by Jason Jenkins
Sycamores sway as a light breeze gently coaxes cotton-candy clouds across a cerulean sky above Bull Shoals Lake, just a stone’s throw from the Arkansas line. Below the Highway 160 bridge, swallows dive and skim the water, banking sharply to avoid the anglers returning from their morning exploits. As the fishermen tie up at the marina and break for lunch, a family pulls away on a pontoon boat, ready for an afternoon of fun on the water.
It’s warm on this June day in Ozark County, but not nearly as hot as it was on June 14, 1952, when Bill Cook first gazed upon this valley. He was just 11 years old then, riding shotgun with his father, L.B. Cook, in a blue 1948 DeSoto four-door sedan.
“It just can’t be possible that it’s been 61 years, but here we are,” says Bill as he sits on a deck overlooking the lake. “I had no idea what we were getting into. I think Dad thought he knew, but he didn’t.”
Originally from Joplin, the Cook family operated a dry goods store on the corner of 15th and Main for more than 50 years. The store had been a dream for Bill’s grandfather — but not his father. An avid outdoorsman, L.B. dreamed of owning and operating a fishing camp. So in 1950, he rolled the dice and bid on a concessionaire contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was in the process of constructing the dam to create a new reservoir along the White River — Bulls Shoals. He won.
Six decades and five generations of the the Cook family later, the Theodosia Marina-Resort now stands as a testament to L.B.’s vision for tourism in rural Missouri, providing anglers and vacationers with a place to stay and play while visiting one of the state’s most beautiful lakes.
The early years
As L.B. and Bill came bouncing into Ozark County in that old DeSoto in 1952, the new lake hadn’t yet filled. The oil-and-chip rural highway led to a new bridge that wasn’t yet complete, its concrete piers awkwardly jutting above everything in the valley. And Theodosia? It didn’t exist either.
“The town on top of the hill was called Lutie back in those days. Theodosia was the site for the marina, but the original town of Theodosia got flooded out by the lake,” says Bill, a board member for White River Valley Electric Cooperative. “It was hard advertising a place that wasn’t on the map, so Dad and others got busy in the 1960s and got the name changed.”
The Cook’s contract with the Corps of Engineers — which L.B. won with a bid of $2,700 and a 10 percent cut of gross annual receipts — required him to build a restaurant, a motel and a boat dock. The only amenity provided by the Corps was one-seat pit toilet.
President Truman delivered the keynote address for the dedication of Bull Shoals Dam two-and-a-half weeks after L.B. and Bill arrived. For the first three months, father and son camped out under those swaying sycamore trees as they worked to build the first dock, which they constructed from full 2-inch-thick native oak timber and floated on steel drums.
“We finished up the office dock in about September,” says Bill, recalling that by fall, his mother and sister moved from Joplin to Lutie where the family rented a house. “We ordered a dozen Lone Star boats from Texas and Johnson outboard motors from Waukegan, Ill., and away we went.”
While the venture seemed to have an auspicious start, the Cooks were dealt several blows in quick succession. No sooner had the lake filled the cove in the spring of 1953 than the water started receding as a lengthy drought gripped the Midwest.
“The lake literally dried up, and there we were, our docks sitting on the bottom,” Bill says. “Finances got so bad, we had to move out of the house in Lutie and move into the 10-unit motel we built. We just couldn’t make the rent.”
Lake levels continued to drop through 1954, and the Cooks did their best to chase the water and customers downstream, but both were hard to find. Mother Nature finally turned the tap back on in the spring of 1955, and through the summer of 1956, both fishing and business were phenomenal.
Then, around Labor Day that year, the motel caught fire and burned to the ground. The Cooks rebuilt, only to have torrential rains fall throughout 1957 and cause Bull Shoals to reach maximum flood pool.
“So in the first five years, we had a drought, a flood and our first motel burned to the ground,” says Bill, shaking his head in disbelief. “How dumb we were to stay.”
Beyond L.B.’s fishing camp
In the early years, L.B. operated the little fishing camp of which he always dreamed. Most of the customers were men who came specifically to fish, especially for the largemouth and smallmouth bass for which Bull Shoals was gaining notoriety. The anglers didn’t ask for much: food, lodging and a boat.
“At one time, we had 75 rental boats, and on the weekends, we’d rent them all,” recalls Bill, who along with
his wife, Nadine, became partners in the business when they married in 1958. “Back in those days, everybody had an outboard, carried them in the trunk of the car. So they’d bring their motor and rent a boat from you for $2.50 a day.”
As the business grew, so too did the diversity of the clientele. No longer were they catering to solitary fishermen. Instead, entire families began vacationing during the summer, visiting to enjoy other lake activities.
“It’s not as much a fishing lake anymore. This is a boating lake,” says Bret Cook, one of Bill’s two sons who joined the family operation in the 1980s. “When I was a kid, our spring and fall were the business. Now, June, July and August are the big months.”
To accommodate guests, the Theodosia Marina-Resort offers a wide array of lodging choices, from motel-style rooms and an RV park to quaint cottages and the upscale Otter Creek Lodge, which boasts four bedrooms, two whirlpool tubs, a stone fireplace and a gorgeous lake view. All guests have access to the resort’s swimming pool and tennis and basketball courts.
Ben Cook, Bill’s other son, oversees the family’s sales and service department, which moved off-site following a flood in 2008. Back on the water, the marina provides services ranging from boat rentals and storage to a complete bait and tackle shop. More than 250 boats may be at the marina at one time. A new dock is being constructed this summer to cater to the boats that continue to get larger.
The biggest gathering spot, however, is the resort’s restaurant. While L.B. was required under his concessionaire’s agreement to build an eatery, it didn’t require him to run it. Operating a restaurant was too much like owning a dry goods store, so for many years, he leased it out to others. In the 1980s, Bill decided to bring all aspects of the resort under family management. They renamed the restaurant, “Cookie’s,” which was L.B.’s nickname.
Most days, you’ll find Melanie Cook, Bret’s wife, overseeing a staff that serves three meals a day during the peak summertime season. Vacationers and locals alike enjoy the wide array of homemade favorites, including fried chicken, country-fried steak and the Friday night special, prime rib. Also popular are the wide assortment of made-from-scratch desserts, including pies, cakes and cheesecake.
Melanie says the family always looks for ways to improve the guest experience. For example, the resort added free Wi-Fi service a few years ago, and the pool area was recently renovated. She says plans are in the works for updating the motel and cottages with more of the modern conveniences travelers have come to expect.
“This is a super lake, one of Missouri’s hidden treasures,” says Larry Fuller of St. Louis. “And here at the resort, you’ve got it all. Hotel, restaurant, marina — and you can’t meet nicer people.”
Larry and his wife, Betty, began coming to Theodosia in the 1960s for fishing and family vacations, and today, they still visit five or six times a year. Larry enjoys bass fishing, and the marina has hosted his union’s fishing tournament for many years. “Every year, I ask the guys where they want to go, and they always want to come here. It’s just so peaceful and quiet.”
Today, Bret and Melanie’s son and daughter-in-law, Mitchell and LaTasha, are the fourth generation of the Cook family to work at the resort. The young couple has full-time jobs elsewhere, but they pitch in during the summer and on weekends. Their daughter, 12-month-old Kentlee, represents the fifth generation to call Theodosia home.
L.B. passed away in 2002, but his legacy is sure to last well into the 21st century.
“Being in business all his life, Dad’s big lesson was take care of your customers and they’ll take care of you,” Bill says. “That’s been our motto around here, and it’s worked out pretty well.”
Published in Rural Missouri, July 2013.