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Park with a strange name features nature, recreation and a castle

You never know who you'll run into when you hang out at a castle in a place with a funny name.

We're at Ha Ha Tonka State Park at the Lake of the Ozarks when we meet Lucas Long and Emily Edwards. And their Boston terrier, He-Man. All three are Kansas Citians, here for a couple of days of vacation. Long is in a band. And the name of his band is ... Ha Ha Tonka.

Absolutely true.

The indie rock band was, until quite recently, known as Amsterband. But when Amsterband signed with a label in Chicago, a name change was suggested. Apparently the "Amster" field is crowded. Because three of the four bandmates are from the Ozarks (West Plains, Mo.), they were familiar with the ha-ha park. So they co-opted the name for their own purposes.

Ha Ha Tonka State Park, near Camdenton, includes 3,763 acres of natural beauty - and a Scottish-style castle. We're talking three floors and some three dozen rooms, including 16 bedrooms and six baths. Built in the early 20th century by a Kansas City businessman, the mansion and nearby stables went up in flames in the 1940s. But the castle's sandstone walls were built to last, and they have. The ruins are the park's chief attraction.

Long, 27, eyes the castle's interior through an arched opening. "The basement looks like it would've been sweet," he says. "It's massive - way bigger than I thought it would be."

Edwards, 25, figured the place wouldn't live up to its billing. But "it really is a castle," she says.

Well, the shell of a castle: exterior walls, some interior ones, even fireplaces. And a grass floor. Nearby, parts of the stable walls still stand. And, about 1,000 feet away, an old water tower.

"You can just see life going by back then," says Roberta Nolan of St. Joseph, who comes through a few minutes later with her cousin Patricia Harrison and Harrison's grandson, Nathen Taylor.

"It's majestic. The man - he had money, that's all I can say. And taste."

The man was Robert McClure Snyder of Kansas City. Snyder, a fellow of humble roots who made his money in real estate, utilities, banking and other interests, fell in love with Ha Ha Tonka - home to a big spring, a natural bridge, caves, sinkholes, a savanna - on hunting trips. (Ha Ha Tonka, once known as Gunter, was a small community with its own Main Street, schoolhouse and hotel; an old post office in the park dates to the 1880s.)

Snyder bought about 5,400 acres of "our great park at Ha Ha Tonka," as a newspaper called it back then, and immediately started building roads and making other improvements. He also vowed to erect a castle on a bluff above Ha Ha Tonka Spring. His plan: "I will fish and loaf and explore the caves of these hills, with no fear of intrusion."

Work on his mansion, made of native sandstone quarried nearby and hauled to the site by a miniature railway, got under way in 1905. It reportedly took 100 stonemasons, imported from Scotland, a year and a half to build what was then a $300,000 home.

Local laborers, who would return home each evening to cabins with dirt floors, marveled at what they were building. The first floor alone, it's thought, contained not only a grand entrance hall but also east and west parlors, a game room, kitchen, dining room and sun porch.

But Snyder never got to live in his fairy-tale castle. In 1906 the 54-year-old captain of industry died in one of Missouri's first automobile accidents, on Independence Avenue in KC not far from his home.

The castle's exterior was soon completed, but the mansion sat empty and its interior unfinished for years. By 1922 work had resumed and, once the third-floor bedrooms were ready, Snyder's three sons started making occasional visits. But the family never lived there full time.

When the castle burned in October 1942, it was being operated as a hotel.

The cause of the blaze was sparks from a chimney that caught the roof on fire and soon spread to the nearby stables. The elder Snyder had planned a slate roof for his country home, but his sons decided a wood roof was good enough. (They cut costs in other ways, too; the mansion ended up being furnished quite simply.) A fire protection system was in place - big hoses on each floor - but water pressure from the tower was insufficient.

Ha Ha Tonka's visitor center has pictures of the house consumed by flames. A valiant bucket brigade of hundreds of people couldn't do much.

Park superintendent Nancy Masterson has heard visitors cluck about what a shame that fire 65 years ago was. But "if it hadn't burned, we wouldn't be here," Masterson says. "It'd be some rich person's estate." Or luxury condos.

From about the mid-1960s until 1978, when Ha Ha Tonka became a state park, the castle ruins and the rest of Snyder's property were essentially under the authority of no one, Masterson says. Then, as now, folks would travel here to fish or hike or picnic.

Or take a piece of castle home with them. "People were just carrying those stones out of here like crazy," remembers John Shumate, who lives in rural Lebanon, Mo. On one hand, locals kept a protective eye on Ha Ha Tonka during its no-man's-land phase. On the other, Masterson says, some of them have patios made from Snyder's sandstone.

Calls for Ha Ha Tonka to become a state park started as early as 1909. Over the years private development plans never gelled. One proposal was to turn the area into a resort like the Lodge of Four Seasons, Masterson says. Rumor had it that the Walt Disney Co. was interested in the property.

Eventually, "the fates just kind of all came together," Masterson says, and the state got itself a spectacular new park, a showcase of what's called karst geology. The natural bridge is 70 feet wide, more than 100 feet high and spans 60 feet. There's a huge sinkhole called the Colosseum. Counterfeiter's Cave and Robber's Cave were used as hideouts by bad guys in the 1830s. Ha Ha Tonka Spring, which once fed Ha Ha Tonka Lake (since overrun by the Niangua River arm of the Lake of the Ozarks, built in the early 1930s), churns out about 48 million gallons of water a day.

