Old fire towers get new life

(Editor’s note: This is the third of a four-part series about fire towers in Missouri.)

There are a handful of lookout towers that are in a category of their own. These are towers that have been purchased and moved for a variety of reasons.

They may make a good deer stand or TV reception, but there seems to be a pinch of “tower love” in all these recipes.

Larry Newton in the cab of the Goodman Tower he purchased for $8,000.

I first became more aware of the purchased tower angle a few years ago as my wife and I drove into Montauk Park for “catch & release.” Just west of Ellsinore, my wife noticed a lookout tower sitting in the field.

Although aware that no tower had ever officially stood there, I was also aware she has a much better “tower eye” than I do. We circled around and there it was.

We headed for the nearest restaurant, always the place to get the story. We were told it was the Grassy Tower, from near Grassy, and had been moved there for a deer stand and since sold. I noted the information and took a picture and headed for Montauk.

Just this summer I became aware of other private towers and thought it would make a good story.

So, I contacted Richard Brown, of Ellsinore, who had helped me find the Brushy Creek site. Now, it seems the tower was originally moved by one fellow but Raymond McGarrity owns it presently.

Richard Brown was able to stir up a phone number and I talked to Raymond on the phone. He verified the information and added the tower may be on the move again to north of Ellsinore, and he plans on putting the bottom 30 feet back on it. It is now the Grassy/McGarrity Tower, I suppose.

Then, this summer I was writing some tower articles for the Reynolds County Courier. I received a contact from Dewayne Botkin in Centerville. He told me he could locate the Jay Tower for me — it was in his backyard! He even invited my wife and I by for a visit, which we did. The Botkins were very nice people to meet.

Now, at one time this Jay Tower stood at the entrance to the Fletcher Mine & Mill. It stood there as a 50 foot or so “windmill” style USFS tower. This style was derived from an Aermotor windmill with the windmill removed and replaced with an observation walkway. These towers were very popular to provide specific coverage to areas that other towers could not cover.

The common practice when both state and federal towers were to be removed, they were put up for auction with one stipulation – the buyer had to remove the tower.

It seems Dewayne Botkin’s Father, Pete, won the auction with the intent of having the best TV reception in Centerville. Dewayne tells the story that his dad climbed the tower and attached a cable before undoing the bolts at the base. He then pulled quickly forward, pulling the tower over and the end of the truck right off the ground.

Little damage occurred to the tower, so it was moved to Centerville by Pete Botkin and put right back up with only some help by crane.

Although no longer needed for TV reception, the tower still rises over downtown Centerville – a testament to Pete Botkin’s ingenuity. Dewayne notes and nobody could argue, “There wasn’t much he could not do.”

The Botkin house recently went up for sale. Dewayne notes the Jay/Botkin Tower is included in the price.

Within just a few days of finding this tower still up, I  came across some papers mentioning the sale and movement of the Goodman Tower. This article even mentioned the new owner, Larry Newton.

It mentioned the tower was not moved very far and as I Googled the area, there it was! Another tower not gone, just moved.

First, the backstory. In the mid 1940’s the Missouri Conservation Commission purchased 40 acres near Goodman for a tower site. This was to be a “primary” tower with a permanent presence. This fire detection work would involve a 60-foot wooden tower which stood at the site for several decades. In the mid 60’s a new 120-foot steel tower was erected to replace the wooden structure.

Now, several stories exist as to where this tower came from. One has the Goodman Tower being one of four that came from Daggett, Mich. The one 120-footer and three 80-footers cost $1 each but, you had to move them.

One story has the 120-footer coming to the Goodman site. However, Jim Parker, who was the “go-to guy” on the top team in Missouri, says that is not true. Since he traveled to Daggett to take the towers apart, he ought to know. A little tower mystery never hurt anything.

What we do know is that in 2005 the MDC (Missouri Department of Conservation) offered the tower up for bids. Of the hundreds of towers that once stood, only around 70 remain up. The prevailing opinion became there were other, cheaper ways to provide fire coverage, although that idea has come into question in recent years.

Be that as it may, Larry Newton decided he did not want the Goodman Tower to vanish and so when bidding was opened up, he submitted a bid that he thought would be a winner – and it was!

In reality, he withdrew and resubmitted bids when he became concerned he might not come out on top. When the bids were opened, he had become the new owner for a little over $8,000. Larry is a retired math teacher and administrator but must have a little “history teacher” in him. He says he “just couldn’t stand to see it go.”

Now came the hard part. The purchase stipulated the tower had to be moved. Larry soon found he was not alone in his wish to see the tower remain standing and was able to call in several who shared his view.

Ken and Don Ruby would help with the “take apart” and “back together.” Marshall Long would work on the footings or piers. These have to not only be level, but spaced at an exact distance. Carson Bunch would work on the electric hookup and Colt Wise would help give it a fresh coat of paint. S&S Erectors would handle the crane duties.

The tower is a 120-foot Aermotor MC-39 or IDM clone. It may well be the most popular design of all time (more on tower designs in an upcoming article). The 160 steps are the standard for this model.

Following the setting of the footings and base, the rest of the tower was taken down in 10 sections. It was just a matter, Larry notes, of lining up the holes with a tool and bolting the sections together. He noted the great condition of the original bolts and the tower in general.

Galvanized steel is indeed tough stuff. The tower is stamped, by the way, with “Bethlehem” for the steel works there in Pennsylvania where the pieces came from originally.

Larry added he would “do it again in a second.” He has never hesitated in his belief that he seized a very rare opportunity.

There were once hundreds of “forest lookout towers”across Missouri. About 70 or so remain today. They go on sale now and then. Every now and then the site and tower are sold as-is, but usually the tower has to be moved.

If interested, keep your eyes open and you, like Larry, may be able to make an interesting purchase and keep a part of history alive.

I enjoyed my tower visit with Larry. After 50 years of my tower hobby, the climb has gotten a little harder, but I made it.

As I always say, “towering” is lots of fun but the real joy is meeting the “tower people” of Missouri.

(Part four of this series on Missouri fire towers will appear in the July 27 issue of The News-Dispatch. Questions or comments? Bob Frakes can be reached by email at frakes2@mvn.net or by phone at 618-244-1642.)

 

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