Roaring River State Park, nestled among the hills of southern Barry County near Cassville, draws visitors from across Missouri and neighboring states. Although the 4,093-acre park offers camping and hiking opportunities, its main appeal is trout fishing.
Roaring River Hatchery, which is operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation, produces more than 250,000 rainbow and brown trout each year. Most of those fish end up in the upper 1.7 miles of Roaring River that is within the park boundaries. The stream originates at Roaring River Spring—one of the park’s many scenic features. The 20 million gallons of cool water that flow from the spring daily make trout rearing and trout fishing possible at the park.
A Natural Choice The spring—and the cool water that gushes from it—prompted Roland Edward Bruner to construct the first trout hatchery at the site in 1910. Bruner was born in 1860 in Pennsylvania and later moved to Wellsville, Kansas, where he married Hannah McLain in 1883. Among his many careers, he was a miner and progressed from prospector to president of the Anaconda–Arizona Mining Company. His business took him around the country, including the Ozarks. He also traveled to Colorado, where he became interested in rainbow trout, not so much in how to catch them but in how to raise them.
The fish hatchery Bruner built included a small hatchery building on the northwest corner of the spring pool’s dam and several raceways.
Bruner started with trout that were shipped by railroad from Colorado to Monett about 25 miles to the north. He put a tank on his pre-1910 model truck to carry the trout from the railroad landing to Roaring River, a trip which included seven miles of extremely poor roads.
Much of the information on Roaring River’s early days comes from Roland and Hannah’s granddaughter, Betty Bruner Layton, who lived in the park until she was 5 years old. Before the U.S. entered World War I, her father, Roland Bruner Jr., left college at the University of Missouri in 1916 and joined the American Field Service in France to fight the Germans. He was wounded and returned to the U.S. in 1917. He came to Roaring River to heal and to help his father with his hatchery.
Roaring River was self-sufficient in those days. Betty remembers guests picking out trout in the raceway near the hotel for dinner. The restaurant would prepare the trout and serve it with a watercress salad and vegetables grown nearby. Layton’s maternal grandparents ran the restaurant and hotel.
Although the Bruners worked hard and built up a beautiful resort with numerous modern conveniences, the business faced several challenges, including the poor condition of the road from Cassville to Roaring River. Fire destroyed the hotel in October 1923. In November 1927, a very large flood washed out part of the hatchery and about 100,000 trout escaped into the river. These and other hardships caused the Bruners to run out of money.
The property was foreclosed and sold for $105,000 on the courthouse steps in Cassville on Nov. 16, 1928, a Friday, to St. Louis businessman Thomas M. Sayman. He didn’t waste any time turning his dreams for Roaring River into reality. By the following Tuesday, he had a contract to build a new hatchery building, and work started on Wednesday. He wanted to make sure the building would be ready for spawning season.
Although all accounts say that the building was finished, Sayman’s plans changed abruptly before the end of the year, and he decided to donate the property to the state for a park.
State Hatchery In 1928, the State Game and Fish Commission took possession of the property. In short order the hatchery superintendent of Bennett Spring Park brought down a truckload of trout to the state’s newly acquired hatchery at Roaring River. The head of the Game and Fish Commission, Keith McCanse said, “Roaring River will be used as a fish hatchery, game refuge and a recreational center.”
Company 1713 of the Civilian Conservation Corps (a government work program set up during the Great Depression for young men 17 to 24 years old) moved into Roaring River in June 1933. At first, the camp was made up of 150 men, but 1,500 worked there during seven years of the program. They were paid $8 per month and their families back home received $22 per month.
One of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ first projects was repairing the dam containing the spring pool. This earthen structure was first built in 1865 to divert water to the mill at the site of the present day Civilian Conservation Corps Lodge. It also impounded water from the spring, creating enough head pressure to allow water to flow through the hatchery. The new structure was built with rock quarried from the park.
In 1937 the Department of Conservation was formed, replacing the Missouri Game and Fish Commission. That same year, the State Park Board came into existence and was charged with administering Missouri’s state parks. As were the other state hatcheries, the trout hatchery at Roaring River was administered by the Department of Conservation. In 1974 during a reorganization of state government, the Department of Natural Resources was formed and took on the responsibility of administering the state parks, but the Department of Conservation continued to run the hatchery.
In May 1938, a flood severely damaged Roaring River’s hatchery. A cloudburst caused the water to rise 10–12 feet and sweep down the valley above the spring. The high water washed out the foundation of the hatchery building and raceways and caused the release of around 60,000 trout into the river. Ironically, many people reported that fishing had never been better.
The Department of Conservation, the State Park Board, the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps worked together to rebuild the hatchery and repair other damage in the park. Because the hatchery had been seriously damaged twice in the previous 11 years, they rebuilt the hatchery on higher ground.
Since 1938, no fish or hatchery buildings have been lost due to high water.
Before the Civilian Conservation Corps closed their camp in October 1939 and moved the company to General Pershing State Park, they built the present-day stone hatchery buildings and 22 rock-capped pools. Six additional raceways were constructed in 1940 by the Work Projects Administration. This gave the hatchery 30 outside pools.
In addition to keeping pace with local fishing demands, Roaring River Hatchery began to set the trend in trout-rearing practices. The hatchery originally made its own trout feed of ground wheat and liver that was cooked into a mush, but the hatchery worked with the Purina Company in the late 1950s to develop the world’s first nutritionally complete dry feed for trout.
The ninth formula they tested at Roaring River did much better than the liver mix (the magic ingredient was vitamin C). The liver and wheat mixture required 6 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of trout. By 1963 the commercial dry product they used only required 2 pounds per pound of trout—a huge step forward in the science of trout production.
In 1961 the Department of Conservation built more raceways and added a pump that would bring water from the river when the flow was low. That brought the number of pools the hatchery had to its current number of 40.
There have been many periods of low water over the years. As recently as 2004 and many times in previous years, fish had to be moved out of Roaring River to be held at other hatcheries due to lack of water. A liquid oxygen system installed in 2006 enables the hatchery to raise fish with less water and greatly lessens the need to find other locations for the trout during low water.
Through the years many of the aging Civilian Conservation Corps-built structures developed problems. The bridge to the hatchery cracked, and portions were close to falling into the river. The dam around the spring pool developed serious leaks causing erosion of the material underneath the walkway. The falls structures adjacent to the river eroded and were in danger of failing.
In 2001 and 2006, projects carried out by the Department of Conservation with funds from MDC, the Department of Natural Resources and the Federal Sport Fish Restoration Program corrected these problems and added a great deal of disabled-user access to the stream adjacent to the hatchery.
In 2009, the Department of Natural Resources funded a project that replaced eroded material under the pavers on top of the spring pool dam and replaced degraded stones on the structure with stone harvested from the park. These improvements will result in the hatchery and the beautiful Civilian Conservation Corps work associated with it lasting many more years.
Records don’t reveal how many trout were produced during the hatchery’s first 32 years of existence, but in the past 68 years more than 11 million trout have been raised at Roaring River Hatchery. These millions of fish have brought generations of anglers and their families to Roaring River and have created at least as many lasting memories.