Keeping a lookout: Park ranger gives tour of wildfire tower near Van Buren

Monday, November 13, 2006


(Poplar Bluff) Daily American Republic

WARSAW, Mo. -- May and Ervin, 1940.

Roger Sanders, 1947.

With each metal beam etched with names, hometowns, ages and dates, faint shadows of the young men and women, husbands and wives, who once visited the isolated Big Spring fire tower are almost visible during the 84-foot climb to the cab.

The steel frame reads like a map of the Midwest -- Clinton, Ky.; Risco, Mo.; Osceola, Ark. -- with a view of exotic locales, like Texas, thrown in.

Recently restored, the structure isn't far from the Van Buren spring it's named for, down an ungraded road built more than 70 years ago.

The road and fire tower were constructed by the young men stationed in Big Spring National Park with the Civilian Conservation Corps from the winter of 1933 to March of 1937. It became a well-liked meeting place for area residents and visitors.

"This was a recreation area when the CC built it," said Dr. Jim Price, cultural resources manager and acting chief of the resources management and education division of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Big Spring State Park became a part of it in 1964.

"Now the fire tower is a pretty unknown structure here because it's pretty remote," he said. "It's on the pedestrian trail, so people are welcome to look at it or go up in the tower by appointment."

The structure was constructed as part of a network of eight fire towers in the area, where men would watch for wildfires.

"Probably since the early 1970s, it has not been in good condition," Price said. "It was not safe. It was essentially an abandoned structure."

Then in 2003, Price wrote for a grant from the National Park Service, asking for funding to restore the derelict tower. His request was granted in 2005 and park historic carpenters went to work.

"All of the structurally unsound materials had to be replaced in kind, which means ... the same dimensions ... the same species of wood, the same kind of nails," Price said. "Everything was put back the way it was."

The only thing left untouched was the winding steel frame.

"It was a popular place," Price said, pausing several times on the way up the tower steps to read aloud surprisingly legible and well-preserved signatures.

"Jimmy Roe Rice, age 14 ... Norma Jarvis and Norman Jarvis, Hematite, Mo. ... Paducah, Ky." he said. "Back then it was graffiti, now it's a cultural resource."

Even the walls of the metal and plexiglass enclosed cab are inscribed, with several of the names belonging to the men who built the tower -- like Earl Halleman, who added, "CCC Co. 1710, Jan. 12, 1935, St. Louis, Mo."

With the door, built into the floor of the enclosure, safely closed, Price pointed out where the Bryer fire tower, more than 40 miles to the south, would be on a clear day.

"They're really pretty visible when the air is really crisp," Price said, taking in the panoramic view of Carter County. "This tower and the Bryer tower triangulated fires from Highway 160 to the south."

The system of fire towers was built so that other towers could be seen from each structure. Inside each cab was a fire-finding device, a large, circular brass instrument with a map at the base and a sight above.

Using radios, men in one tower would compare the line of sight they had on smoke with what operators of another tower saw. They would locate the fires by finding where the two lines crossed, Price said.

The radio was held in a rack attached to the ceiling of the cab, while the battery was stored beneath the fire-finder.

"These would be original to the period," Price said. "We don't know what happened to the instrumentation that came out of here. We didn't acquire [the tower] until the 1960s, so it was long gone."

Once a fire was spotted, volunteer firefighters would be contacted, Price said.

Tools to fight the fires, such as rakes and shovels, were stored in tall, red metal buildings located at crossroads throughout the wilderness.

Of the fire towers, the structure at Bryer has been restored and one at Oxly dismantled, Price said. "Other towers have been decommissioned or adopted by towns and businesses that will take care of them."

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