-by Greg Hoots-
Author’s note: This story is about my dad, Carl Hoots, and his dream to build a historic interpretative center and tourist park near West Plains, Missouri in 1970.
Daddy was a collector. One could say, in fact, that his collections became obsessions with him. As I recall, his first obsession was his arrowhead collection. Daddy hunted arrowheads by walking the stream banks of the White River and the shoreline of Norfork Lake in Ozark County, Missouri. Having a few boards of arrowheads was never enough for Daddy; he wanted to amass the largest private collection of surface-finds arrowheads and artifacts in existence. By 1970 his collection had grown to well over 10,000 complete artifacts with twice that many broken arrowheads. Throughout the 1960s, Daddy hunted arrowheads every weekend, and often the trips involved the whole family “going to the lake”.
In the late 1960s Daddy began collecting fruit jars and bottles. His collection of jars and bottles began one Saturday when we had visited Uncle Bob and Aunt Essie’s farm at Steelville, Missouri. Daddy had hiked into the woods, exploring the farm, and he discovered a long-abandoned dump, which contained several intact fruit jars among hundreds of broken ones. Like his arrowhead collection, he became obsessed with hunting bottles and jars, digging in abandoned dumps and searching root cellars.
One of Daddy’s greatest ambitions was to have a place to display his massive collections. In 1970, that dream became a reality. After working for the Daily Quill in the mid-1960s, in early 1969 Daddy formed a partnership with a West Plains businessman, Fred Zaiser to build and operate a large tourist complex and museum just north of town to be known as Ozarka Village. Zaiser owned a West Plains company, Ozarko Oil, and he had purchased a 40-acre tract of land adjoining his oil and tire company property on North 63 Highway. Zaiser provided the property and the funding for the construction of the Village, and Daddy provided the manpower, the ideas, and of course, his one-of-a-kind collections for display. In 1969, the Federal minimum wage was $1.30 an hour, but Daddy agreed to work for half that much with the balance being part of his ownership of the business. He made up for the short wages by working long hours; generally speaking, he worked 60-70 hours a week on the construction of the Village.
Work began on the project in January of 1969. Ozarka Village included a large fort compound containing four buildings, a general store, a bottle museum, a fruit jar museum and a replica of an old jail. The complex also included a tourist information center building, a large natural science museum, a two-room log cabin, a crazy house, a large tree house (atop a giant white oak tree), a moonshiner’s still, the world’s largest black bear, and unbelievably, Daddy constructed a huge man-made cave in which he displayed approximately 10,000 prehistoric Indian artifacts. The complex contained a dozen structures, all designed by Daddy, and all constructed with only the basics of equipment. A young man named Gary Tharp worked with Daddy throughout the project to completion. Gary worked for Ozarko Oil, but had been assigned to assist Daddy with the construction of the Village. Another individual who worked not only in the construction phase of the project but who also worked as a guide when Ozarka Village opened was Bob Packett. In addition to the construction of the dozen buildings, Daddy and his crew demolished a small farm house on the site of the Village, and the men also demolished the “Butler Barn” a very large frame barn from which Daddy salvaged both dimension lumber and one-inch oak siding. The salvaged lumber was used in the construction of several of the buildings at the Village.
When Daddy began working on the Village, he had hoped to open in the summer of 1969; however, the project was huge, and usually only one or two men worked on the construction, so the opening was moved to the summer of 1970. Even then, delays in the construction would not allow the facility to open until August of that year. In the spring of 1970, a number of additions were made to the construction crew in an attempt to open by Memorial Day. A carpenter of German heritage, Emil Haverkamp was hired to lead the construction crew, and a handful of laborers were added to the mix.
While one or two of the buildings at the Village would have been a challenge for most men to construct, the dozen structures of the Village that sprawled over twenty acres began to take shape slowly, piece by piece, shaped by Daddy’s hands.
An interesting building was the log cabin. It was built much as the hand-hewn log cabins were constructed some hundred years ago, relying exclusively on manual labor. Daddy obtained untreated oak railroad ties from a local sawmill, then he used an axe to remove the smooth side of the tie which would be exposed, making the logs look as if they were hand-hewn. The logs were joined at the corners of the cabin with dovetail joints. Some of the long ties weighed several hundred pounds and were lifted manually to the eaves of the cabin, relying heavily on brute strength and leverage. Wooden shingles adorned the roof.
Inside, the walls were covered with pine car siding, and the cabin had a pine floor. Daddy built a huge open fireplace on one end of the cabin, made from hand-cut limestone that he had salvaged from a foundation of a building which he had demolished. The cabin was furnished with turn-of-the-century furniture and antiques from that time period. There was an old Springfield wagon parked in front of the cabin, and there was an outhouse behind the two-room house.
The natural science museum building contained displays that depicted the origins of ancient man in the Ozarks along with a large collection of fossils from the southern Missouri. The most popular exhibit in the museum building was a large display of mounted wildlife native to southern Missouri, all acquired from a local taxidermist. The museum building was approximately 40×80-feet in size.
The tree house was an enclosed 12×12-foot house, installed some 30-feet in the air, atop a large white oak tree with a wide spiral staircase leading through the tree’s branches into the house.
One of the most popular attractions was Big Ben, an 800-pound Canadian Black Bear, who was housed in a large stone and brick den with bars across the front of the structure. Ben would entertain visitors by walking around, standing up (he stood some seven-foot tall), and his most popular trick was drinking a bottle of Dr. Pepper, which he would consume in one tip of the bottle. Daddy had seen the bear at the Pumpkin Center station and bait shop where the animal was caged in a very small trailer-mounted cage, barely twelve feet in length. The owner of the station displayed the bear to attract business, and while we gave the animal Dr. Pepper, at the Pumpkin Center store customers could buy beer for the bear. Daddy was aghast that someone would get a bear drunk, and he convinced Zaiser to add the bear to the Ozarka Village attractions. They got the bear in 1969, not long after construction began.
The most unbelievable structure at the Village was the cave. It was the single thing that Daddy took the most pride in constructing. Built underground, the cave was made of rock and concrete, complete with cave formations, 250-feet of passageway, and 20 or so large glass-covered cases in which he displayed his arrowhead and artifact collection. The cave was built with thousands of cubic yards of concrete, much of which was moved with a wheel barrel, as concrete pumping equipment was not known at the time.
In the summer of 1970 Daddy was stricken with what appeared to be a stroke at the age of 48. He missed a week of work before he returned to his job at the Village. For months he dragged one foot and had limited use of one arm until he retrained himself to use the right side of his body.
In the first short season, Ozarka Village opened in August of 1970 with about eight employees who staffed the tourist information center and the general store, in addition to a groundskeeper and maintenance employee, two guides, and Daddy, the ring-master. Unfortunately, the opening was late in the year, and most of the tourist traffic for the summer had passed. Seemingly recovered from his stroke, Daddy worked untiringly, improving exhibits, doing grounds-keeping during the off-season, and, of course, caring for the 800-pound bear. For Daddy, it was a 7-days-a-week job.
In the spring of 1971, Ozarka Village opened for the second season, this time with just three employees, Daddy, Bob Packett, and myself. Occasionally, a spare worker from Ozarko Oil might mow around the parking area or outside of the fort fencing, but the staff was a bare-bones crew. Unfortunately, there was no money for any advertising of any kind, and unlike the story of W. P. Kinsella’s Field of Dreams, despite building it, they did not come. No one did. Only a handful of people from West Plains even toured the Village, despite the fact that the admission charge was only 50-cents. So, neither the tourists nor the money poured into the project. Near the end, the staff was reduced to Daddy and myself. We finally closed the doors at Ozarka Village for the last time around Labor Day in 1971.
For a number of years, Daddy continued to go to the Village at least a couple of times a day to care for his beloved bear. Slowly, he began emptying his prized lifetime collections from the buildings. The disappointment from the lack of business was enormous for Daddy. He had thought that Ozarka Village could have competed with Silver Dollar City, then in its infancy, for the tourist traffic coming to the Ozarks every summer. It was not to be.
There were probably a few reasons for the failure of Ozarka Village. The primary reason was probably the lack of capital. The expectation that tourists would swarm into the Village without the use of any advertising or promotions was unrealistic. The second reason that the business failed to attract visitors was that they had no amusement rides. While the focus on history was interesting to many, the park needed rides to keep customers at the complex all day, spending money. Finally, the admission charge of fifty-cents was insufficient to pay for the daily operation of the business, dooming it to failure.
Despite its lack of success, for a few years, Ozarka Village was Daddy’s dream come true. Likewise, it was a testament to Daddy’s ability to build anything, single-handedly, if necessary. In the mid-1980s, Zaiser sold the Ozarka Village property, and the new owner razed every building. The cave’s entrances were filled with dirt. Today, Western Farm and Homes sits on the former Ozarka Village property.
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