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  • Writer's pictureChet Wampler

J. Frank Walker's Sagmount Inn was popular summer destination

At the turn of the last century, Saginaw was a little community along the mainline of the Kansas City Southern Railroad. The railroad went to the west of the town through the Shoal Creek valley. Numerous washouts of the track by floodwaters of Shoal Creek led the railroad to relocate the tracks on high ground, above town and to the east, in 1912. (The old right of way can still be seen in places west of Scenic Drive.)  

J. Frank Walker, originally from Kansas City, moved to Joplin in 1893. He had gone into business with Gilbert Barbee to construct the Walker-Barbee building between 1896 and 1900. The two-story business building at 609-611 S. Main St. contained a saloon at 609 S. Main and a piano store at 611 S. Main. He later sold his Walker Piano Store to the Jenkins Music Co. Walker operated a photo studio on the second floor in the 611 building in 1906. He had extensive real estate holdings in the area and in Kansas City.

In 1912, the News Herald reported Walker purchased White's lake and farm southeast of Saginaw. The property, bounded on the west by the Kansas City Railroad and through which the wagon road south to Neosho ran, contained a constant spring. Walker decided to construct a series of three lakes. He changed the wagon roadway so it would run over the top of the concrete dam of the first lake. Two of the lakes were east of the railroad and the third was west of the tracks. In each of these, he planned to stock game fish.

The News Herald reported that, overlooking the lakes, he planned to build a clubhouse on the high hillside. It was to be "one of the most costly clubhouses in this part of the country." He had hired men to clear the underbrush on the hills, trim the trees and plant grass and flowers. The clubhouse was named Sagmount Inn.

Walker Lakes and the Sagmount Inn became a regular advertiser on the entertainment pages in the Globe and News Herald through the 1910s and 1920s. It advertised "chicken dinners, country style, weekend parties, special dinners, fine rooms, sleeping porches, tents, bathing pool (and) fishing." Orders could be placed by phone with the Perrier Grocer Shop in Saginaw.

The inn became a prominent venue featured in the society pages of the Globe and News Herald through the 1920s. Birthday parties, luncheons and dinners for sororities, businesses and community, school and religious societies found Sagmount the place to be. It was close enough to Joplin for a convenient drive any time of the year. On summer holidays, such as the Fourth of July, hundreds of people frequented the pools and miniature golf course.

In 1931, Sam Walker, J. Frank's brother who managed the inn, added an innovation sure to attract summer activities. The inn sat on a hilltop. At the base was a spring that fed the pools. He dug an artificial cave back into the hillside beneath the inn, drilled a shaft down to the cave, then forced air from the cave to the inn. It became an inexpensive method to cool the building in summer and provide a steady heat in the winter. The temperature of the cave was a constant 60 degrees. The Globe noted this improvement was ready for the 1931 summer season.

Two years later, the Walkers added a 30-room hotel to the existing inn. They engaged B.F. Louffer, who had been a chef in Lawrence, Kansas, and San Antonio, Texas, to manage the dining room. The new banquet hall was 30 feet by 100 feet with a fountain whose source was the spring beneath the building. The hotel was a two-story fireproof building that was ventilated with the cavern air, just as the inn was.

Through the Great Depression, Sagmount continued to be advertised as a resort for meetings and events, a Sunday dinner or a popular summertime destination. Also featured were tennis, hiking, shuffleboard and horseback riding.

During World War II, the rooms at Sagmount were advertised at $6 a week and just seven miles from Neosho and Camp Crowder. J. Frank Walker died in November 1947, and his brother managed the resort until he leased it to Lawrence Gibson in late 1947.

The resort sold in the early 1950s to Billy James Hargis, whose ministry was known as Christian Echoes. Hargis operated Sagmount as a Christian camp. Embroiled by a series of lawsuits, Hargis sold Sagmount to the Missouri Baptist Bible Fellowship in 1960.

The Missouri Baptist Bible Fellowship has operated Sagmount since then. The old resort is uniquely suited for youth camps, retreats, weddings and family reunions. According to a 2008 interview with Chet Wampler, then the property manager, an average of 2,000 people took part in camps through the summer season. Today, as in its early years, Sagmount continues to be a popular summer destination.

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