|Vol. III, No. 4, Spring 1990|
By Robert Gilmore
This is the story of an extraordinary enterprise in the Missouri Ozarks--a multigenerational family resort business on Bull Shoals Lake at Theodosia, in Ozark County, Missouri.
The Theodosia arm of Bull Shoals lake is created by the waters of the Little North Fork river, backed up by Bull Shoals dam on the White River in northwest Arkansas. A handsome bridge carries U. S. Highway 160 across the lake at Theodosia. At the west end of the bridge lies the domain of the L. B. Cook family, concessionaires of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
L. B. and Polly Cook with 10-year old son Bill came to Theodosia in 1952, after the Corps of Engineers awarded them a boat dock lease on the just-filling Bull Shoals lake. Now, almost forty years later, the family business is the oldest continuous concession in the Little Rock Corps of Engineers District.
The Cook's Theodosia Marina-Resort and Fort Cook RV Park is an impressive operation--a two-story, 20 room motel; 5 housekeeping cottages; two lodges, each sleeping 16 people; a 100 unit RV park; a marina; outboard motor sales and service; and, according to a Theodosia Area Chamber of Commerce publication, "the planet's nicest playground." The restaurant in the complex is subleased by the Cooks to another operator. Visitors to Theodosia and Bull Shoals Lake can enjoy the rustic beauty of the Ozarks with all the comforts they left at home--color television, direct dial phones, swimming pool, and lighted tennis courts.
The operation has not always been so imposing.
From running a family retail business in Joplin, Missouri, to building and managing a brand new
dock and resort on a lake that wasn't even full yet was a big jump for L. B. Cook. He had no
experience as a resort operator, but he was sure it was better than selling drygoods. "From the
very first I hated the merchantile business," Cook said. He much preferred being outdoors,
hunting and fishing, and was active in conservation organizations. The family business at Joplin
was finally sold in 1951, about the time Bull Shoals dam was nearing completion and the Corps of
Engineers was advertising for concessionaires to operate public use areas on the new lake. Cook
bid on the Theodosia location, hoping to merge his deeply felt conservation ethic with the
business of outdoor recreation management. On June 5, 1952 he was notified by the Corps of
Engineers that the lease was his and that he would take over the Theodosia site on July 1. Neither
he nor the Corps could know that the lake would go dry two years later in the worst drought
since the Great Depression.
L. B. Cook
When word came that they were to operate the facility at Theodosia, the Cooks were ready. "On the 14th of June we called and ordered a load of boats and equipment," L. B. recalled, "and Bill [then ten] and I left Joplin. That first load of Lone Star 14 foot aluminum boats from Texas delivered here cost us $209.50 each. I can't help but think of that when I look at the price of boats today."
The Cooks camped out on the bank of the Little North Fork River, hired some help, built a dock (which included a room in which the family lived for a while), and waited for the lake to reach them. The lake filled in the spring of 1953 and the new operators had a good first season. In the fall of that year, however, the drought's effects were felt and the lake began to fall. By 1954 there was no lake at Theodosia, only a pitifully small stream. So the Cooks moved their boat operation some three miles down stream and operated from the bank, driving back and forth from their lease site at Theodosia. The lake kept retreating, and they kept moving their boats downstream, to keep them in the water.
"We were gone from Theodosia for 15 months," L. B. mused, "during which time the Corps of Engineers was very nice. They let us pay the exact amount for the lease as they would have had we had water!" L. B. is quick to add that, although there have been differences, overall relationship with the Corps has been generally good.
After the rains came again and Bull Shoals Lake refilled in 1955 the fishing was phenomenal. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, the record largemouth, striped, and white bass, and the record walleye have all been caught from Bull Shoals Lake. But as other lakes were built in the Ozarks, their impact was felt at Bull Shoals. According to Bill Cook:
The [fishing] pressure was minimal, there were not a lot of big boats, and there was a lot of virgin lake out there--you couldn't cover but a small area. Bull Shoals was notorious for producing big bass. Then [in 1959-60] Table Rock filled and it knocked the glory. The fishing business has a limited amount of people and they are fickle. They will go to a new lake and they did. The early '60s provided a lot of time but not much else. It was a tough time here.
By 1962 the Cooks were not sure the business could continue to support two families, and Bill was actively considering other ways to make a living. Still, he and his dad were not yet ready to give up on the dream. They consulted the Small Business Administration in Kansas City and presented them with a plan for building some housekeeping cottages. Though they already had non-kitchen motel units, the Cooks felt that cottages might encourage people to stay longer. It proved to be so, but it took awhile. Bill Cook:
The SBA agreed with us and, through the local bank, invested what was a sizeable amount of money to build five housekeeping cottages and quarters for Nadine and me and our new daughter to live in. We got them on line in '63 but there were still some slow years. '63, '64 and '65 were pretty tough. But traffic increased to the point that in 1969 and 1970 we tore down our old motel and built it where it is now, a two-story complex, updated, color television and the amenities that are required today. Basically we have not looked back. From wherever we were we have grown and each change we made created more change.
There are now four generations of Cooks at the Theodosia Corps of Engineers location--L. B.
and his wife; L. B.'s son Bill and his wife; Bill's two sons, Ben and Bret and their wives; and now
L. B.'s great grandsons, born this year to Ben and Bret. And, Bill is quick to point out, the family
is now into its third and fourth generation of customers that have become like family.
As with any family business, all members of the Cook clan do their share. For example, Nadine, Bill's wife, manages the office and the sophisticated computer operation as well as the well-stocked store at the dock. The other women have their responsibilities, and all of the men except Bill work as mechanics on the many boats they sell, rig, and service. During the summer 25 or more people work at the business. A new dive operation is just getting underway. It is easy to see that, in Bill's words, "There are quite a few people making a living from a small patch of water."
There is little time off for the Cooks in their business. Docks must be maintained continuously and customers serviced. Some 200 boats are housed under cover and 60 RVs stay at the park year round. The family must be ingenious in handling new problems and concerns. During the gas scare of the early 1970s, for instance, they encouraged people to leave their RVs parked at the lake and drive their smaller cars back and forth. Success brings its own problems. Many of the people who park RVs buy boats from the Cooks and then want a place to moor them. "1 need more docks," sighed Bill.
Providing service to their customers is always foremost with the Cooks. For years it was an accepted practice for boaters, after launching, to park their empty trailers on the grassy government "take line," just up from the ramp. Soon there would be 70 or 80 trailers parked there, the Corps couldn't get their mowing done, and they called a halt to trailer parking on the grass. So, rather than offend customers, the Cooks built a fenced storage area for trailers nearby.
It is ironic that the man who sold a business nearly 40 years ago because he loved to hunt and fish has created a business so successful that he has had little time to indulge himself in those activities. By just about any measure the Cook family concessionaires have been successful and will, no doubt, continue to be so through the end of their present lease with the Corps of Engineers in 2002--and beyond.
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