[This "Lake Stories with Michael Gillespie" article originally appeared in the November, 2008, issue of the Lake of the Ozarks Business Journal.]

The Ozarks region is well known for its storytellers - good, kindly folks who have lived and worked in the area all their lives and have a have a great deal to say about the way things were, if only someone would ask. That is history, the best kind of history, because it is based on personal experience rather than cold facts and documents.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with Max Middleton, of Versailles. Max is a retired conservation agent. He began working for the Department of Conservation in 1960, in Maries County. A little later he went to Dallas County, and in 1964 he was transferred to Morgan County and the lake area.

Life at the lake in '64 wasn't as you find it today. There were some 400 resorts and motels here in those day, and scores of roadside attractions. Most everything was a "mom and pop" operation that could best be described as rustic. There were still a lot of folks here who could remember hunting and fishing not just for pleasure, but for food. And some who resented any interference from the law. But let Max tell his story -

Max, what was it like when you began working here?

"I think it was altogether different. There were a lot of small fishing camps at the lake - more family type things. All of them had fishing boats that people staying there could rent. When the boats started getting bigger and faster, and when there started to be a lot of skiing back in the coves, that pretty well pushed the fishermen out for the summer months."

What area did you cover?

"We didn't just work in one county. See, I was assigned both to part of the lake and the county. We had other people on farther down the lake that were assigned strictly to the lake and other individuals were assigned to Miller and Camden County.

"I've been in every cove on the lake several times because sometimes I'd go work with the other agents on the lower end of the lake or up on the Niangua."

Did you have problems with families who had lived here for several generations?

"Not really. My home was in Taney County. So I was used to dealing with those kinds of people. I'm sure some people here resented having me around. But the majority were knowledgeable enough to know that what we were trying to do was going to benefit them."

What was the major emphasis in conservation back then?

"We were trying to bring back a lot of things that the state once had but no longer had because of either faulty management, or no management at all. In 1964 there were no turkeys in Morgan County. They were stocked initially along Highway 135. And that was during the period that I was moving up here. We didn't turn loose great big numbers; we had a formula, and it seems to me like two dozen or slightly less.

"We were able to have a turkey hunting season in six years. It was delayed by one year at my request because we had an acorn failure, and the birds, instead of staying in one area, had spread clear up toward Florence and over around the Moniteau County line. We were afraid that they were in too small of numbers in various areas and they would be overharvested. Turkeys have from four to maybe a dozen young every year, unless the nest is destroyed by raccoons or a rain comes and chills the eggs. Of course, they weren't near as thick as they are now. And the hunters were a lot less competent than they are now."

What about deer?

"The population was much lower than it is now. I was pretty familiar with the way the program worked. M.B. Skaggs, owner of Safeway Stores and Skaggs Pharmacies, had a big ranch in Taney County. A lot of that country is exceedingly rough and the deer had survived a little better there. Skaggs furnished a lot of the deer. My father worked for Mr. Skaggs and helped on trapping the deer. As a kid I went over there and helped them move the deer in trucks. We just went from one county to the next, particularly where we had landowners who would agree to protect them for a few years - that way the deer had a chance to build up."

How would you describe a typical day on the job?

"There wasn't a typical day. I'd work more fishing in the summertime and more hunting in the fall. There was some waterfowl hunting on the lake. And then there was the deer season, and turkeys - I spent quite a lot of time with them because I thought they were a wonderful game animal."

You must have spent a lot of time on the lake checking fishing licenses; what was that like?

"Well, some days I'd go out and everybody was just as honest as the day was long, and then the next time I'd go out there might be a dozen or twenty people that didn't have one. There wasn't any rhyme or reason to it that I could see.

"It was more of a weekend thing. A lot of the people would come to these fishing camps and stay a week or two weeks at a time. If they saw something going on, they would let me know about it.

"The one place we'd work a lot of nights was over below Bagnell Dam. They needed extra help there because that's one of the best fishing holes in the state.

"I'd always make sure the stringers or baskets were separated, that they didn't have their fish all mixed in together. There's a rule that says you have to do that. The purpose of it is to make sure that they're not fishing as a group as compared to fishing as individuals. Not a lot were over the limit.

"I saw two of the spoonbills that were state records at the time. One of them was caught with pole and line, which was a different category than the ones they caught on a trot line. The biggest, if I remember correctly, was 117 pounds. It was caught on a trot line. The other one was over a hundred pounds, but not quite that big. One of them was at the dam, the other was at the Niangua Bridge. The people that caught them called us because they were pretty sure they were record class. We had to verify it."

Do you recall any humorous incidents that took place while you were checking on permits?

