On the return walk after visiting the azure spring that is the jewel of Roaring River State Park, Emory Melton paused. Not because he was two days shy of his 90th birthday and needed a breather — he wanted to survey the scene.
He stood on the walkway of massive limestone slabs laid by the Civilian Conservation Corps decades ago and looked at the anglers lining the river formed by the spring’s flow. Trout released from the nearby hatchery were visible in the clear, cold water.
Melton was pleased with the view.
“The facilities here have always been flat up to snuff,” he said.
Melton practices law in nearby Cassville and drives the 7 miles to the park at least once a week to have lunch at the Emory Melton Inn and Conference Center.
“Food’s good, and very reasonably priced,” he said. “It’s a nice facility. And my name is still on it.”
Melton is a lifelong resident of Barry County and a former Republican state legislator who earned the title of “conservative conscience of the Senate” during his 24 years in Jefferson City.
He also is among the important characters in the century-long evolution of this rugged, scenic spot in the southwest corner of the state into one of the most popular parks in Missouri. On a week day in mid-June, the park was crowded with visitors fishing, camping, hiking, playing in the swimming pool and floating on inner tubes in the river beyond the fly-fishing zone.
“This park has public support like no other,” said Dusty Reid, superintendent at Roaring River. “Whether it’s the chamber of commerce or Emory, everybody loves this park. They call it their own.”
An author, newspaper publisher, lawyer and legislator, Melton also served 20 years on the state tourism commission.
“Every time we had a Republican governor, I got to be chairman,” he said. “It’s sort of a place where they put old politicians. Of course I may be a bit prejudiced, but I think Roaring River is the best park in the state, and I’ve been to all of them.”
No dancing on Sunday
As you approach the park, Barry County’s rolling landscape of forest and farmland suddenly drops down into a deep, canyon-like valley. A spring in a fern-lined grotto at the base of a gray, dolomite bluff pumps out 20.4 million gallons of water each day to form the headwaters of Roaring River. The river flows three miles through the park, then several more miles before emptying into Table Rock Lake.
In 1979, divers explored the spring and made it 224 feet down until the passageway tightened. The spring’s namesake roar was silenced when the flow was dammed to form a pool to hold trout. The first hatchery was built at the site in 1910 and was rebuilt by the CCC in the 1930s.
Settlers from Tennessee and Kentucky arrived in the early 1800s, attracted by the steady flow of water. They built mills for grain, timber, wool and cotton. As the mill era ended, an old wool-carding mill was turned into a 100-room inn in 1905.
In his book, “The First 150 Years in Cassville, Mo.,” Melton quotes the son of the inn’s original owner as saying: “There was never any liquor or beer permitted at Roaring River, nor any questionable characters permitted to stay as guests at any time. No dancing was permitted on Sundays. It was operated as the finest summer resort in the Ozarks and one of the very few modern places.”
Blossoming under the CCC
But the Depression doomed the project, and the 2,400-acre property was bought on the courthouse steps in 1928 by Thomas Sayman, a St. Louis soap and salve manufacturer. He paid $105,000 from “an astonishing large roll of bills,” Melton wrote.
Known as an eccentric who was fond of waving around a pistol, Sayman a month later presented the entire tract to the State of Missouri for a park.
Another major development took place in 1933 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal began to bring the country out of its economic doldrums. One of the key programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which sent 1,500 workers to Roaring River State Park.
“The whole thing began to blossom when FDR set the CCC thing in motion,” Melton said. “They had a camp at Roaring River until 1939.”
The CCC crews constructed 33 buildings, mostly of logs from the hills and stone from a nearby quarry. Nearly all still remain. Their impressive effort was recognized last April at the park with the dedication of a life-size bronze statue of a muscular CCC worker with a double-edged ax in hand. Melton was there for the ceremony.
A smile and a bowtie
A handsome three-story lodge was part of the CCC handiwork and still stands at the park. But in the 1990s, Melton led an effort to build a larger inn and conference center to accommodate the growing number of visitors.
The bill appropriating the money was stuck in the budgetary process for five years, he said.
“Finally, the chairman of the house appropriations committee came to me and said, ‘If you don’t get this through this year, I’m taking it out.’ I got busy, and in 1996 we had $600,000 for the building,” said Melton, who retired from the Senate that year.
The 26-room lodge features wood beams and circular support columns of stonework, reflecting the earlier work of the CCC. The great room has a two-story stone fireplace and is decorated with a bearskin, elk head and lunker rainbow trout mount. A portrait of Melton hangs above the entranceway.
“I was surprised,” Melton said of the naming of the lodge at its dedication in 1998. “I thought they had forgotten about me.”
During lunch in the restaurant, which has large windows overlooking the park, Melton was dapper in a gray suit, suspenders over a starched white shirt and his signature bowtie. A Missouri Senate pin was in his lapel. He recounted without hesitation the dates and details of his lengthy career.
One of the downsides of a long-lived life is the loss of loved ones along the way. Jean, Melton’s wife of 61 years, died in 2010. The couple had two sons, one of whom is deceased. Melton said he keeps busy at his law office, practicing “eight hours a day, six days a week.”
Poking fun at his own profession, one of Melton’s favorite stories is about two fellows arguing over possession of a cow.
“One had it by the tail and the other had it by the horns, and they got to looking around wondering where the lawyers were,” he said. “The lawyers were in the middle, milking the cow.”
Asked what he wanted for his 90th birthday, which would be celebrated that week, he smiled and replied: “One more day.”
Two days later, a standing-room-only crowd packed a Cassville courtroom at a surprise birthday party for a happy, humble man.
Tom Uhlenbrock is a former travel editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and is a writer and photographer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Division of State Parks.
Of course I may be a bit prejudiced, but I think Roaring River is the best park in the state, and I’ve been to all of them.”