For more than 75 years, thousands of floaters on the Current River, while paddling between Pull-Tight Spring and the Highway 19 bridge in Shannon County, Mo., have passed the “Alton Club” and have wondered what that was all about.
From the river, they could see picturesque, rustic buildings on the hillside overlooking the river, but because the property was posted as “private,” paddlers pretty much had to guess what was there and who got to stay there.
Today, you can see it for yourself. It is now owned by the State of Missouri and several years ago it was renamed as “Current River State Park.”
It is located off of Highway 19, about half-way between Salem and Eminence.
The Alton Club was a private retreat owned and managed by the Alton Box Board Company and its corporate successor, Jefferson Smurfit Corporation, for the benefit of its management personnel, employees, customers and their respective families.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, the company, which was then based in Alton, Ill., began acquiring a considerable amount of acreage in the Missouri Ozarks, including approximately 1,600 acres of real estate along the Current River.
The original purpose of acquiring all of this ground was to supply the company paper mills in Alton and elsewhere with an adequate supply of wood fiber for its paper products.
It did not take management long, however, to realize that the 1,600 acres they owned along the Current River were unique and that some of it might be best suited as a retreat for company families and customers.
Thus, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the various buildings comprising the Alton Club were built.
If you want to read an excellent and thorough description of the architecture of all buildings that were constructed at the Alton Club during that time, I refer you to www.dnr.mo.gov/shpo/nps-nr/05001162.pdf.
This is the application that was prepared and filed with the U.S. Department of the Interior for the purpose of registering the Alton Club as a “historic district” under the auspices of the National Park Service. (More on that later.)
The buildings were built in a uniform, rustic style and painted dark brown with white trim. A sawmill was constructed at the west end of the roughly 35 acres making up the main grounds of the club; timber used on the buildings for the most part was harvested right on the property.
The stone used on the foundations of the buildings was hand-pulled from the hillsides nearby. (In those days, men were glad to have any kind of work, even plucking rocks from the hillsides.)
Several of the buildings had fireplaces; some of the material used on these fireplaces were stalactites and stalagmites that came from “Bat Cave,” a huge cavern located on the property.
By the early 1940s, the Alton Club was in full use during the summer months. My first memory of being at the Alton Club during that time was in 1944, when I was four years old.
The club was a dream come true for children and adults alike. There was fishing and swimming in the main lake, floating on the Current River in long, wooden “jon boats,” skeet shooting on the skeet range, and of course, playing plenty of horseshoes and pingpong.
When it rained, you could bowl on a real bowling alley, play indoor tennis, basketball, and volleyball in the gymnasium, play pool in the “pool hall” or play cards at the poker table in the main lodge.
There were even two holes of golf with real grass greens. And for a full day of adventure, you would go on a hike to Bat Cave, which had tunnels that seemed to go on forever underground.
Yes, there were plenty of bats in the cave but we were oblivious to them or to the huge piles of guano at the entrance that we scampered over to get into the cave.
Normally, the club could handle roughly 30 guests at a time. The routine, at least until 1988, was for the fathers and all of the children (both boys and girls) to sleep in the “dormitory,” which had roughly 20 beds in a row.
The adult women slept in a separate cabin which was referred to in those days as “the hen house.” (In 1988, the dormitory was converted into individual bedrooms, air conditioning was installed, and the sleeping arrangements became more traditional.)
After breakfast in the mornings, the families could do any of the many activities on the club grounds, but in the afternoon, when it got hot, there would always be a float trip on the Current River, either from Pull-Tight to the club, or from the club down to the Highway 19 bridge so that everyone could cool off.
The meals were served on the premises. About a half-hour before each meal, a huge bell next to the kitchen was rung, so that everyone on the club grounds would know that they needed to stop doing what they were doing and start heading toward the dining room.
The meals, served family style, were outstanding and memorable.
While families of Alton Box Board employees were allowed at the club from time to time, the main purpose of the facility was to facilitate the sales of products manufactured by the company.
By 1960, Alton Box Board had become a major producer of paperboard products, with more than 43 plants and thousands of employees. As a result, the people who were at the club the most were customers and, of course, the sales people involved with those accounts.
