Musser's Ozark Tavern
Charlie spent several summers in the Ozark region of Missouri, and possibly played more gigs there than has previously been thought*. It was during one summer that he underwent a radical change as a musician. Little is known of this period in Charlie's life but Musser's Ozark Tavern/Resort has been cited as one of, possibly several establishments that hired the youthful Charlie.
H. Dwight Weaver, a Lake of the Ozarks historian, who has researched the area, has uncovered the history of the resort and has kindly allowed Bird Lives to publish a chapter from his book History & Geography of Lake of the Ozarks, Volume One by H. Dwight Weaver, 2005
This chapter gives a clear and valuable impression of the society Charlie entered and goes someway to explaining how Charlie was able to develop his ability and musical knowledge.
*Charlie was probably on his way to the opening of Musser's Ozark Tavern at Thanksgiving 1936 when he was involved in the car crash that killed George Wilkerson and assigned Charlie to bed for the following three months. As his saxophone was destroyed in the accident, Musser apparently bought him a brand new replacement.
No sooner was Bagnell Dam complete than development began at this fork in the road, a fork that later became known as El Rancho Junction. Most of the property here belonged to William Cahill. In 1933, Gay’s Tavern was built at the junction, and in 1934 William Cahill built a gas station – Cahill’s Phillips 66 Filling Station – called “The Model.” It sat adjacent to Gay’s Tavern [Hwy. 54 underwent new construction in the 1970s. The businesses discussed here were on what is now an old abandoned strip of Hwy. 54 just east of the newer highway.]
On Aug. 13, 1936, a headline in the Miller County Autogram said: “Cahill Property To Be Converted Into Large Tourist Camp, Musser Tavern Company Starts Work On $12,000 Development at 52-54 Intersection.”
Clarence W. Musser, an Eldon resident for several years and an employee of the Rock Island Railroad Company, teamed up with Attorney L. N. Musser of Kansas City, and purchased Cahill’s gas station and property for $8,000. Later, Musser would also purchase Gay’s Tavern.
Clarence Musser hired Marshall Harrison, a contractor who had built an elaborate tourist camp at Excelsior Springs, Missouri, to build his tourist camp. What arose over the next two years was an elaborate layout of fine English-style brick buildings and various recreational facilities. Musser named the business Musser’s Ozark Tavern and would use the word “tavern” for several years before replacing it with the word “resort.” The original two-story brick building was large, containing a café and coffee shop, cocktail room, dining room, amusement room, and the Crystal Ballroom with dimensions of 34 x 60 feet where live orchestra’s and big bands performed. For a time even a radio station broadcast special events from Musser’s place.
Musser’s Ozark Tavern Resort opened to the public on Thanksgiving Day 1936. He soon added a 15-room hotel, a filling station next to the main building and eight steam-heated, air-conditioned brick rental cottages in the triangle of the junction facing both highways. He built a modern bath house with washrooms for men and women, a golf driving range, a double tennis court, and had plans for two swimming pools. “One pool will be 120 feet long and 80 feet wide, while the other will be 40 feet long and 20 feet wide,” said a news story. The large swimming pool, when completed, had a lighted waterfall at one end.
The groups that performed at Musser’s Ozark Tavern were largely from Kansas City and some were noted black jazz bands. In the 1930s and 40s, Eldon was a “sundown town” where blacks were not welcome, particularly after dark. But Clarence Musser had grown up on the rough side of life in Kansas City. He didn’t take kindly to being told who he could and could not do business with or associatewith. He was rumored to have had ties with Big Tom and the House of Pendergast in Kansas City.
Musser was short of stature, somewhat hot headed and often armed. He paid no attention to local racial attitudes. Musser didn’t recognize the color of a person’s skin. He was only interested in the color of a person’s money or a person’s talent. He put the blacks up at his resort and drew huge crowds of people who appreciated good music and food and liked to dance and party.
“Musser’s Tavern is now the popular place to spend an enjoyable evening. An excellent colored orchestra coupled with what many have pronounced ‘the smoothest floor near Eldon’ have continued to draw bigger crowds each night,” said the Lake of the Ozarks News on Dec. 15, 1936. “The orchestra plays until one o’clock each evening and with some encouragement has played much longer.
“Friendly hospitality and a grand time await all who enter the door. Ted Moore, formerly of the Casino, is the manager and Mr. & Mrs. E. J. John are host and hostess.”
During the last half of the 1930s, Musser’s Tavern gave the Lakeside Casino Restaurant and the White House Hotel, which were the hot spots on the Bagnell Dam Strip, stiff competition. Musser also tended to pirate good employees from other businesses on The Strip.