"There was a lady who owned a resort with her husband. They had a covered fishing dock. This was back at a time when the state was first checking on contamination from bacterial organisms in the lake. I had turned in there and this lady asked if I had seen the St. Louis paper that day. I said that I hadn't. She said, 'Well, it said that there were no bad orgasms in the Lake of the Ozarks.' I said, 'I expect that's right!'

Could the job ever get dangerous?

"Well, you never, never knew. Anything might turn out to be a little more exciting than you wanted it to be. For instance, another agent and I had a report, while I was living in Dallas County, of these individuals that were out after gigging season had closed. And they were supposed to be in this one area.

"There was a bluff overlooking that area and I'd had a confrontation with the landowner on the other side over some fires that were about to burn over into land at Bennett Springs. I made him stop it. He said, 'Next time you show up here, I'm going to kill you.' I said, 'You'd better think that over a little bit before you start something like that.' But anyway, you keep those things in your mind - maybe he's fool enough to do something like that.

"So went we went down there we came off the bluff instead of going by that man's house. And when we got down there we watched them for awhile, and they were not only out of season, they were fishing with underwater lights and a shocker - none of which were legal.

"When we got down there we just waded across the river and confronted them and were writing down the information on them to charge them in court. They had an old logging truck there to carry their boat on. And this one man - and he was a big ol' boy - he jumped up on there and said, 'I'm leavin',' and I said 'No, you're not leaving yet. We're not through taking all the information down.'

"He literally lept off that thing at me and tried to grab me. He swung at me. I dodged him and he was still grabbing for me so I whomped him in the head with my flashlight. I was making up my mind whether I needed to hit him again to subdue him and the other agent with me came up behind him - the other agent was not a big fellow, but he had been a Marine - and flopped him down on his back, pinned him by the neck, and told him to lay still. And here come another one of the group and was going to hit the other agent in the head with a bat. I had to draw my gun on him and tell him that if he was going to swing at the agent, I was going to shoot him. So he quit; he raised up and dropped the bat.

"We got everything quieted down. And the fellow who was going to kill me was down there with them and I kind of watched him out of the corner of my eye all the time. But he didn't do anything while we were there.

"But ever once in a while you'd run into something like that."

Over the years a lot of property owners would set fire to their land to reduce underbrush or rid themselves of insects; did any of these fires get out of hand?

"Yes, they did. I would report it in to forestry so they would have an exact location on it. Some of those situations could get pretty hot. In the area that I was raised in, people burned their land, but you did not burn your neighbor's land or you were in bad trouble. Here, it didn't seem to be that way. They would burn their land and everybody else's. I never could figure out why they thought they had a right to burn other people's property.

"There was one fire I remember in particular that was started down on the lake right south of the Ozark Land and Cattle Company ranch along Highway 135. They stared there and all the fire crews were tied up. And, of course, the fire burns a lot faster when it goes uphill. And that fire came up, and I happened to be along 135 when it come up the hill. I tried to stop it there at the highway, but it was sending shoots of fire that were landing 30 or 40 yards in the grass on the other side. There was no way of holding it. I later talked to some people who barely got away from it. They didn't get that fire stopped until it was almost to Gravois. Houses burned, and barns burned."

What was the most interesting part of your job?

"I really enjoyed working with a lot of people who set aside part of their land for wildlife management. In some cases they bought land especially for that. They were hunters themselves. They were wanting to improve the habitat for turkey and deer and for all kinds of wildlife. They were sincere about what they were doing."

Many people would consider yours to be the perfect job; why did you retire?

"I got injured, that's why I retired. That was in 1978. I was working with a trainee on the Gravois Arm, over Memorial Day weekend. I had just let him out of the boat with a person who was fishing without a license. He was pretty green on it and he wasn't getting the thing taken care of. So I had to pull in and take care of the situation for him.

"When we got ready to leave, the boat had accumulated a substantial amount of water in it - the water was so rough. So we tried to run that water out and we had it mostly run out. You know about draining a boat by pulling the plug? We'll I had him in the back and he wasn't familiar with that either, so I was watching him pretty closely, and I looked behind us and the yacht association was having their big parade that day and they were turning right at the mouth of Indian Creek, and here come these two huge waves where they had turned and the two run together and were heading right for the boat. I yelled at him to stay down - and he stood up! When that hit it threw him forward and he hit me with his shoulder in the middle of the back, and damaged my back pretty severely. You couldn't say it was any one person's fault; it was just one of those things that happened."

Looking back over your career, if you had to do it all over again, would you?

"Yes. I loved it. I loved being out; I loved talking to hunters and fishermen and working with the land owners. It was all enjoyable."

Max was 41 at the time of his injury. He underwent three surgeries, but the accident left him unable to walk. He went on to become a three-term Morgan County commissioner.

Text © 2010 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.>