Generally, customers were encouraged to bring their families with them. There was a subtle motive behind this; if the kids of customers loved the place, they would implore their fathers to continue to do business with Alton Box Board so that they could come back.
As George Spence, former head of sales for the company used to say, “If you can’t sell paper at the Alton Club, you can’t sell paper.”
That policy of inviting the customers’ families along with the customers worked for years in generating ongoing business and it is easy to understand why.
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Frankly, I never met anyone who did not simply fall in love with the place once they stayed there.
But times do change, and that has been certainly true as to how corporate customers expected to be entertained.
By the early 1990s, even long-standing customers no longer wanted to be entertained in a remote section of the Ozarks; instead they wanted to be wined and dined in Las Vegas, Chicago or on a fancy golf course.
And so the primary purpose of having the club — to promote sales — was beginning to erode.
The crowning blow came when it was decided to have Michael Smurfit, the chairman of the board of directors of Jefferson Smurfit Corporation, come down and see this little gem for himself.
Suffice it to say that he had the final say on whether to keep the club or sell it. The hope was that he, like everyone else, would fall in love with the Alton Club and the property would not be sold.
First, a little background on Michael Smurfit. He was a self-made multi-millionaire who lived in Ireland and who bought Alton Box Board and a number of other American paper companies in the 1980s.
He enjoyed the good life, with estates in Monte Carlo, Ireland, and so on. I think it is safe to say that he viewed the American midwest and the outdoor life in general with distain.
Be that as it may, he agreed to come down, during a visit to St. Louis, and at least look at the club.
In preparation for his arrival, the staff worked hard to spruce the place up and a chicken dinner, with all the “fixings,” was cooked and ready to be put on the table as soon as he stepped in the door.
He was scheduled to arrive at noon for lunch. He showed up on time but in a huge helicopter, not a car.
The helicopter never landed.
Instead, the helicopter circled low over the club twice and then headed back to St. Louis; either Mr. Smurfit felt he had seen all he needed to see from the air or there was no good spot to land this huge helicopter.
Regardless, this was the only time they attempted to bring Mr. Smurfit down to see the club. Everyone involved with the club felt that if Mr. Smurfit was not enamored with the club, it would eventually be sold.
That sale occurred in 1996, when the property was sold and title eventually wound up with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The Department of Conservation renamed the club as the “Jerry J. Presley Conservation Education Center” and began using the club as an education center for high school science teachers, but costs of running the place mounted.
The Department of Conservation eventually wanted to tear down some of the existing buildings to save costs and start over. The Department published their plan in 2003, outlining their intentions.
Fortunately, local people who had helped build the Alton Club and who worked there over the years, as well as others who had been there as guests, started a movement to preserve the buildings at the Alton Club and to put a stop to the Department of Conservation plans.
In 2005, in response to this groundswell of support, an application was filed with the U.S. Department of the Interior to designate the Alton Club as a “historical district”; that application was ultimately granted.
Once the club was designated as a “historic district,” ownership was transferred to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and they took over management responsibilities.
At some point, the Department of Natural Resources received environmental mitigation money to restore the Alton Club to the way it looked in the 1940s.
Having seen what they have done to the buildings and grounds since that effort began, I must say that it is an excellent restoration effort and one that makes all of us who loved the club pleased.
Finally, a word needs to be said about the people who ran the club all those years and worked so hard to make it what it was.
The original club manager, I believe, was Everett Jones and his wife. At least, I remember him being there during the 1940s and 1950s but he apparently was still there until 1968, when Harold and Frieda Davidsmeyer, from Pike County, Ill., took over running the club.
They, and later their son, Dale Davidsmeyer, ran the club until 1984. What an outstanding job they did!
There were others who ran the club after 1984 until it was sold in 1996, but no one else was there as long and no one, in my opinion, could compare to what the Davidsmeyers brought to the club.
They had a lot to do with the reason why everyone loved the Alton Club.
My thanks goes out to all those who played a part in preserving this wonderful place as it used to be.
Note: The author and his grandfather, father, and brother all worked at one time or another for Alton Box Board or its corporate successors in various capacities from about 1920 until long after the Alton Club was sold.
(Bill Hoagland has practiced law for more than 50 years in Madison County, Ill., and lives in the Alton area. He and his wife, Annie, have been outdoor enthusiasts all of their lives. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)