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Rural Missouri Magazine

Wildwood Moments
Musicians and fans alike flock to a little-known Steelville lodge

by Bob McEowen

Guests enjoy a home-style meal in the dining hall of Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville. Good cooking has attracted visitors since 1922.

There’s a buzz of excitement in the buffet line as a young woman fills her plate with pan-fried chicken and visits with other diners. The conversation is light, mostly about home cooking, but those nearby hang on every word.

Although she is the guest of honor Rhonda Vincent waits until nearly everyone else has gone through the line before serving herself. In part, her delay is in deference to the other guests but also because she’s busy signing autographs in the lobby of Steelville’s Wildwood Springs Lodge.

Vincent is one of the biggest names in bluegrass music today. The mandolin player from Greentop, Mo., has appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Television but on this night in June, Vincent entertains about 150 die-hard fans at a little-known lodge on the outskirts of Steelville.

The occassion is the Rhonda Vincent Birthday Bash, a special concert at Wildwood, following a larger bluegrass show in Steelville the night before. In addition to sharing a meal with the artist, these fans enjoy a spirited set of bluegrass music performed in a casual atmosphere around Wildwood’s swimming pool. A few lucky guests even jammed with the band in the lobby.

For Bob Bell, manager and part-owner of the lodge, the Vincent concert was another “Wildwood moment,” one of many special events that mark the history of the resort.

A postcard shows Wildwood as it appeared in the 1920s.

“It’s a pretty magical place,” Bell says. “You never know what’s going to happen here.”

Modeled after a typical Adirondack Mountains inn, Wildwood opened in 1922, “built by the elite, for the elite,” Bell says. With a large octagon-shaped lobby and a long, elegant dining room, Wildwood was the last and grandest of numerous resorts that once dotted Crawford County.

Bell grew up across the road from Wildwood and spent his youth hanging out, mowing grass and helping however he could. The owners, Ben and Sonya Finkel, had no children so Bell became almost a surrogate son.

At that time, in the 1960s and ’70s, the lodge attracted families which spent summer vacations floating nearby streams and relaxing by the pool. The inn was known for its good food. So much so, that when their cook passed away the Finkels decided to close the lodge.

For 10 years Wildwood sat empty. Bell had keys to the place and stopped by to mow the grass or rake leaves. In the meantime he finished college and joined his brothers in the family business, manufacturing parts for the aviation industry.

In 1992 Bell’s family bought Wildwood. Keeping with tradition, they hired another good cook and began hosting guests from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“It was a dream I had,” Bell says. “I always thought it would be cool to have people come back and enjoy it. I just felt like it was important to let people have that opportunity.”

Recalling another tradition, Bell brought music back to Wildwood. In the ’20s the resort had its own orchestra. At least one regular performer, Gordon Jenkins, went on to fame as a songwriter and arranger, most notably for Frank Sinatra.

Bluegrass artist Rhonda Vincent and her band, The Rage, perform poolside at Wildwood. During the fall musicians perform in the hotel's lobby.

During the fall, Wildwood is open only on weekends for a unique series of concerts in the hotel’s lobby. This year’s line up of “living room concerts” includes bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice, acoustic bluesman John Hammond, folk artist Ritchie Havens, rocker Leon Russell, members of the ’70s group Poco and a performance by the folk-rock duo Brewer and Shipley.

Missouri natives Tom Shipley and Michael Brewer are regulars at Wildwood and represent the foundation of the hotel’s fall concert series.

In the mid ’80s — he’s not exactly sure when — Bell befriended Tom Shipley and invited the duo to play at the lodge. The concert was a disaster financially but Bell asked them back the next year, with the same result. A third try proved successful, thanks to fans who spread the world over the then-burgeoning Internet.

“The next thing I know people are calling from California and New York and Texas wanting to come,” Bell says. “We sold out two nights.”

The following year Bell added a performance by another friend, Johnny Johnson, Chuck Berry’s piano player and the inspiration for the rock and roll anthem “Johnny B. Goode.”

With his entire resource of music industry contacts exhausted Bell looked for ways to expand his musical offerings. He turned to Patti Donahoe-Fadden, who grew up in nearby Cuba. Patti’s Nashville company, Applause Entertainment, books acts for county fairs and concerts. It took Donahoe-Fadden’s connections to find musicians willing to perform for just 150-200 people in an old hotel lobby.

While Patti says some musicians relish the idea of playing in an intimate setting, others are merely looking for a break and a quiet place to unwind.

“Believe it or not, an important part of the gig is good food,” she says. “It’s a lot of fast food on the road so they really appreciate the cooking here.”

The 2003 Fall Concert Series
at Wildwood Springs Lodge

Aug. 31
Vassar Clements

Sept. 19 & 20
The Amazing Rhythm Aces

Sept. 26 & 27
John Hammond

Oct. 3& 4
Poco

Oct. 10 & 11
The Tony Rice Unit

Oct. 17 & 18
Brewer and Shipley

Oct. 24 & 25
Leon Russell

Oct. 31 & Nov. 1
Richie Havens

Like the summer guests who come to Wildwood to get away, these musicians enjoy the quite and solitude of the lodge where rooms lack phones or TV and bathrooms are down the hall.

Now in its fourth season, Wildwood’s fall concert series has hosted such diverse offerings as guitarist Leo Kottke, Starship (the present incarnation of the ‘60s rock group Jefferson Airplane) and banjo and fiddle player John Hartford, who played Wildwood shortly before his death in 2001. Other performances have featured members of the folk rock Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Pure Prairie League.

If there’s one thing in common about the musicians who perform at Wildwood, it’s the age of those who recognize their names.

“It’s called the Classics Series because you have to be 40, 45 to know who they are,” Bell says.

If these fans are nostalgic, they’re also faithful. Last year, Wildwood hosted guests from 27 states and two countries during the concert series. This year, five couples are traveling from Europe and Japan to see shows.

Together with Donahoe-Fadden, Bell also brings a series of bluegrass concerts to a Steelville music theater each summer. He says fans flock to Wildwood to see favorite artists in a setting far more personal than a typical concert stage or arena.

“You just have to see their eyes,” Bell says, attempting to describe the reaction of guests. “It’s pretty cool.”

Wildwood’s Fall Concert Series begins Aug. 31 with a performance by fiddler Vassar Clements. For more information call 1-800-554-3746 or log on to www.wildwoodspringslodge.com.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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