by Tom Uhlenbrock Missouri State Parks

Historic photos help tell the story of the first 100 years of Missouri State Parks. One of the most impressive shows the stone castle at Ha Ha Tonka State Park before it was destroyed by fire.

Storm clouds overhead in the dramatic black-and-white photo portend the castle’s future.

Gov. Herbert Hadley had tried to purchase the property in 1911 as Missouri’s first state park. Nearly 70 years passed before it became the state’s sixty-first park in 1978.

By then, the castle was in ruins from a fire, but it was stabilized and now is the centerpiece of Ha Ha Tonka State Park on the Lake of the Ozarks.

Bill Bryan, director of state parks, noted that Ha Ha Tonka is one of the most popular parks, and fulfills the three-fold mission of preserving Missouri’s finest landscapes, telling its cultural history and providing outdoor recreation.

“It’s the full boat,” Bryan said. “It has cultural resources, is recognized for its natural beauty and has the trifecta with fantastic trails that show its unusual geology and plant and animal life. It’s a pretty special place.”

The photo of the 60-room mansion built by a wealthy Kansas City businessman, who died before it was completed, is part of a new exhibit celebrating the centennial of the park system. The exhibit, titled “Discover Your Missouri State Parks,” is in the Missouri State Museum on the first floor of the east wing of the State Capitol building.

The museum exhibit begins with the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, an act that may have encouraged Missouri to develop its own state park system. On April 9, 1917, a state park fund was created to buy land.

One hundred years of parks is an important milestone for the state, Bryan said.

“You sit back and think, in the life of our country, very few institutions have been around 100 years,” he said. “It’s a testament to the value that generations of Missourians have for public lands and special places.”

A Variety of Experiences

By 1928, the state had 14 parks totaling nearly 40,000 acres. Only four states had more acreage than Missouri, an achievement credited to strong citizen support.

In 1933, when President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal looked for projects to employ young men, the scenic resources of the Ozarks drew Civilian Conservation Corps crews. Nearly every park in the system benefited from structures built by the crews.

An array of new parks entered the system, including the magnificent Johnson’s Shut-Ins in 1955. A vintage photo in the exhibit shows two women in period one- piece swimsuits perched on the shut-ins formations.

During the next 15 years, Missouri created 26 new parks, many of them historic or archaeological sites and nearly all of them donations.

“There’s a great diversity, that’s an attribute of having a state parks system instead of a collection of random parks,” Bryan said. “We have such variety that you can see something different every day.

“One day you can be walking on a prairie under a blue sky that goes on forever and see bison. The next day, you’re knee deep in an Ozark stream fishing for trout or floating. Next, you can visit the French colonial buildings of Ste. Genevieve.”

This summer, Missouri will open Echo Bluff State Park on Sinking Creek near the Current River in the heart of the Ozarks. The park, which will feature a handsome lodge and cabins, will be the state’s 88th.

Like Ha Ha Tonka, Echo Bluff has natural beauty, a rich cultural history and offers an opportunity to explore the nearby rivers, caves, springs, mills and forests.

“Echo Bluff establishes a base camp for families to enjoy the Ozarks in a way not available to them before,” said Bryan, the parks director. “Not everybody wants to camp on a gravel bar. We now have a great alternative at Echo Bluff.”

Making Memories

The museum exhibit includes artifacts; mannequins model the old uniforms worn by park personnel, which include stiff-brimmed campaign hats that resembled what National Park Service rangers wore.

Glass cases also display items that explain the park’s mission, including objects found in archaeological studies, plants and other natural wonders from the park’s pristine landscapes and a fishing pole, Katy Trail t-shirt and water bottle that might be used during recreational outings.

“We tell a little more of the behind-the-scenes story with the artifacts in the cases,” said Tiffany Patterson, museum director. “We want to show people how they can participate in our state parks.

“We want people picturing going to parks and making memories. This is to whet people’s appetites for what’s out there.”

Visiting All the Sites

Missouri State Parks is celebrating a couple of other milestones – park attendance grew to 19.2 million visitors in 2015, and accounted for a record $12.4 million in tourism revenues for local economies.

Parks are funded by a one-tenth-cent sales tax passed by voters in August 1984, with monies generated split evenly between state parks and soil and water conservation efforts. The tax has since been reapproved by voters three times in 1988, 1996 and 2006.

The tax helps the state offer park visits without an entrance fee. The parks portion of the tax averages about $7 per state resident a year.

“The tax provides approximately 75 percent of funding to operate and maintain the park system,” Bryan said. “Our peak in revenues generated and attendance in 2015 point to the fact that Missourians love the outdoors, love our culture and want to visit these sites more because they’re important.”

To celebrate the centennial year, Missouri State Parks is bringing back its passport program, which encouraged people to visit all 88 parks and historic sites in an 18- month period.  The first 1,000 people to complete the passport will receive a centennial backpack, made possible by a sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops.

“It was one of our most popular activities from several years ago,” Bryan said. “You can get a traditional passport book that is stamped or participate online at our website.

For more information, visit


STONE CASTLE BEFORE FIRE – A historical photo in a new exhibit celebrating the centennial of Missouri State Parks shows the stone castle at Ha Ha Tonka State Park before it was damaged by fire.

Johnson Shut In State Park4 cc-cbJOHNSON’S SHUT-INS STATE PARK – Swimmers in this vintage photo enjoy the formations that make Johnson’s Shut-Ins one of the most popular state parks.