Midwest Living - - Contents -

This story ob­vi­ously has some lay­ers. And that makes Robert Sny­der’s lost dream in­side Ha Ha Tonka State Park (said to mean “laugh­ing wa­ters”) an ideal tar­get for my an­nual au­tumn urge to go poke around mys­te­ri­ous lo­ca­tions.

Blame it on too many child­hood view­ings of Dis­ney’s car­toon The Leg­end of Sleepy Hol­low. The story fol­lows Ich­a­bod Crane’s har­row­ing ride home as bull­frogs croak out his name, wind moans through bro­ken stems of grass and fire­flies trans­form hol­low trees into spec­tral eyes. It sent me bur­row­ing un­der the couch blan­ket ev­ery time. And the tingly mem­ory sends me out each fall to search for that old rush of hear­ing my foot­steps on a for­got­ten bridge or peek­ing through an aban­doned farm’s gate.

Robert’s doomed manor above a quiet arm of the lake pro­vides the per­fect fix, es­pe­cially if you ap­proach it prop­erly. In­stead of com­ing up to the cas­tle from the park­ing lot, I head to­ward the ruin from the back, along a for­est trail that loops around a spring and sneaks along a hill­side to the man­sion. First, you glimpse the water tower. Then you see stone walls reach­ing sky­ward, black marks be­tray­ing where flames licked up the sides on the home’s fi­nal day of ser­vice.

Robert was a boot­straps kind of guy who amassed a for­tune in oil, real es­tate, cat­tle, bank­ing and more in the late 1800s. (Photos show he’s only a top hat short of be­ing the Monopoly Man.) Like any good baron, Robert de­cided he needed a cas­tle, so he bought land along the Osage River and called in Scot­tish stone­ma­sons to build a man­sion where he in­tended to re­tire “with no fear of in­tru­sion.”

If all that seems to be beg­ging for a plot twist, you’re right. Tragedy No. 1: Robert died in 1906 in one of Mis­souri’s ear­li­est car ac­ci­dents, leav­ing his fam­ily to fin­ish the cas­tle in 1922. Tragedy No. 2: The De­pres­sion and le­gal en­tan­gle­ments sapped the fam­ily for­tune, forc­ing them to lease the es­tate as a ho­tel. Tragedy No. 3: The cas­tle burned in 1942.

So Robert’s doomed Xanadu re­mains a week­end es­cape. But in­stead of host­ing Roar­ing ’20s dandies, it draws av­er­age folks like me, who are con­tent to gaze over the Ozarks and lis­ten to dry leaves rat­tle in­side the empty foun­tain.


Trevor Meers, Ed­i­tor @trevormeers

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