Anyone who has visited the ruins of Ha Ha Tonka Castle is struck by the enormity of the effort. The idea of building an estate of such quality and size in a virtual wilderness during the early years of the twentieth century challenges the imagination.
The castle was the dream of Robert M. Snyder, owner of the Snyder Gas Company in Kansas City. Snyder purchased the property in 1901, engaged the architectural services of Adrian Van Brunt, and obtained a Scottish foreman to ensure European authenticity in the construction methods. Ha Ha Tonka Castle was to be Snyder's legacy, but as is so often the case, he did not live to see his legacy fulfilled. He died, in 1906, in one of the first automobile accidents in Kansas City.
Snyder's three sons inherited the unfinished castle. They had the work continued, though at a somewhat slower pace. It was finished in 1922. After that the family business began to decline and the sons spent a great deal of money in lawsuits to prevent the waters of the proposed Lake of the Ozarks from encroaching upon their land.
Robert M. Snyder, Jr., lived at the castle after his father's death. Plagued by health problems, the younger Snyder cultivated an interest in local and regional history. Over the period of two decades he had amassed an extraordinary library of rare books--over a thousand volumes comprising the most extensive collection of works on Missouri and regional history, literature, and folklore. He kept them at the castle.
Robert Snyder, Jr., died in 1937. By that time the depression and the court litigations had depleted the family fortune. The castle was converted to a lodge and the books were donated to the University of Kansas City. And that was indeed fortunate, for had the books remained at the castle they would have been consumed in the 1942 fire.
In 1964 the University of Kansas City became the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC). Robert Snyder's books were housed in the general library, in closed stacks known as the Snyder Collection. The collection was kept in a separate room with a full-time librarian assigned to catalog the books. I worked as a research assistant at UMKC and spent many hours going through some of those books.
The Snyder Collection room was very, very quiet. I always had the sense of being watched when I was in there. So I was not surprised when the librarian told me that odd things had taken place in there. When she left books open to a certain page, they oft times were turned to a different page when she came back--even though the pages had been held down with a paper weight. And if she listened long and hard, she sometimes could hear the rustling of a book--as though it had been pulled off the shelf and leafed through. Of course, whenever she walked down the aisles to check, no one was there.
The ruins of Ha Ha Tonka Castle stand as a beautiful but grim reminder of fortunes lost and the transient nature of things. If there is a link between this world and the next, could it be found in those books that meant so much to Robert M. Snyder, Jr.? Perhaps he still reads them today.
© 1999-2000 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.