It was a simpler, slower time on the Gasconade

Dennis Warden

Summer time is church picnic season. I know that the month of June is not even over (three more days are left) but Connie and I have not been able to attend as many picnics as we would have liked.

So, on Saturday we headed to Zion St. Paul’s UCC in Bay for some good food and good company and of course excellent homemade ice cream.

During the short drive to Bay memories came back when I was much younger and we drove through Bay on our way to the Gasconade River.

The Gasconade River has two interesting statistics. At almost 280 miles, it is the longest river completely within the boundary of the state of Missouri. And, the Gasconade has been called one of the world’s crookedest rivers.

It was around 1947 that my grandparents, Ralph and Thelma Warden, purchased a piece of property on Helmig Ferry Road with two friends, Bill Wacker and John Kormeier.

The property was divided up into thirds with each family building their own cabin. A common well was dug, providing fresh water for each cabin.

Grandpa’s cabin was built by his own hands, with help from his fishin’ buddies and a little help from his sons, Don and Tom. The one-room cabin was about 14 by 20 feet built on a rock bluff overlooking the river. Grandpa’s cabin was anchored to the rock bluff on one side with large cedar pillars holding up the side facing the river. Underneath, the cabin included storage space for fishing poles, a sink for cleaning the fish and a flush toilet — added in the 70’s.

Inside the cabin were all the comforts of home, a refrigerator, stove, sink, a steel kitchen table and two twin beds, plus a screen door.

Our family would spend a couple of weekends at the cabin every year when I was growing up. Mom and dad slept on the beds, my sister and I on blow up air mats. Days were spent enjoying the river. 

Grandpa had a small boat, just big enough for our family including our dog, with a 9.9 hp Evinrude outboard motor.

It didn’t make much difference. One day we would go up river, the next day down river to find an open gravel bar for a picnic and swim in a shallow current.

When I was growing up there was a deck and sitting area at least as big as the cabin outside the main door. That’s where we spent the evenings, sitting and watching the river go by. One time I can remember watching, and hearing, a rain storm come across the river directly toward the cabin.

Food was always a high point at the cabin, either fresh fish caught that day or hamburgers off the grill with fried potatoes and corn on the cob.

One of my earliest memories revolved around car trouble. Dad had a big four-door Dodge Polara in the early 70’s. On a steep hill going down to the river we had a flat tire. 

As dad changed the tire he was worried that the car would jump out of gear and roll down the hill. So in addition to the emergency brake mom sat in the car with her foot on the brake. During this time my little sister cried her eyes out thinking mom was going to die for sure.

I grew up hearing stories of grandpa noodling catfish — the art of catching fish with one’s bare hands. Although illegal in Missouri, he noodled large catfish to keep them from eating other fish. Grandpa didn’t want anything depleting his stock of fish.

Another target of grandpa Ralph was snapping turtles. A 22 rifle was kept in the cabin specifically to shoot snapping turtles. Besides stopping another fish, predator grandpa would make some good turtle soup.

While he was still in good health grandpa drove down to the river every day. Dad said he wanted to make sure the river was still going. Actually he wanted to drink a beer. Grandma wouldn’t let him keep any at home.

The cabin had to have been at least 60 feet above the river. The other side of the river was good bottom land for crops. When the cabin was being built the river almost climbed up to the cabin.

It wasn’t until the late 80’s that flood waters found its way two to three feet inside, something grandpa never lived to see.

In 2004, after the river rose to the cabin for the third time in 10 years, dad and uncle Tom decided it was more trouble than it was worth.

Today people run up and down the Gasconade on high speed jet boats. I remember a simpler, slower time when all you needed was a 9.9 hp Evinrude to have fun. If I close my eyes I can still remember the slamming of the old screen door and mom yelling at us kids that it was time to come up to the cabin to eat.