Over the nearly three decades of state control, the park has added land and improvements such as paved roads, hiking trails, picnic shelters, boat docks and the visitor center. There are 13 trails, the newest of which is the half-mile Dolomite Rock Trail along a stream. It was developed three years ago by alternative-school students. If you really want to rough it, backpack overnight along the five- or seven-mile Turkey Pen Hollow Trail.

If you're not into hiking but just want to see the castle, no worries - it's a short walk from a parking lot (look for the castle icon on signs).

Speaking of improvements, the ruins of the castle, stables and water tower (which suffered a fire in 1976) have been stabilized and remortared over the years. They're here to stay.

And by the way, once you've spent a few minutes admiring the castle, take a few steps to the scenic lookout and imagine yourself a king or queen looking out over your wild kingdom. Is that a heron on the opposite shore of the lake? Is that gurgling sound the spring?

"What draws (visitors) here is the castle," Masterson says. "But what we hope to impart is the story of the land and the wonderful diversity of plants and animals." That, after all, is what attracted a Kansas City tycoon, a man who never got to enjoy the view from the castle he built.

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ORIGIN OF A NAME

Legend has it that "Ha Ha Tonka" translates to "Laughing Waters," but that's, well, laughable.

We do know that the name is some form of what the Osage Indians called the area. It might have been known as Ha Ha Tonka (sometimes written Hahatonka) in 1801-02, when Daniel Boone was on the scene trapping beaver. Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, came through soon after.

When Ha Ha Tonka was dedicated as a state park in the late 1970s, an Osage chief said he didn't know what "Ha Ha Tonka" would translate to, park superintendent Nancy Masterson says.

She says "Tonka" means "The Great Spirit" or "The Great One." Something sounding like "Wa Tonka" is "the earth people." A loose translation of "Ha Ha Tonka" could be "The Great Spring," Masterson says.

Another theory is broached in a history of Ha Ha Tonka published by the Camden County Historical Society, which reported that "Ha" means "ready" and "tonga" means large. Hence "large readiness" - a village of five lodges that could react quickly to any enemy from the south.

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IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: Ha Ha Tonka State Park is about 165 miles southeast of Kansas City, about five miles southwest of Camdenton. One route from Kansas City: Take Interstate 70 east to U.S. 65 south. Stay on U.S. 65 about 75 miles to Preston. Turn left, or east, on U.S. 54 and continue about 30 miles. After crossing the U.S. 54 bridge over the Niangua arm of the Lake of the Ozarks, turn right onto Route D, which leads into the park. The address is 1491 State Road D, Camdenton.

From Osage Beach, go west on U.S. 54 through Camdenton to Route D. Go left on D to the park entrance.

WHERE TO STAY: Overnight camping in Ha Ha Tonka State Park is allowed only for backpackers along the rugged Turkey Pen Hollow Trail. Backpacker rules apply - no fire. Among choices for other accommodations:

Baymont Inn & Suites, 3501 Bagnell Dam Blvd., Lake Ozark. Free breakfast, wi-fi access in rooms. Rooms from $89. 573-365-2700, baymontinns.com.

Holiday Inn Express, 4533 U.S. 54, Osage Beach. Complimentary breakfast. Rooms from $95. 573-302-0330, HIExpress.com.

The Lodge of Four Seasons, Horseshoe Bend Parkway, Lake Ozark. Resort with two championship golf courses, spa, marina. Rooms from $125. Two- and three-bedroom condos, too. 1-888-265-5500, www.4seasonsresort.com.

Tan-Tar-A, State Road KK, Osage Beach. Resort with two golf courses, spa, marina, indoor water park. Rooms from $119; for two-night stay, $109 a night. On some dates, three-night special from $100/night. 573-348-3131, tan-tar-a.com.

WHERE TO EAT:

Many choices, including:

El Jimador, 5256 U.S. 54, Osage Beach. Mexican fare such as chili verde ($8.99) and Santa Fe chicken ($8.25). $5.25 lunch specials seven days a week. 573-348-4287.

Wobbly Boots BBQ, 5203 U.S. 54, Osage Beach. Pork spareribs (full slab, $19.99; half, $12.99), chicken dinner ($10.99), fried catfish ($13.99), beef sandwich ($6.99). 573-348-2277.

C.J.'s Home Style Cooking, 275 West U.S. 54, Camdenton. Diner-style eatery with daily specials such as fried chicken, potato, vegetable and soup/salad for $6.25. 573-346-6133.

J. Bruner's, 5166 U.S. 54, Osage Beach. Prime rib ($25, Friday-Saturday only), lobster tail ($45), rainbow trout ($20), chicken pasta ($16). Dinner only; reservations recommended. 573-348-2966, jbruners.com.

TO LEARN MORE:

Ha Ha Tonka State Park: 573-346-2986, mostateparks.com/hahatonka.htm.

Lake of the Ozarks State Park: 573-348-2694, mostateparks.com/ lakeozark.htm. Missouri's largest state park, about 20 miles from Ha Ha Tonka.

Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitor Bureau: 800-FUNLAKE (386-5253), funlake.com.

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