Oh Island, Where Art Thou?

By Jim Low | October 18, 2010
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2010

When Sandy White moved from Virginia to Saline County, Mo, in the late 1800s, he bought half a section of land on a 2,000-acre island along the south bank of the Missouri River. His domain just north of the town of Grand Pass encompassed bottomland hardwood forest, river frontage and one of the river’s many side channels, or sloughs.

White sold groceries and other necessities to the island’s residents. A few years later, he set up a sawmill to turn the area’s abundant timber into another saleable commodity. With the money from these enterprises, he bought up land at every opportunity.

In the summer, when the river’s flow slackened, the slough became a placid lake bordered by sandy beaches chock-full of fish. In the fall, the vast wetland complex around the confluence of the Missouri, Grand and Chariton rivers attracted countless ducks and geese, creating a hunter’s paradise. The Missouri River bottoms produced an astonishing abundance of wild delicacies for commercial markets in Kansas City. One shipment from the Grand Pass area contained 500 pounds of frogs alone.

Like his father, Stonewall Jackson White had a head for business, and he was quick to see mercantile possibilities in the natural amenities on what by then was known as White’s Island. Using cottonwood lumber from the family mill, Stonewall built a hotel on the island. By 1902, he and his brother Hugh were placing advertisements in Kansas City newspapers for the White’s Island Fishing and Summer Resort. Their timing could hardly have been worse—or better.

A flood destroyed the hotel in 1903, but they had the long, low, 14-room facility rebuilt within a year, demonstrating the White brothers’ tenacity and their insouciance toward floods. The tide of history was on their side. Growing urbanization during the progressive era created nostalgia for rustic recreation, and the newfound leisure of America’s middle class fueled demand for outdoor clubs and commercial resorts. Throughout the early years of the 20th century, visitors flocked to White’s Island to fish, swim, hunt and generally rusticate.

The setting had changed but little from what Lewis and Clark saw on their passage through the area 100 years earlier, although the Whites had added a few amenities. At its zenith, in addition to the hotel and swimming beach, the resort boasted three rental cabins, a combination pool hall, skating rink and bowling alley, an icehouse (filled with ice cut from the river in winter) and a bathhouse where bathers could change clothes. The island had its own school and church as well.

Advertisements promised “good country food, fried chicken and old country ham. Nice cool porches and delightfully cool rooms with always a breeze from the lake, where the blue grass slopes to the water’s edge, where we have boats and a launch and worlds of fish waiting to be caught.”

To accommodate the seasonal migration from Kansas City, the Missouri Pacific Railroad maintained a stop at its crossing with the road to White’s Island. There, visitors boarded horsedrawn wagons for the final leg of the trip.

Photos from around the turn of the 20th century show patrons of the resort in starched white shirts and dresses, wearing ties and jewelry. In those days, a vacation was no reason to let yourself go.

The resort’s glory days were brief. The same year they built the hotel, the Whites threw up an earthen dam across the slough to create a wagon crossing to the island. This must have vexed riverboat captains, who routinely used the side channel during high water to shorten the 8-mile traverse of Cranberry Bend. Ultimately, it also contributed to the resort’s demise.

The dam, along with later river channelization, excluded seasonal flows that had periodically flushed silt down the slough and out into the river. By the time fire destroyed the old hotel building in 1954, the “lake” was a mucky shadow of its former self, and the surrounding land had accumulated enough soil to be converted into cropland. Today, you have to look hard to find any trace of evidence that the area was ever an island.

As the resort’s fortunes ebbed, so did sporting life in the Grand Pass and Dalton Cutoff area. Levees and drainage projects dried out most of the wetlands that once dominated the landscape, and the legendary hunting and fishing dwindled.

People began to notice the loss of wildlife just as the Whites’ resort fell on hard times. It is not merely coincidence that Missourians voted to create the Conservation Department in 1936. A few years later, the agency began creating conservation areas to preserve or restore historic wetlands. Today Missourians once again can experience the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese funneling into Saline County’s Missouri River bottomlands. This modern-day “resort” is the 5,000-acre Grand Pass Conservation Area, located a few miles northeast of the historic White’s Island Fishing and Summer Resort. Admission is free, whether you come to hunt, fish or simply to bask in the wildness.

