From National Destination to Outdoor Lab

Explore Pertle Springs for Research, Recreation

By Laurie Luckritz, '18, '21

Pertle Resort

Pertle Springs has been a staple of Warrensburg since its founding in the late 19th century. Originally a resort with lodging, boating, a zoo, a zipline and more, it has since become a golf course, nature retreat, recreational hot spot and outdoor laboratory for students across disciplines at the University of Central Missouri.

 

Putting Pertle on the Map

William Purtle originally owned the 280 acres of tallgrass prairie, and the first lake was dug out in 1869. The property was purchased in 1884 by J.H. Christopher, known as “the Colonel” for being a stern businessman. Christopher came from a progressive family and brought electricity and public water to the town of Warrensburg.

Opening in 1886, the resort was as popular then as Lake of the Ozarks is today. The Colonel decided that “Pertle” spelled with an “e” looked better than “Purtle” on signs for the resort. He wasted no time bringing in exotic plants, peacocks, a fox island, monkeys and the beloved Katy Bear, whose cave still sits near the springhouse today. He bottled and sold the mineral-rich spring water thought to have healing qualities.

Pertle Colonel

J.H. Christopher, far left, and his family

More than 100 buildings were constructed, and a total of 11 lakes were created with canals and overflow pools. These improvements provided plenty of space for boating, swimming, fishing, picnicking, a gymnastics hall, a bowling alley and live performances.

Jeff Yelton, associate professor of anthropology at UCM, has been excavating Pertle Springs with his students since the early 2000s.

“At some of the Fourth of July events they would have more people out there than there were actually living in Warrensburg,” Yelton says, noting that the resort saw upward of 5,000 people visiting on busy days.

Privately owned cottages and tents could be rented and purchased on resort land. The hotel was named Minnewawa, meaning “healing waters,” and could accommodate 300 guests. There was a 20-foot bridge connecting the hotel to the 3,500-capacity auditorium. In 1889 the Colonel built the “dummy line” connecting traffic from the Warrensburg railroad on Holden Street to the Pertle Springs resort. At its peak, the dummy line saw approximately 30 trips with 8,000 visitors per day and had three cars with each being able to fit 70 passengers.

Visitors, performers and speakers would come from all over the nation, buying train tickets to Warrensburg from as far away as New York City. Some of the largest events held at Pertle Springs included Missouri’s first Chautauqua assembly, the Missouri Democratic Convention of 1895 and a convention of Dunkards, a forerunner of the German Baptist Brethren, that attracted more than 20,000 attendees.

Dummy Line Pertle People

Once automobile ownership became common and radio made it possible to disseminate information more conveniently without conventions, visitors began to dwindle until the dummy line closed and the hotel shut down, burning to the ground in 1926.

When unemployment was at a national high in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which brought an average of 150 military veterans from World War I and the Spanish American War to Pertle Springs. Members of Company 1771-V lived on-site in housing they built while working on projects to prevent soil erosion. Many of the veterans made Warrensburg their home after the program ended.

 

Destination Exploration

UCM acquired Pertle Springs in 1959, when it was nothing more than pastureland with a few white oaks providing shade for cattle. The university built a golf course in 1964, followed by the Pertle Springs Aquatic Center in 1972. The property became a valuable recreational facility and outdoor learning lab.

Pertle Golf 9 Hole

In the 1970s, UCM student groups met at Pertle Springs, including the Recreation Club, later called the Recreation Majors Society, which took regular field trips and hosted events for student engagement. The Outing Club went camping, caving, rock climbing and hosted cookouts. Beth (Fenner) Rutt, ’78, ’83, director of Campus Activities at UCM, remembers her time in the club.

“We would go on canoe trips, we would camp, and the students were engaged in a lot of outdoor activity,” Rutt says. “It’s such a unique piece of property to be right in the middle of your community, and students can walk there in 15 minutes. Where else can you go and have four hiking trails and fishing?”

