar primed the author, with a few rules, “don't look at any women, don’t talk politics, talking about the Cardinals is safe, and so on. Geist ended the experience with his introduction to local moonshine served with down home hospitality.
There is a good celebrity mention in the book of sixties music star Roger Miller’s visit to Arrowhead Lodge. He played all of his hits to the staff in the Pow Wow Room. He also recounted the story of western movie star Henry Fonda jumping a horse into the lake. But perhaps one of the best of the many great stories in his recollections is one that takes place in Tuscumbia at the jail. Longtime assistant chef Annie Hicks’s son Howie was hired from a stint at NASA after he quit due to heart problems. Howie liked to drink, as much of the Arrowhead staff was known for, and would quite often lead to his incarceration in the county jail. When he wouldn’t show to work for a couple of days, owner Ed would send staff members down to Tuscumbia, knowing full well he was locked up. But locked up doesn’t really apply here, as Geist relates. They would drive up to the jail in Uncle Ed’s big white Cadillac convertible with the top down, creating a stir in the small town. After posting bail for Howie, Geist was led downstairs to the cells, finding Howie in his unlocked cell, with the door open. Prisoners were allowed to leave, walk up the street to the local cafe, charge their meals to the county, and return to jail...definitely a different time.
We thought the eighties were wild at the lake, I believe after reading Geist’s book, that the sixties had us beat.
© 2020 Vicki Wood
Vicki Wood (author) from Eldon, Missouri on January 11, 2020:
Thank you, Liz, for reading. I'm glad that someone from overseas enjoyed it. I think you will like the book and desire to visit Lake of the Ozarks.
Liz Westwood from UK on January 10, 2020:
You have written an interesting review. It highlights the book well and encourages me to search it out to read more.