The Orears Remember

Last October, several members of the Orear family who still live in Saline County sat down to talk about the history that their forebears helped make on White’s Island. Only one, Jean Orear Riley, has first-hand memories of the resort. Her grandfather, Robert Lee Orear, ran the island’s general store.

“Aunt Jean” doesn’t discuss her age, but she remembers fleeing White’s Island with her family during the Great Flood of 1929. “It was pretty primitive,” she recalls. “We didn’t have electricity down here in the bottoms until after World War II.”

She also recalls how the staff and guests passed evenings together. Then, as now, people enjoyed kicking up their heels. After moving aside tables and chairs in the dining hall at the center of the hotel building, they brought out musical instruments.

“Mother played the piano,” she says. “Uncle Herb played violin and Uncle Jake the banjo. They played for dances in the evenings. That was their usual entertainment.

“My grandfather [Stonewall White] liked to hunt foxes, and he kept hounds for that purpose,” says Riley. “Sometimes he would take people out into the hills at night, and they would stand around a big fire listening to his hounds running the foxes.”

She has a photo from the resort’s early years showing her mother, Georgia Weber White Orear, smartly dressed in a white riding dress, astride a paint pony and holding two of their prize-winning foxhounds on leashes.

Outboard motors became widely available in the 1920s, which led to another leisure activity— motorboat racing. The Orears paint a nostalgic picture of brightly painted wooden skiffs with wheezing, belching 3-and 5-horsepower motors plowing across the mocha waters of the slough.

Tim Orear, whose memories are a generation younger than his Aunt Jean’s, remembers his grandfather’s hunting tales.

“He mentioned to me about how during duck season one time a blizzard blew in and killed several hunters,” says Tim.

This recollection likely is related to the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940, which plunged hunters throughout the Midwest into life-threatening straits.

“I imagine the duck hunting was really good right in front of that storm,” says Tim, who carries forward his family’s hunting tradition.

As they retold stories, the Orears pointed to disappearing landmarks on an aerial map of the area.

“This used to be a lake, just a quarter of a mile from here,” says one, “an old river slough that oxbowed around.”

“Kind of a swamp, as I recall,” someone else puts in.

“I can remember my dad talking about how when the ducks would get up it would just be a cloud, like on a wildlife area. I’m sure they would have hunted there.”

Mike Orear, 61, can recall hunting spots that no longer exist.

“There was a few more sloughs and water holes out in the fields back in the ’60s than there is now,” he says. “I remember one family that they said picked a wagonload of mushrooms one spring.”

If the image of a wagonload of morels doesn’t make you yearn for the good old days, nothing will.

Wetland Reserve Program

Efforts to restore Missouri’s lost wetland legacy are not confined to public areas. The Conservation Department, in cooperation with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), also helps private landowners who are interested in creating or enhancing wetland habitat. Landowners have enrolled 8,755 acres in the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) along a 60-mile stretch of the Missouri River near the historic White’s Island Resort. This federal farm bill program offers owners of flood-prone acreage cash in return for wetland easements, while allowing them to retain ownership of their land. To learn more about WRP, visit nrcs.usda.gov/programs/wrp, or call the nearest NRCS office.

Golden Anniversary

Creation of large state-owned wetland areas began in earnest in the 1950s. Fountain Grove Conservation Area (CA), located on the Grand River about 25 miles north of Grand Pass, was in the vanguard of this effort. So were Duck Creek CA in southeastern Missouri, Ted Shanks CA near Hannibal, and Montrose and Schell-Osage CAs in southwest Missouri.

The levees, wells, water pipes and other infrastructure of managed wetlands eventually wear out or become obsolete as new methods, materials and designs develop. When Missouri’s original wetland areas turned 50, the Conservation Department launched the Golden Anniversary Wetland Initiative to renovate its five oldest managed wetland areas. That decade-long effort is well underway.

The initiative will keep the gems in the Show-Me State’s wetland and waterfowl-hunting crown productive for many years to come. Partners in the effort include the University of Missouri, Ducks Unlimited, the Missouri Waterfowl Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Kansas City Power & Light Company.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler