Illinois native Bob Frakes has compiled a lifetime of information he gathered on Missouri fire lookout towers into a book: “Remembering Missouri’s Lookout Towers – A Place Above The Trees,” now available at wordsmatterpublishing.com and also soon to be found on Amazon.
Frakes’ fascination with the lookout towers began as a child with the Mudlick Tower in the Piedmont/Clearwater Lake areas near his grandparent’s farm, where he usually spent the summer.
He found the idea of climbing high over the tree tops where the view of the Ozark hills was unencumbered fascinating, and spent 50 years gathering information on the lookout towers, including photos and histories.
The towers, mainly constructed on land managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation and U.S. Forest Service, were manned during fire season and during droughts so fires could be seen, located and put out quickly. A fire spotting device, sometimes used in conjunction with observations from other towers, was used to pinpoint fires and dispatch firefighters from miles away.
At one time there were about 200 towers in use on private, Missouri Conservation Department and federal land, built between 1926 and the mid-1960s.
Frakes gathered information on many Ozarks towers during canoeing trips in the West Plains and Willow Springs areas. Two of the towers are located off of west U.S. 160 just west of West Plains and at Brandsville, visible from south U.S. 63.
For his research, he also conducted interviews with those that lived near or at towers and Forest Service and Conservation Department officials. Frakes’ book includes historical information on the Missouri Department of Conservation and contributions from friends with fond memories of fire towers.
The primary towers are about 100 feet tall, sometimes 120 feet, and secondary towers are usually about 50 feet tall. Frakes says he has visited almost every standing tower in Missouri, and a map of lookout towers and their current status may be found at tinyurl.com/mofiretowers.
Usually the secondary towers were only manned during the dry season, Frakes says. Primary towers might have a cabin on the property for the fire spotter and their family to live in, and some of the structures perched on top of the towers, called “cabs,” were only about 7 feet by 7 feet and meant to be lived in for short periods, but didn’t even have a bathroom in them, Frakes said.
They usually did have some type of heat, though, even a small coal fireplace, he added.
There are still about 65 towers in Missouri, 55 of those on Conservation land and, of those, about 15 or 20 are still active.
The prevalence of cell phones has made them less of a necessity, Frakes explained, but, he maintains, the appeal of climbing above the trees endures.