The Boat Builder From White River

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

Jim Owen. "Charlie Barnes, one of the best guides I ever had, was the commissary man and cook on this party. He was hunkered down over the open fire cooking pancakes and a woman member of the fishing party stepped up to watch. When she saw the size of the pancake she told Charles, `I just want two.' This stopped Charlie, and after giving it some thought, he looked up and said, `Lady, they only come in threes!'"

Barnes didn't limit himself to the James and White rivers. He also took people on float trips on the Current, Jacks Fork and North Fork rivers. "He had guides on hold when he needed them," Bill says, "in Galena, Cape Fair, Reed Springs ... different places, he had guides he could call on." People loved the trips, some of them coming back year after year. One manufacturing company in Kansas City brought a group to Galena for float trips every year, so many people it took up to 15 boats to accommodate them.

In 1932, saying he wanted to spend more time fishing and floating, Charlie Barnes closed his Ford dealership and retired. He and his wife moved to Branson, and Charlie began building johnboats for outfitter Jim Owen, a local celebrity and one-time mayor of Branson who could put up to 35 boats on the White River at one time. A carved plaque on display in the museum at the College of the Ozarks notes that Owen brought float tripping "to its highest degree of perfection."

A quote often attributed to Jim Owen was that, "If you were too busy to go fishing, you were just too busy!" The guides who worked for Owen, people like Charlie Barnes and his son David, made $3 a day at a time when floaters paid $5 to $12 per day for the trip. Later, when Owen's clientele included the wealthy, he provided the best food and drink, and a float trip for a small party for five days could cost several hundred dollars. The guides' wages rose to $10 a day.

Jim Owen may have been the top float outfitter in the Ozarks, but he was no craftsman. "Dad was building his boats and Jim decided he was going to help dad." Bill says "He got a new pair of overalls, went down to where dad was putting a boat together - it was just about completed - and dad gave him a paint brush and said, `You can paint this boat.' By the time the boat was thoroughly painted, so were the new overalls. "He didn't come back the next day," Bill says with a broad smile.

Both David's father and his uncle Bill eventually moved to Kansas City, where David worked for an airline and Bill maintained a fleet of school buses. The younger David was born in Kansas City, but he has memories of visiting his grandparents in Branson, often spending summers there. His sister was born there. His scrapbook includes two letters and a Christmas card from Jim Owen, and a post card from the old White River Hotel, once a Branson landmark.

Charlie Barnes left his mark on the Ozarks. One of his boats is on display, with a collection of fishing lures and tackle, at the museum at the College of the Ozarks in a building that includes exhibits of Rose O'Neill's Kewpie dolls and memorabilia from the Ozark country music scene. A picture in this display also shows Charlie Barnes and a woman standing next to a sign that says "Boats - Guides - Bait." Charlie is not identified in this picture, nor is the johnboat attributed to him. David and his family were surprised to find a picture of Charlie cooking on a gravelbar fire, on a table top in a restaurant in the Bass Pro Shop's store in Springfield, but it too, lacks his name.

Charlie Barnes, the inventor of the Ozark johnboat, died in Branson in 1964. Will he be forgotten? Not likely. "To this day we keep being surprised by finding his name or picture in books," David Barnes says. Charlie Barnes is gone, and the White River lies sleeping beneath a series of reservoirs, but as long as David and his family care, Charlie Barnes' name, and his carefully crafted boats, will be among the legends of the Ozarks.

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