“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

John Muir

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Did you know Charleton Heston loves floating the Ozarks ?

by Larry Dablemont Branson Living December 1994/January 1995

When the first tourists came to this part of the Ozarks, it was to see the great White River, one of the most beautiful streams in the Midwest, said to be teaming with brown bass as wide as the blade of a sassafras boat paddle. The word soon got out, and before there was even a reliable transportation system, outdoorsmen were flocking to these hills to see the White. The White River Branch of the Missouri Pacific Railway made the industry of tourism possible, and an early account of an Ozarks visit was published in 1914, when a writer by the name of Milt Bangs was the first to tell the nation's sportsmen what the White River had to offer.

"We floated down the James River and into the White traversing one-hundred-and-twenty-five miles of river and ending but twenty-one miles from our starting point," he wrote. "At Galena, our party of four was equipped with two flat-bottomed skiffs, two guides, tent, cots, cooking gear, ice and provisions. Our party wanted bass fishing, and got it. A hundred bass, none under ten inches long, most weighing from one to three pounds and one weighing four, were landed on the five-day trip. All smaller bass were returned uncounted. Frogs and young squirrels were plentiful and added to the variety of our menu. The days were warm but at night on the beautiful gravel beaches, heavy blankets were needed. Bass were eager to strike at a red artificial minnow or a combination of Iris fly and pork-rind, with which we had the best success."

Bangs went on to say that the state fish commissioners had just stocked 60,000 small bass, crappies, and perch in the streams, so the water would not be fished out. When the floaters reached upper Taneycomo Lake, they were met by motor boats which towed them to Branson, and then gear, guides, and guests were taken back to Galena by rail.

In time, White River float fishing would be turned into a big time business by a Branson entrepreneur without equal. His name was Jim Owen, and even today when you talk about guides, johnboats, and float fishing, his name comes up more than anyone else's.

And yet, he didn't grow up here in the hills, didn't know how to build a johnboat, nor how to paddle one. Jim Owen was an advertising manager for a Jefferson City newspaper before he came to the Ozarks in 1933 on a visit to Branson. He never left!

Before he died in 1972, he had owned a drug store, a movie theater, and an auto dealership. He was the mayor of Branson for 12 years, president of a bank, and wrote a fishing column for the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, AR. In addition, he owned champion fox hounds and bird dogs, produced his own brand of dog food, and owned a large dairy. But Jim Owen became known for his other business venture--he set up the largest and most successful Ozark float fishing operation of that day. His success sparked national attention, giving area tourism a big boost.

It began in the spring of 1935 with six boats, six guides, and a big truck. Owen claimed he could provide 31 days of fishing in his area without ever covering the same water twice. He didn't know all there was to know about the river, but he knew more about promotion and advertising than any other man in the hills. He brought in as his guests the writers and editors who could give him the publicity he needed. They were given free trips with steaks and wine and all the comforts one could accomplish on an Ozark gravel bar. In no time, his float service was being plugged in the pages of Life, Look, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield, plus dozens of large newspapers.

The late Dan Saults and Townsend Godsey, who passed away last year, were writers who knew Jim Owen, and they left much information and insight concerning his float fishing business. They gave much of the credit for his success to his boat builder, Charlie Barnes, and guides Albert Cornett, Raymond Winch, Little Horse Jennings, Tom Yocum, and Deacon Hembree.

Guide rates started at $2 per day, but during the heyday of the business, they rose to about $10 per day. Usually, Owen's float trips were several-day affairs, with a guide and two fishermen per boat. A large group required a commissary boat, which was a large johnboat carrying all the camping gear and food. The commissary boat went on ahead with the guide, selecting a campsite, setting up the tents, and preparing for the evening meal.

Owen had a warehouse filled with gear. Barnes' johnboats had no middle seats; guests sat in comfortable folding camp chairs. At the peak of his business in the late 1940s, Owen had 40 boats and 35 guides at his disposal. During the 33 years his float service was in operation, he went through 300 wooden johnboats and attended to 10,000 fishermen from all over the country.

With time, his services became something the average sportsman could not afford. It became float fishing for the elite, and a trip of several days was quite expensive. Owen ran his own tackle store, and expected guests to buy gear there. He also had a grocery list of more than 100 items from which fishermen could choose the food they would eat on their trip.

Townsend Godsey quoted one of Owen's top hands, stating, "Jim was the best advertiser that ever lived. If he wasn't busy, he was the best of conversationalists, but if he was busy making a dollar, he didn't have time for anything else."

They say that Owen worked his people uncommonly hard, and many of his guides were not his strong supporters. Portrayed as the White River's champion, Jim Owen opposed the dams that buried the White and ended float fishing on perhaps the greatest of the Ozark rivers. But, it's been said that behind the scenes he was buying lakeshore real estate which would someday bring him 10 times his investment when the dams were completed.

His last float trip was in 1958. A Cotter, AR, trout dock bought his equipment soon afterward. Owen suffered a stroke in 1966 and died in 1972. There's no doubt that he played a great part in making the Branson area the tourist mecca that it is today. But, it may be that the old guides who worked for him, whose souls were a part of the White River, hated to see the change come. About those men, who were a part of the stream and the Ozarks in the purest sense, little was ever written.

It could be that they saw the White River at its best. And, perhaps, they could say that we have lost much in making such gains.


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