Remembering the Old Highway to Bagnell Dam ©
By Dwight Weaver
Part One of this series remembering old Highway 54 north of Bagnell Dam explored the history of the roadside from the north edge of Eldon to the junction of 54-52 south of Eldon. The second section of the old highway actually begins at Lake Ozark Speedway, a section now called Twiggy Road. The Twiggy Road segment is one-half mile long and junctions with Highway 52 across from the north end of Midway Road, another portion of old Highway 54 that was abandoned in the mid-1970s when the current stretch of divided Highway 54 was opened. Along Twiggy Road on the south side are Earth Angelz and Reed’s Wrecked Cars. The acreage behind Reed’s building, which is now a storage area for wrecked cars, was a 20-acre practice golf course in the 1930s and part of Musser’s Ozark Resort property. The main portion of the resort was located where the Phillips 66 truck stop is today at the junction facing Midway Road.
The first commercial building erected at the junction of 54-52 was very likely the William Cahill gas station, known as the Model Station. It was a two-story brick structure that also had living quarters for the Cahills. It sat between the present day Silver Dollar Restaurant and the Phillips 66 Station truck stop. William and Amelia Cahill bought land here in 1926. At some point shortly afterwards, Phillips 66 of Kansas City acquired an interest in some of the property. The Cahill Station sold Phillips 66 products.
Gay’s Tavern arrived in 1933 after Gay S. and Flora Lucas bought 10 acres from George M. and Barbara Nettleton. Gay’s Tavern sat where Silver Dollar Restaurant is today and was a rock building veneered with field stone. Gas pumps were added later, with a canopy over the top and neon lighting, giving Cahill some competition.
Everything changed in 1936-37 when the Musser Tavern Company, owned by Clarence W. Musser, began buying and consolidating property at the junction, including the Cahill Station and Gay’s Tavern properties. His attorney was L. N. Musser of Kansas City, apparently a family member who was invested in the enterprise. Clarence Musser planned a huge development. Within a few years the resort site included a 2-story, 8-room hotel, 10 cottages (which sat across the highway where the El Rancho Car Wash sits today), a filling station, ladies bath house, gents bath house, 38- x 60-foot swimming pool, a three-room office building, a 20-acre practice golf course, a water tower with a 10,000 gallon water tank fed by three deep wells, a barn, a chicken house, an enormous ballroom and nightclub facility , tennis court, camp ground, coffee shop, café, and liquor store.
With so many amenities to offer travelers as well as locals, Musser’s Ozark Tavern prospered and became known far and wide as one of the best resorts in the entire Lake region. Musser, a lover of jazz music, hired black orchestra’s from Kansas City to play in the ballroom to overflowing crowds. It was a place where politicians and other notables came to stage their events.
Musser was a controversial individual said to have been hot-tempered and to have had ties to the corrupt Tom Pendergast establishment operative in Kansas City at that time. It is rumored that he didn’t like to leave a paper trail, paid in cash and often worked his daily cash transactions out of a cigar box. He had his enemies and often went armed.
In January 1941 a fire destroyed much of the resort. Some people believe it was arson of one kind or another. He rebuilt but on a smaller scale. Then in 1945 Clarence Musser exchanged gunfire with another man in Eldon. His opponent was killed. The trial had a change of venue to Jefferson City. Musser pleaded self-defense and won his case but in the process sold the resort to Jefferson M. and Sylvia Mitchell of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Jefferson Mitchell had ties to the Phillips Petroleum Co. of Kansas City.
One year later the Mitchells sold the business and property to James E. Hannaford, Francis J. Biselx and James H. Lawrence, three young men who went into partnership after finishing their tour of duty during World War II. The new owners renamed the business El Rancho of the Ozarks. In so doing, they unintentionally bestowed the name El Rancho Junction on this meeting of Highways 54-52, the only name many locals know the intersection by and a name now preserved by the El Rancho Car Wash.
As time passed, Jim Lawrence and his wife Martha bought out the partners and became sole owners of the business. Martha Lawrence died in 1992 and shortly afterwards, Jim retired and sold the property. Jim died in January 2009. All the buildings on the property that were once a part of Musser’s Ozark Resort or El Rancho of the Ozarks were removed by the new owners except for a small, ivy-covered, gable-roofed well house that sits on the lawn out in front of Heritage Inn. Ironically, Phillips 66 Petroleum Co. products are still sold at the junction.
For more history on Musser’s Ozark Resort and El Rancho of the Ozarks, see the author’s book: History & Geography of Lake of the Ozarks, Volume One.
Midway Road continues on southwest for two-and-a-half miles. Part Three of this series will delve into the history of the Nickerson Farms Restaurant and Max Allen’s Zoological Gardens, once prominent business establishments one-half mile west along Midway Road.
(Illustrations: William Cahill Model Station, circa 1930; photographer unknown; from the author’s collection. Musser’s Ozark Resort, circa 1940; photographer unknown; from the author’s collection.)