The quality of Musser’s establishment and the entertainment that Musser was able to get from Kansas City drew the attention of politicians, both state and local, and their supporters. The year 1938 was a banner year for political shindigs at Musser’s and kicking things off was the Miller County Republican Committee who sponsored a “Washington’s Birthday Banquet” at Musser’s Tavern on Feb. 22, 1938.
“The banquet is being sponsored by the Miller County Republican Committee, and is one of several similar meetings to be held throughout the State of Missouri and other states,” said the Miller County Autogram. “Mrs. Geo. B. Simmons, a speaker of national importance, has been engaged as the principal speaker of the evening. Mrs. Simmons is a Missouri woman whose fame has spread throughout the nation, as a forceful and interesting speaker on the issues now confronting the American people… Chas. R. Hawkins of Brumley, is Chairman of the Republican Committee.
An estimated 300 people attended the event. But that was small potatoes compared to the crowd that showed up in July 1938 when the friends of Judge James V. (Josh) Billings staged a big rally at Musser’s. [Billings was a Pendergast-backed candidate for Supreme Court Judge, thus adding fuel to local rumors that Clarence Musser was a Pendergast “flunky.”]
“Judge Billings will be the honored guest and the principal speakers will be Hon. Howard Hannah, secretary of the Young Democratic Club of Missouri, and Judge J. M. Boyd, former Chief Counsel for the Missouri Public Service Commission.
“There will be delegates from every county of the State, and those in charge of the demonstration are expecting the largest crowd ever to assemble in Miller County.
“James W. Miller, of Eldon, a well-known Rock Island engineer, will speak in behalf of the people of Miller County.
“Don Gill’s orchestra will furnish the music for the free dance which will follow the speaking…and it will be broadcast over radio station KFRU, Columbia, from 7:30 to 8:30.”
The crowd was estimated at 2,500, which was certainly beyond the holding capacity of the Crystal Ballroom at Musser’s Ozark Tavern.
“A platform and sound system were provided for the event on the east side of the highway, opposite the main building, and the crowd congregated on the green and overflowed the highway and adjacent grounds.”
One of the principal speakers at the event “condemned Gov. Lloyd Stark for his stand against Pendergastism, declaring that Pendergast was largely responsible for Stark’s election.”
Musser’s Ozark Tavern Resort prospered until January 1941 when a disastrous fire occurred.
“The main building at Musser’s Resort…one of the best known nightclubs in the Lake of the Ozarks region, was destroyed by fire early Thursday morning,” said the Eldon Advertiser. “The loss, estimated at about $55,000, was only partially covered by insurance. The Crystal Ballroom, dining room, amusement room, café, kitchen, liquor store, filling station and beverage storeroom were destroyed… C. W. Musser, manager of the resort, discovered the blaze. He awoke in a smoke-filled room and made his way to the main auditorium awakening the six employees who lived there. The Eldon Fire Department was summoned but flames, whipped by a stiff breeze, soon spread to all parts of the building. The electric wires connecting the water pumps, were severed by the flames, greatly handicapping the fire fighters. The fire department finally abandoned the main building and directed its efforts to saving the hotel, cottages and other…buildings.”
Musser promptly rebuilt but on a smaller scale and reopened in 1943. Then in March 1945, trouble struck again when Musser was involved in an altercation with William E. Buckhart in Eldon. The two men exchanged gunfire and Buckhart was killed.
Musser was charged with second degree murder but on a change of venue to Jefferson City, he was acquitted. During the trial period, Musser sold the resort and all of its associated properties to Mr. & Mrs. Jefferson W. Mitchell. Mitchell was a veteran in the business of building and operating oil refineries. He had been superintendent of the Phillips Refinery in Kansas City, Kansas, from 1928 to 1940 when he went to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where he was assistant manager of the refinery department of the Phillips Company. He was elevated to manager of that department in 1943 and resigned in 1945 when he and his wife purchased Musser’s Ozark Resort.
It should be noted that the Phillips Oil Company has a financial investment in the property at El Rancho Junction. Phillips Oil Company products have been sold on the property for nearly 70 years.
The Mitchells had the business for one year and then sold to Jim Hannaford, Jim Lawrence and Francis Biselx who renamed it El Rancho of the Ozarks [see El Rancho of the Ozarks]. From: History & Geography of Lake of the Ozarks, Volume One by H. Dwight Weaver, 2005, pages 143-146.
Aerial view of the probable location of Musser's Resort
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