Vol. II, No. 4, Spring 1989


The Damnable Current River Dam and other Topics

A Conversation with Dan Saults, 1982

Part l: Saving the River



On February 15, 1982, an extended tape recorded interview with the late Dan Saults was conducted by Bob Flanders and Lynn Morrow. The following excerpts constitute the first of a series which will run in successive issues of OzarksWatch. Also included in the interview was Don Cullimore, long-time columnist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, whose interview with be published subsequently.
Dan Saults was a pioneer in Missouri conservation activities. He joined the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1947, heading their information service and serving as Editor of the Missouri Conservationist. He later became Assistant Director of the Department. In 1964 he moved to Washington D. C. with the Department of the Interior where he worked with both the Bureau of Land Managment and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Dan retired to Branson, Mo. in 1973, where he remained active in conservation causes until his death in 1985.
Dan Saults

Dan Saults was a provocative writer but he was also an articulate talker. OzarksWatch is proud to provide a medium for the wider circulation of his words.

Much of the Current River is now, of course, part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, and protected by the National Park Service as a free-flowing stream. Shortly after World War II, however, the Corps of Engineers had announced its intention to dam the Current and create a large impoundment- a project that did not meet with universal approval, to say the least.

The interview begins with a question to Dan Saults about the background of the Current River Dam controversy --a controversy that was beginning to heat up about the time he joined the Department of Conservation in 1947.

Saults: Basically this [controversy] began at a time when dams were considered a cure-all for economic ills.

No one was opposed to building a dam because it showed what a progressive and wonderful country we were. I think that the Corps of Engineers led almost a sacred life in that everyone asked them to come build dams.

[In the post WWII years] then, there began to be a great emphasis to build dams on Current River because it would, one, improve the economy tremendously; two, it would provide a great deal of fishable water; three, it would create a tourist attraction; and four, it was just right to build dams!

Suddenly the people outside the Current River Valley and the immediate region began to realize the local people didn't quite agree with this. This encouraged the people who loved the Current River in one fashion or another to think there might be a chance to stop the Corps of Engineers from building a dam.

Now to be completely honest it wasn't just the Corps of Engineers. Realtors were trying to get the dams built, and people who owned big chunks of land in the valley, because it would increase the value of the land tremendously.

When Dan joined the Department of Conservation in 1947 as an editor, he found the four-member Conservation Commission undecided about what official stand to take regarding the proposed dam.

It was a little difficult to get the Commission to take a stand because, remember, it did mean a lot more fishing water. We had studies proving that a lake could provide a hundred times more fishing visits than a stream could, which was quite true. And the Commission existed only off the sale of hunting and fishing permits and what small federal grants they got. Therefore they needed to sell more fishing licenses.

There was quite a lot of discussion among the four Commissioners themselves. We [members of the staff] would sit around at night and discuss it in preparation for the Commission meeting the next day. The members varied slightly in their opinions, but we had a strong Commission at that time.

[26]

The Commission consisted of Chairman Robert A. Brown, Frank Briggs, Edward K. Love, and Dru Pippin. At the time Dan Saults joined the Department, Briggs, a Macon newspaper man, had been newly appointed to the Commission. He was a former state senator and United States senator who had finished out Harry Truman's term when Truman went to the vice-presidency. Dan characterized the other members of the Commission with insight and affection.

Edward K. Love [was] a wealthy St. Louisian, a deeply interested man, who had given a great deal of money. And his estate still is giving to the cause of conservation. Mr. Love, among other things, established a foundation to be administered through the Conservation Federation of Missouri .... And Mr. Love played an important part early on in the campaign to get through an amendment to the State Constitution freeing the Commission from all political influence. He not only played an intellectual part, he had financed much of the program which cost quite a lot of money ....

He was not a dramatic leader in any way. Mr. Love made his money on real estate. He tended to stay back behind the scenes as much as possible; his name has remained prominent because of his foundation. He was a fine man, and far too few people got to know Mr. Love.

Bob Brown was chairman, a St. Joseph corporation lawyer, didn't try many cases at that time. A silk stocking, hunted with a fine double barrel shot gun, used pedigreed dogs, and believed in killing quail in the proper gentlemanly fashion .... Many years later, after leaving the Commission, he was Chairman of the Board of the Conservation Federation. He was an Audubonite -- a man of many, many parts, much charm and a short temper. He could not stand fools.

Dru Pippin was a man who knew land well, was very interested in the hill people, was an Ozarkian from Waynesville. He had a resort ... inherited from his father. He had run it after his father died, a rather swank resort, in the old Victorian style, where people came and rocked in the swings, played genteel tennis, or fished for trout and ate good food. He made the place famous for its food.

He had a very old cook who was barely literate, Old John. He had other people to do the paring, chopping, etc. -- all the hard work. People came from far, far away to sit for two weeks and went away having gained a great deal of weight. Old John was a black man who had been brought in from outside. The people who worked under him were white hill women; they did not resent him. As a matter of fact, they were quite proud of what they learned from him. John was terribly spoiled, but a charming old man nontheless. Many of the Commission meetings were held at the Pippin place.

The Commission made a decision and instructed the Department Director, I. T. Bode, and the staff to oppose any dams on the Current River.

I have always suspected, without any proof (and I don't want to be unfair to the Corps of Engineers, they're very efficient people) that it became a celebrated cause to the Corps because they were losing. There was opposition! They wanted to win. They didn't want anybody knocking out a dam. They put a great deal of time, publicity, and money into trying to build a Current River dam.

Meanwhile -- I'm probably giving away what was a secret at the time --the Forest Service and the people in Missouri working for the Forest Service reached the same conclusion about the dam that the Commission had; and while in the propriety of the federal bureaucracies where people are not allowed to have [public] opinions, only in private -- they joined the fight against the dam on Current River. At that point the matter began to be taken quite seriously, and the battle lines did get well drawn, and one of the strongest supporters of the anti-dam position was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Opponents of the dam were delighted when Governor Forrest Smith wrote an eloquent denunciation of any dam on Current River and announced there would be no dam built as long as he was governor.

I'm probably giving away another secret. A young man named James Kirkpatrick was then the Governor's press secretary. And while he still denies it, he wrote the statement. It was well enough done, and so effective among the public, that subsequent governors, rather than writing new statements of their own, simply repeated it. Why did Jim deny it? Because a press secretary never admits being author of his boss's [material]. He must never do it. I like Jim, though I do not hold to that standard of decorum. I wrote a lot of speeches that I never got credit for! So I like to give credit where it's due.

"Where was the opposition to the dam coming from? Was it mostly a local issue for people living in the counties particularly involved?"

That's a fair query. In the Current River Valley itself almost everybody opposed the dam. Apart from notable exceptions such as Leonard Hall who lived outside the Current Valley and bitterly fought against it, mostly this was a local proposition ---except for the Missouri River Valley. St. Louis, Kansas City, and the belt of population between. In that heavily populated area, that's where you had the preponderance of the strong battle against the dam, the emotional battle.

I remember one occasion in which the Corps of Engineers was going to hold a hearing on the Blair Creek Dam and they were going to hold it in Bradley Point, Virginia. And St. Louis raised money and sent a delegation on busses on just a few day's notice from Van Buren and Eminence to Washington D.C., where they stormed into the hearing and literally raised bloody hell. Very effective. But they could not have been heard if it wasn't for the people in St. Louis who raised the money to hire the busses.

So the Missouri Valley strongly supplied the publicity in the big papers ---even the Kansas City Star.... The Star, after the Post-Dispatch came in, came out against the dam on Current River. They were led by the outdoor editor, the outdoor writers -- and that's maybe a significant point. The outdoor writers on the paper who did not just write of hunting and fishing but who, by this time, were writing of much deeper issues -- writing about habitat, and ways of life, the meanings of hunting and fishing. Such things as "One day on a stream is worth 100 days on an artificial impoundment."

"Was it the Current River controversy that precipitated this philosophical consideration about habitat, or was this kind of thinking in the tradition of outdoors people already?"

The early Conservation Commission

[27]

had been guided in its thinking by some earlier Missourians, Rudolph Bennett and several others at the University of Missouri. When the first Commission was formed, the first statement they adopted was that all life begins with the soil. So, therefore, we will begin our work with the soil. Which was the same as saying, we've got to develop habitat. By the time this [dams] issue came along, even employees of the Commission, I think, understood this [principle] very clearly, from the conservation agent out there in the bush to the director, Mr. Bode.

Early on we were thinking about habitat. Most of the citizenry, however, didn't think about habitat. This one issue probably did more to sell habitat as an environmental issue to the public of Missouri than any other single thing. It seems to me from that time on we had very little trouble talking about the proper environment for wild things and wild people.

Dan was asked why there was so much support across the state for the campaign to oppose the dam.

... The Current was a sacred stream to Missourians. There were probably 500,000 Missourians who knew, and crossed themselves at the [mention of] the name of the Current River, who never saw it. There are today there are many today -- men who say, "Have you been there?" in that awed voice. Don't tell them about the hoards that are now afflicting the middle Current in the summer time; you simply say yes, I've been there. It's a beautiful place.

The interview with Dan Saults will be continued in the next OzarksWatch.


[Web site note: The complete interview can be viewed in an article in OzarksWatch Volume V, Issue No. 3, Winter 1992.]


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