By Dave Woods
Globe Staff Writer
BRANSON Mo. —
Jerry McDonald said she is impressed by the new Dewey Short Visitors Center at Table Rock Lake.
“I think it’s a great resource,” the Hollister resident said as she enjoyed the view of the lake from an observation deck. “It embraces what the Ozarks is all about, and it complements what we already have here.”
Kurt McDonald, her husband, was impressed by another aspect of the new visitors center.
“I’m intrigued by all of the exposed architecture,” he said. “You can see everything. The lines and concrete and turnbuckles — everything. I like it. It’s cool to look at and study, and it has an awesome view.”
Carol Cuddy and her husband came to the Branson area for a weekend of hiking, biking and fishing with their two young children.
“Branson is fun, but we’ll do mostly trails and cycling and outdoors stuff,” the Wildwood resident said. “It will be fun to come camping when the kids are older.”
The new Table Rock Lake attraction also impressed the Cuddys, and they said they were happy to share it with their children.
“It’s beautiful, and it’s good for kids to be exposed to this kind of thing,” Carol Cuddy said. “It’s a great spot for kids to get a better understanding of the lake and our natural resources. It’s a different kind of pace.”
The new Dewey Short Visitors Center, which opened last month, sits atop a limestone bluff overlooking the lake. The center, built with green techniques, is LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — certified. It offers dozens of informative and interactive exhibits on everything from the history of the White River Valley to the building of the dam itself.
The concrete dam — authorized in 1943 and built in the late 1950s — was literally and figuratively one of the biggest things that ever happened in the Ozarks. It is 252 feet high, 6,243 feet long, creates a lake of about 53,000 surface acres and provides flood control for 4,020 square miles of the White River watershed.
The construction of the dam was one of the transformational events in the region. It had a profound effect on farm and city alike, reducing flooding along the White River, and generating electricity for rural farms that were without power and growing cities that needed more. The dam was one of the seminal steps in turning the area into the tourism and recreation mecca it has become today.
The 15,000-square-foot center was built with more than $10 million in federal stimulus funding. More than $2.4 million in Army Corps of Engineers allocations covered the cost of exhibits and other expenses. The new building replaces the decades-old Dewey Short Visitors Center, which now houses offices for the corps.
Besides telling that story and providing eagle’s-eye views of the region, the center offers a gift shop and office space for the Ozarksstet Riversstet Heritage Foundation. The not-for-profit foundation handles day-to-day operation of the visitors center, raises funds to educate visitors about the importance of the White River watershed and water quality, operates parks around the lake, and works with the corps to maintain the new building and offer educational programs.
“It’s quite an opportunity to be partnered with the corps, and provide services and be a venue for folks to come and learn about the Ozarks and the Corps of Engineers,” said Gala Solari, interim director of the foundation. “The foundation operates the visitors center, has the gift shop, staffs the facility and give tours of the dam from here. We take care of the whole building, as well.”
David Dally, presiding judge of Jasper County Circuit Court, serves on the board of directors of the Ozarks Rivers Heritage Foundation. He called the new visitors center a good investment of federal funds and a great investment in the Ozarks.
“We have a place on Table Rock around Shell Knob,” Dally said. “I’ve got an interest in the quality of the lake. This is just a real neat way to keep the money raised at the lake and to be spent locally on the parks and visitors center. Everything (the foundation) does is in conjunction with the corps. They give us a list of projects they would like to see happen, and we use the money coming in to make improvements to (corps) facilities.”
The center’s namesake, Dewey Short, served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 12 nonconsecutive terms between 1929 and 1957, when the dam was authorized and built. Though Short often was critical of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal projects, Dally suspects that Short would be OK with the federal stimulus funds spent for the new center.
“I think Dewey Short would be thrilled,” he said.
Leah Deeds was hired to manage the new Dewey Short site, assist with development of exhibits, and communicate the story and mission of the corps to visitors.
“This is the first brand-new visitors center I’ve ever worked on,” the Iowa native said. “We have a whole variety of missions here: recreation, flood control, hydro power, national resource management and environmental stewardship.”
Deeds said that while explaining the corps’ mission is an important part of her job, coordinating exhibits that engage visitors is a passion.
“I see the adults really enjoying the story of the flooding on the old White River,” she said. “Kids love the dark room. There are bobcats and spiders and scorpions and fish on the wall. There’s also a water safety boat (children) can get in and see how fast they can get on their life jackets.”
Deeds said more exhibits are planned.
“The center does a really good job of telling the story of the White River watershed,” she said. “You see a mural explaining how Beaver, Table Rock, Bull Shoals and Norfolk — all of those waterways — are interconnected and managed by the Corps of Engineers.
“Coming this year are some (Table Rock) dam scenarios. You will get to decide when to release water from Beaver Lake or Table Rock or Bull Shoals based on the weather forecast. You will get to see what happens when you do, whether you made a good decision or a bad decision. That one is going to be really cool.”
Deeds loves the exhibits and the building’s green construction, but the real star, she said, is the panoramic view from the upper observation deck.
“At that point you can see the whole system here at Table Rock Lake, the dam and Lake Taneycomo downstream,” she said. “I think it’s an attraction for people beyond Missouri. We have hills and rocks and clear water. It doesn’t get that much better than that.”
Want to go?
The Dewey Short Visitors Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Details are available via 417-334-6394 or www.tablerockdamtours.com.
Dewey Short served 12 terms as Missouri’s representative from the 7th Congressional District. He was born in Galena, Mo., and attended Boston University, Harvard University and Oxford University. He was an ordained Methodist Episcopal minister and was widely known for his oratorical prowess.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Short assistant secretary of the Army in 1957. He spent many years lobbying fellow members of Congress to support funding and construction of Table Rock Dam. Short retired from public service in 1961. The original Dewey Short Visitors Center at Table Rock Dam was named in his honor in 1984.