In 2000 a research initiative called the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory was created under the nonprofit Discover Life in America with the purpose of attempting to inventory all life forms in national parks. UCM Professor Emeritus Harold W. Keller conducted training at Pertle Springs with a professional arborist teaching a double-rope climbing method to prepare students to access “tree canopies” and search for life forms on the bark.

A National Science Foundation Research Experience for Teachers Program grant allowed Trish Smith, ’91, ’98, to bring her seventh grade Warrensburg Middle School students to Pertle Springs in 2004 to collect tree bark and identify life forms on the samples. That year Smith accompanied UCM students, Keller and other faculty members, including Professor Emeritus Stephen Wilson and associate professor Joe Ely, on a research trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wilson, an entomologist, regularly took students to Pertle Springs to study and collect insects, including a rarely collected aquatic grasshopper in Draper Lake.

“It’s a marvelous place,” says Wilson, noting that Pertle Springs has been the site of numerous student research projects. “Knob Noster is a great state park, but you have to drive out there and back. Furthermore, you can’t collect out there, so Pertle Springs is perfect for that.”

Fishing Pertle

 

Exploratory Laboratory

Today, UCM continues to access Pertle Springs for educational endeavors across content areas. Community outreach has helped extend the impact of this outdoor research laboratory.

In 2019, Anthropology Day at Pertle Springs included events such as fire starting, flint knapping and throwing atlatl, a spearlike weapon. Gabriel Pottebaum, an anthropology student, has been atlatl throwing since he was a boy and always wanted to study ancient people. He completed his Archaeology Field School experience at Pertle Springs in the summer of 2019.

“It was extremely exciting to do actual research at an actual site where you will find artifacts and where your findings will contribute toward the information that we know about the place,” Pottebaum says. “It’s a really validating experience.”

Anthropology alumni like Amber Clarkson, ’20, who had the opportunity to attend both Archaeology Field School and Anthropology Day in 2019, learned techniques that have helped her in her graduate studies at Eastern New Mexico University.

“I learned about making a test pit, actually using the tools and a sifter,” Clarkson says. “I also learned a lot about glass bottles and ceramics.”

Clubs in the sciences at UCM today include the Wildlife Society, which has held an annual community event since 2002 called BioBlitz, where biology professors and students bring microscopes, insect nets, animal traps and live animals — including snakes, turtles, salamanders, butterflies, mice and birds — to educate the public.

Pertle Lizards and Snake

Kieran Payne, a biology student, took UCM’s Wildlife Diseases course, which simulated a mortality event for birds at Pertle Springs. He completed trial runs for his undergraduate research project there, studying whether native prey species would respond to the scent of predators who were both familiar today and those like wolves, who have not lived in the area for many years.

“We found that they recognized any predator scent as a potential threat,” Payne says. “Even if they never encountered that predator.”

 

Back to the Future

The Pertle Springs Enhancement Project aims to bring more students and visitors to the area. This year the university invested in a new ADAaccessible pavilion, electricity and a restroom, making outdoor classrooms a practical option for professors. There is also an observatory for studying astronomy.

“It’s just really a gem,” says Rutt, who has been at the forefront of the renovations. “Now, Pertle has a lot more to offer.”

Several improvement projects have been completed in recent years, thanks to efforts by Eagle Scouts like Marcus Tart, who helped build three benches on the trails at Pertle Springs as his Eagle Scout Service Project.

“As a family we go on a lot of walks on the trails back there,” Tart says. “It was funded by the university, so we didn’t have to go out and do fundraising.”

UCM has upheld the traditions of outdoor recreational learning and created new opportunities. Community members can adopt a trail at Pertle Springs and participate in upcoming fishing courses that UCM is hosting in collaboration with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Projects like upgrading benches, grills and fire pits — along with new trails and docks — are in the works. Opportunities abound at Pertle Springs as UCM heads into the next 150 years.

Pertle People

Source of photos and info: The State Historical Society of Missouri, Johnson County Historical Society and the McClure Archives and University Museum

 

 

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