Rural Missouri - November 2019 - 18

RM

| OUTDOORS

LOOKING

BACK ON THE
LOOKOUTS
Remembering the fire
towers of Missouri

photos courtesy Bob Frakes and Damion Goodman

Above: The fire lookout tower on Coot Mountain, located between Eminence and Owl's Bend, looks east over the Current River. The 70-foot tower, which also overlooks Coot Chute and Coot
Hollow to the north, was originally constructed in the 1940s. Bottom: Erected in the late 1960s, Blue Slip Towersite keeps watch over southern Wright County, west of Norwood.
by Zach Smith | zsmith@ruralmissouri.coop

T

he memory is 60 years old, but it's etched in
Bob Frakes' mind as if it occurred only yesterday. The day the St. Louis native, then
a young boy visiting the family farm near
Patterson, climbed the fire tower on Mudlick Mountain would begin a hobby which, more than half a
century later, has no end in sight.
"Some people like heights and some people
don't," Bob says with a laugh. "I'm always surprised
how many don't, but I found it exhilarating."
In the late 1960s that childhood joy resurfaced.
Bob, now living in Illinois, returned to the ShowMe State for a canoe trip on the Current River from
Baptist Camp to Round Spring. Nearing the end
of the float, another lookout caught his attention.
Once Bob figured out how to reach it from the road
and ascended the stairs, it recaptured his imagination. "The one that really kicked things off," according to Bob, was Shannondale Fire Tower, which
is now sometimes open for tours originating from
Echo Bluff State Park.
"It's kind of like homemade ice cream," Bob adds,
"you take a few bites and you want more."
On a quest to visit all of the fire towers in Missouri, the early paths of Bob's journey were found
poring over old road maps for miniscule fire tower
icons. More than a few were found completely by
accident, appearing from behind a forested knob or
around a bend in the highway, leaving Bob to solve
the problem of how to reach the tower on foot, if and
when they were publicly accessible. But even with a
picture of the tower and several more from the top,
he knew he'd only captured part of the story.
From their humble beginnings to their grand
places on the rural skyline, lookout towers, particularly in the hills of southern Missouri, were built
with fire danger in mind. Early lookouts made from
utility poles or attached to trees, were manned
during dry seasons when a plume of smoke on
the far horizon could mean a conflagration, if left
unchecked. As the number of lookouts grew their
construction methods also changed from wooden
towers strapped on footings to concrete piers and
steel plates bolted at the base. Deer Run Lookout,
built in 1926 and located in the Current River Con-

18

RURAL MISSOURI | NOVEMBER 2019

servation Area, is commonly cited as Missouri's
first permanent tower of modern design.
Those are just a few of the details that came
from Bob's firsthand research interviewing Missouri Department of Conservation and U.S. Forest
Service employees and retirees who had worked the
towers. One contact led to another. Along the way
it became apparent that the towers had not only
safeguarded the folks who called Missouri's forests
home, but also created among those people a sense
of sentimentalism for the lofty structures.
"It dawned on me we seemed to have a kindred
connection when it came to the towers," Bob says.
"It also dawned on me that, like me, these were a
group of people who were getting older, and I needed to get these stories down before they were gone."
From these interviews sprang the idea for Bob's
forthcoming book, "Remembering Missouri's Lookout Towers: A Place Above the Trees." Comprising
more than 250 photographs, meticulous research,
personal interviews and submissions from former
tower workers and their family members, the book
is both record and resource. It's a nostalgic look
at the towers from the heyday of their necessity,
particularly for those readers who spent their days
perched in the wind with an eye on the hills and
valleys. It's also a history lesson for those who still
marvel at their stature and wonder at their purpose
today.
"There's a level of curiosity there," Bob says. "For
the people who see them from the road but don't
quite understand it, I hope that once they've read
the book they'll understand the history - why they
went up and how they were used."
While some fire towers around the state are
located on private property or are otherwise inaccessible, other sites can be visited today - at least
as far as the top flight of stairs. Bob suggests the
former Rocky Mount Lookout, now located at the
Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson
City, as a safe tower experience, and the Knob Lick
Towersite south of Farmington as a great place for
a stunning view of the state. And if a fear of heights
creeps in while you're making the climb, take a
page from Bob's book for beginners.
"As I always put it, 'clear the trees and feel the
breeze.' Even on the calmest day, it's amazing."

For more information on fire towers, past and
present, in Missouri or about Bob's book, contact Bob
Frakes at frakes2@mvn.net or call 618-244-1642.



Rural Missouri - November 2019

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - November 2019

Contents
Rural Missouri - November 2019 - Intro
Rural Missouri - November 2019 - Cover1
Rural Missouri - November 2019 - Cover2
Rural Missouri - November 2019 - Contents
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Rural Missouri - November 2019 - Cover3
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