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.
ROBERT SNYDER CALLED IN SCOTTISH STONEMASONS TO BUILD HIS CASTLE. THEN CAME THE PLOT TWISTS.