It has been just more than five months since the city of Branson purchased a 7.4-acre tract surrounded by 130 acres of Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area known as the Owen Enclave and already a transformation of the property has begun.
A group of Boy Scouts, their families and other volunteers worked on the property for several weekends in November and December, cutting down trees and clearing what was once the home of Dr. Lyle Owen. The property, which has been gated for years to keep hikers out, is now open.
“The house represents the pioneers of the Ozarks. At least one family was able to come out here and live off the land. And, they had the best view in town,” said Garrett Anderson, Branson economic development director and chairman of the Boy Scouts Blazing Trails District, as he walked the property Wednesday afternoon. “What they have created here, what they have captured here, it needs to be preserved.”
The property’s home was built in 1911 by Wilbur Winchester and constructed mostly of rough fieldstones. The home is 778 square feet with a 330-square-foot porch and 500-square-foot barn.
Owen purchased the property in 1934 and shortly after began building stone features.
According to a report from the city, he started with 360 feet of mortared wall flower beds and an additional 200 feet of stone wall for retaining purposes.
The process of wall building left a large pile of unused rock, which became the start of a step-building project that eventually became 315 steps leading down the bluff to Lake Taneycomo. Those steps remain a feature at the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area.
The city has owned the 130 acres of Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area, including the steps, since 1998. Over the years, the property has attracted thousands of visitors such as Chuck Zehnder, a former professor at College of the Ozarks, who was climbing the stairs Wednesday.
“This is a lot of work,” he said. “It is more work than a treadmill or anything else.”
The view really adds to the park’s appeal.
“It is gorgeous,” he said. “I spend a lot of time in prayer on these steps.”
Before work began on the city’s new property, the homestead was overgrown, hard to walk and closed off to the public. A view of Lake Taneycomo was hidden by trees.
Anderson estimates since the city acquired the property last fall, 500 hours of volunteer work have gone into the property.
“The condition it was in was not allowing people to enjoy the view,” he said.
In the short term, Anderson said they will watch how the property greens up this spring.
Among projects Anderson hopes to see tackled in the coming months is a new entrance to Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area.
“The entrance is one of the main things we want to do in 2011,” he said.
The plan is to use trees that have fallen on the property to create a grand entrance to the park. Because the property reaches from Fall Creek Road to 76 Country Boulevard, there are plans to construct a monument sign along the strip.
Improving trail markers is also on the to-do list for this year.
He doesn’t expect it this year, but in the near future, Anderson said, the city would like to fix up the house so people will be able to go inside and see how the family lived.
“We’d like to have people enjoy the inside of the house,” he said.
Anderson understands Lyle Owen passed away in the mid-1990s and said since that time, no one has lived in the home.
“The main problem was no one had been living here for 15 years,” Anderson said. “We had small trees that had grown up everywhere.”
Last week, Lyle Owen’s son, Robert Owen, paid Anderson a visit to share memories and family photos of the property.
“Initially, it was just a vacation place,” Anderson said, recalling what he had been told by Robert Owen.
Lyle Owen was a professor at a university in Tulsa, Okla., and in the summertime, the family would return to the property, but it wasn’t for relaxation.
“Robert described those days as constant work,” Anderson said.
He said at the end of the day, when it was time to clean up, the children would head down to Lake Taneycomo.
Lyle Owen would send them down the stairs with a coffee can. Each trip up, they’d bring a can of soil from the banks of Taneycomo, slowly filling flower beds and creating a layer of hearty soil for vegetable gardens.
“One thing Robert really wanted to stress, he wasn’t so interested in preserving his dad’s name, but a perpetual showcase of the way they lived out here,” Anderson said. “He was green and sustainable long before it was fashionable.”
Lyle Owen and his family collected rainwater, grew their own vegetables, fished the lake for food and after graduating from college, Anderson said, Owen sold the only car he ever owned.
“When they came here from Tulsa, they would come here on train,” Anderson said. “He was always walking or on passenger trains.”
The city purchased the property for $231,000 from the Owen Family Trust. Funds for the purchase came from the city’s tree fund, which is comprised of forfeited tree deposits.
According to Branson public information director Jerry Adams, by city code, the funds could only be used for the purpose of obtaining and planting trees on public land and for acquisition of parks, natural forest preserves and green space.
Anyone who would like to volunteer at the property may contact Anderson at 417-337-8589.