Listen to the podcast of this article at Preservation in a State of Ruin: Ha Ha Tonka Castle
Just 30 miles north of Lebanon, near the town of Camdenton in Camden County, visitors can find the ruins of an early 20th-century castle. Ha Ha Tonka State Park is a recreation area encompassing more than 3,700 acres that includes beautiful natural sights, hiking trails, geological wonders, and the ruins of a once majestic home. The park is a geologic wonderland featuring sinkholes, caves, a huge natural bridge, sheer bluffs and Missouri’s 12th largest spring. The ruins of a turn-of-the-century stone castle overlook these wonders and offer impressive views of the Lake of the Ozarks and Ha Ha Tonka Spring.
Much has been written about the original history of Ha Ha Tonka and the castle. A section about the park from the Missouri Parks website says:
“Today’s visitors are not the first to be attracted to the remarkable beauty and wonders found in the area. The spring water, wooded hills and abundant wildlife attracted both American Indians and settlers. The journals of many settlers and explorers in the early 1800s mentioned the remarkable features of the area. The first permanent mill was established in 1830 by a man named Garland, who dammed the lower end of the spring and constructed a gristmill. Remnants of a mill can still be seen on the trail to the spring. Garland was linked with a band of counterfeiters who used several caves in the area.
In 1903, Robert M. Snyder, a wealthy Kansas City businessman, visited the area and was so impressed that he began purchasing land to build his private retreat. He envisioned a European-style castle with 60 rooms and a center atrium rising three and one-half stories to a skylight. He also planned a water tower, greenhouses and stables. The materials were extracted from the area, with sandstone quarried nearby and transported by a mule-drawn wagon and miniature railroad. Construction began in 1905 but was halted a year later with the death of Snyder in one of the state’s first automobile accidents. Snyder’s sons finished the structure in 1922, although not quite as elaborately as originally planned. The castle originally overlooked a small spring-fed lake. In the 1920s, Snyder’s fought to stop the construction of Bagnell Dam but failed. The resulting Lake of the Ozarks divided the estate and consumed the small lake.
Eventually, the property was leased for use as a hotel. In 1942, sparks from a chimney ignited the roof and the fire gutted the castle. The carriage house burned the same day and in 1976, the water tower was burned by vandals. Today, only the ruins remain.
Efforts to preserve the area as a state park began in the early 1900s when Missouri Gov. Herbert S. Hadley visited the area. After several failed attempts, Ha Ha Tonka State Park was created in 1978. Since that time, the park has fascinated visitors with its geologic wonders, mysterious castle ruins and recreational opportunities for a day of relaxation and fun.”
In the 1980s, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources undertook to preserve the castle. My father, a local pastor and mason, participated in the project in 1989. I sat down with him to learn more about the local culture around the castle and the preservation efforts at Ha Ha Tonka in the late 1980s.
The castle burned before my father was born but I asked him if he’d heard any stories about the castle from his youth.
“My name is John Angst and I’ve been a brick mason around Lebanon for about 50 years. My Uncle Oliver had been down there when it was a speakeasy. That was during prohibition and they had illegal booze down there and gambling. And he came back told family members, it was long before I was born, he told them how rich it was and about the tapestries on the walls, and he thought he was really in high cotton when he was when he was down there.
Whenever it did happen, I remember, it burned and it had a fire suppression system of some kind but it didn’t work. The pumps or whatever didn’t get the water up to the roof like it needed to and and of course it was far too far away for anybody to do anything.”
Next I asked him if he had any memories of the castle the way it was before it was preserved.
“Well, they had over the years, they had been gradually protecting it more and more. When I was a teenager, it was completely untended, unsupervised. There was a fence around it at the highway, just a regular barbed wire fence and a couple of signs saying no trespassing. But the teenagers always would climb over the fence and and go down to the spring or go up to the castle runs and have a party. It was very common back then to have a few cans of beer and shoot off some fireworks from the top of that hill. I went down there a time or two.
The tower had, I remember when it had stairs that went all the way to the top of it, but it burned sometime around, probably in the in the mid 60s. There was a fire there that burned the steps the wooden part of the steps out of the out of the tower. The tower was 70 foot tall and had windows about four or five levels. So people would climb up there and stand in the windows and have their pictures taken, you know, and it was really beautiful place but in ruin. And of course with trash all around it weeds all grown up and briars and that sort of thing, but it was still an interesting sort of thing. A little dangerous for for kids to be hanging around, but that you know kids are.
The tower set a long way away from the mansion and the tower didn’t burn until probably 1970 or something like that. But when it burned then all of the top and the wooden part of it and the wood that was on the stair steps and all that burned out.”
After we talked about his memories of Ha Ha Tonka before the preservation efforts began, I asked him what he remembered about his time helping to preserve Ha Ha Tonka Castle.
“When the Ha Ha Tonka restoration, or as they called it ‘preservation in a state of ruin’ was contracted out by the, Missouri department whatever it was the parks department I suppose, the contractor that won the bid was an old friend of mine named Bob Thornton, who’s also a preacher friend. Both of us were preachers and Masons and he had been in the business 15 years or so longer than I had. He was the only stonemason that that really bid the job meaning that he had been trained to shape stones by hand when he was young. He and his brother, Frank Thornton, had started their careers in the 1950s, late 40s early 50s, working for older stonemasons who carved their own Stones by hand. So they knew how to do the same sort of stone shaping that was done on the Ha Ha Tonka building originally.
On the main highway, you’ll come to a spot where there’s a stone building and it’s a story and a half tall or something and it’s just an old square, stone building, but it was the post office. That’s where the community of Ha Ha Tonka was and they had built that back in the 30s. I believe it was something like that. His father and and his brother and him had worked on that. So they had some experience with the actual type of construction of the castle. The stone building there was built in imitation of the castle.”
After learning that his friend had received the contract to do the preservation
work at Ha Ha Tonka, my father asked if he could participate and help with the crew. Of course his friend allowed him to help out saying that he could always use another hand. So my dad was really excited to be able to see some of the old techniques being used in the preservation of this building.
“I had never seen anybody work on a pitching table before but they pitched stones. It’s called that because there’s a slope to them or a pitch. And so just like you’d say the roof has a certain pitch to it. That was an old archaic term now for the slope.
So stones are square when they quarry them and those are all quarried by hand from a quarry on-site by stone masons from Scotland. And they made square stones. So then where the walls come out in a slow slope on the corners, that’s how it’s protected. A baluster, I think they call it. But anyway. each one of those stones has to be pitched, or sloped, on the outside to match the one below and so it makes a gentle slope.
You have to look at the shape of the wall that you’re going to and start off with the stone and a chisel and a hammer… If you make a mistake in that pitch, you’ve got to start all over again and I takes quite a lot of practice and a unbelievable amount of strength in your arms and hands and patience. And so they build a special table to work on which is lower than a.. higher than a coffee table, but lower than a countertop, somewhere in around two feet. Depends on the man, the size of the man. But he has to stand up at it and work down onto a stone that’s about a foot tall, with a chisel that’s about eight or ten inches long in his hand. So you have to just, it has to be built to the man more or less.
So a pitching table is made out of wood, but it’s very sturdy. And that’s the only thing that its really fit for is for hitting stones with the chisel. And it’s built especially for that. So I’ve never even heard of that before so it was a very interesting experience for me because I got to see some of the old type of work that was done for hundreds of years. It was the same way ever since the time of Christ… and it’s it’s almost never seen today.
That job was interesting in another way in that it was so, I don’t want to say dangerous, but it was more dangerous than most things that I work on. Just because of the fact that it was so far from anywhere and it was so high. And the wind was so strong a lot of times. So we did have one guy that was injured down there. It wasn’t when I was on the job. But that was a very scary time, I remember, for the workers. They all talked about it the whole time the job was going on. We were much more careful after that incident happened. Somebody’s head was hit when a crane failed that was lifting up materials. And the load came down and hit him on the head. He had a hard hat on, which it broke, and they had to rush him to the hospital. It was a long way to the hospital from there. It’s back in the woods and you far from anywhere but, he lived. It was a horrible injury.
So, most jobs I work on aren’t that dangerous, but that was a 35-foot scaffold height, and then with the trees and the debris and just the terrain around there. There’s nothing flat anywhere around there. So a crane had quite a job of, you know, getting stuff up there without hitting something. And with the wind blowing, a load would turn and we had to have people holding the sides of it with ropes, you know. Try to keep it straight so that you can get it up there and set it on the scaffold.
It’s called preservation in a state of ruin because the walls were crumbling and falling apart. In fact, from the time that the contractor had taken on the job, when they all looked at the job, the contractors who were bidding it, the walls had deteriorated to the point where they had to be built back to the point that they were at when the bid was made. So they all took pictures of the ruins when the bid was made, and it was about six months to a year after that that the work actually started. So then we had to look at the pictures and see, well this wall was about four feet higher here, and you can see how it sort of tailed off at this end. So we put the rocks back up there and let them hang off at a point where it looked like they were about to fall, but then seal them in so that it looks as though it’s it’s falling apart, but it will never fall. That thing is really put back together unbelievably strongly.
All of the the fireplaces throughout the structure were built into the exterior walls. And so there was a wall inside, a wall outside, and the fireplace chimneys, the flue, went up inside those walls. So when it was rebuilt, or preserved, we took those walls and built the outside walls with stone, the rubble that was laying around down on the ground, put those back as nearly as as they were to start with as we could, and then in between there poured concrete with three quarter inch to one inch rebar, drilled into the bedrock 10 feet and then driven in on one foot center. So, in a 12 foot wide by four foot deep cavity, there were 30 or 40 one inch rebar run all the way from below bedrock up into the sky, some of it three stories tall, and that was all filled with concrete. In order to pre-stress it, they hooked a crane to the top of that with a special plate that fastened all those straight together in a proper configuration. They were all screwed to one another at each each 20 foot interval, or a 10 foot interval, and then the plate at the top was fastened to the crane which kept a hundred thousand pounds of pressure on it while the concrete was setting up. So we laughed about how strong that thing was going to be. It will never fall. Judgment Day will have come and gone and those towers at least will still be standing. And so it looks like it’s gonna all fall down, but it’s incredibly strong.”
It was really fun to talk to my dad about his experiences working at Ha Ha Tonka. I remember going out to see him while he worked out there and feeling kind of important and special that I knew someone on the crew. I was only nine years old, but I remember bringing him lunch up there one day and walking the trails.
Living here in Laclede County, I’ve been to Ha Ha Tonka many times in my life and I feel a special connection to it, particularly because my dad helped work on the building, but I know many people in Laclede County and the surrounding areas feel a special connection to this really interesting piece of our state’s history.