Missouri Howell is a well-known outdoorman, blogger, and social media personality from the great Show-Me-State. Recently, he's backpacked the Ice Age Trail, traveled Arch 2 Arch for the National Parks hundredth birthday, and explored portions of Utah during the 2016 Uintas Hike. In 2014, he was kind enough to share a personal story about his time in the Ozarks for my yearly "Tales of Backcountry Terror" that I feature during Halloween, and this year, he's back with yet another story about the Ozark region. Be sure to check out his website, or his social media channels after reading the story to see more of his great content!
About three years ago, a man and his son went camping. Because it was a weekday night, they had the Bixby State Conservation Area campground all to themselves. They did what campers normally do: pitch their tent, take a walk to the creek, cook dinner, make a campfire, and so on. As the temperature began to drop and the stars came out, they settled into their tent and fell asleep.
In the morning, the man woke up alone. The boy was gone. And although he had been sleeping right next to his father, nothing had roused the man. He looked feverishly for his son that morning, as any father would. The police were called. The conservation agents arrived. Since the disappearance, the authorities have taken numerous statements, volunteers have combed the area repeatedly, and the locals papers snooped as best they could. The boy vanished into thin air.
That was awhile ago, and the story has somewhat run its course. People in the area try not to discuss it much, the volunteers don’t come out and search anymore, the police couldn’t charge anyone with a crime, and the papers moved onto other stories.
I took interest in the disappearance not long ago. My grandmother still lives in the county where it occurred, and on one of my numerous visits, I asked her about the boy. She seemed reserved to answer, and gave a hesitant response. But she muttered something under her breath that piqued my interest. She said there’d always been problems at Bixby. And that’s when I started digging…
The town was good sized back in the 1920s - at least by Ozark standards. It was big enough to be on the official Department of Transportation state map, but small enough that most people unwittingly traveled right past. The closest train station was six miles away. Like most small Ozark villages, it sat somewhat hidden in a valley on fertile soil, surrounded by ample hardwood forests. The clear Bur Oak Creek flowed nearby. It entered the Glades Creek about a mile away, which emptied into the larger Gasconade River a few miles further. At its most bustling, it was called home by about 350 people.
Bixby was a closely-knit town. Like many other villages around the turn of the century, it adopted its name from its largest employer: the Bixby Ironworks. The ironworks employed more than half the people who lived there; way more, actually. It was located about a two miles from town, situated in a secluded area, but still close to the natural resources needed to keep an iron furnace on blast. For more than twenty years, the ironworks converted plenty of ore. The finished products were hauled overland to the next town’s train depot, where it was shipped to Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago.
The disappearances began about that time. A competing foundry a couple of counties away is often blamed for the death of Bixby, but locals know the exodus began when the kids started disappearing. The other ironworks was a convenient way to avoid what was inconvenient to talk about. Over a four year span, at least seven children vanished in Bixby. Back then, only the local police looked into it, and the little town was too far away from the cities to make news in the big papers…and news traveled slowly back then.
These kids disappeared without a trace; gone from their beds in the middle of the night. Everyone knew everyone else in Bixby. They all attended the same church, worked the same fields, shopped the same shops. Everyone…and yet no one, was excluded from suspicion. That skepticism finally killed Bixby. People began moving; finding better jobs in the cities or at the next closest ironworks or mine. In time, Bixby vanished, too.
If you visit the Bixby area these days, you’ll find the the Ozarks have reclaimed much of the town. The ruins of the smelter’s large chimney are still there, and they are easy to find. It’s more difficult to find foundations, stone walls, and fruit cellars. You can locate them if you look hard enough, but you’ll have to fight through the alligatorweed and briars to get to them. Bur Oak Creek still flows the same course, and it’s as crystal clear as ever.
The state Conservation Department manages the land nowadays. On the maps, it’s called the Bixby State Conservation Area. There are a few unmaintained hiking trails through the area - mostly used by hunters and ATV riders. Fishing is allowed in Bur Oak and Glades Creek, and both have canoe access. And, there’s a campground near where Bixby once was. Camping is only allowed from October to March, but the area is nice and flat, perfectly suited for Ozark camping.
In the early 1950’s, a few boys were exploring the area along Glades Creek. Doing things boys normally do: finding swimming holes, looking for snakes, and engaging in horseplay. What they didn’t expect to find was a series of caves along the bluffs of the creek. These caves were well-hidden behind a drapery of sycamores, cottonwoods and vines. And they were difficult to reach, a steep vertical scramble was required to reach them. Of course, if anyone could reach them, it would be a group of determined boys.
The first two caves were shallow by Ozark standards - just deep enough for a camp if you needed to get out of the rain. No corridors ran from the main cave. There were no signs anyone had found these caves before. The last cave was bigger, and sat a hundred yards below an abandoned mill house. The cave entrance was as tall as two grown men. And it had passages that led to rooms. It also had bats, which didn’t do much to discourage the boys’ sense of adventure. They left, and returned with a lantern so as to explore deeper.
Deep in the cave, in the last room they found, the boys discovered bones. Some bones were in piles. Others seemed to be half buried in the cave floor. All of them were human, and all of them were small.
Well, the boys reported what they had found to their parents, and as you can imagine the papers wrote stories and the county authorities investigated. No one doubted the bones were those of the Bixby kids who had disappeared 25 years earlier. Of course, no one could figure out who was responsible for the deaths, much less what had exactly happened to those kids, or why they disappeared. Theories ranged from the Ozark Howler to a recluse who had lived in the mill house at the time. Nothing could be proved. All that was known was they died in that cave.
Not long after the remains were found, the Conservation Department erected a huge fence across the opening of the big cave. The official reason for it was that the bats inside were susceptible to a bat disease. No one - other than conservation agents - would enter that cave for another fifty years.
It’s amazing how soon people can forget things. When the boy who was camping with his dad disappeared three years ago, no one outside the area seemed to remember the story of the Bixby kids. The few people who still lived - and were still alive - in that part of the county said nothing of it, perhaps hoping to keep those memories buried. I even went to the Conservation Department and asked about the cave. Not a single person had been inside it in five years. Odd, considering there’s a bat disease on the loose. You’d think they’d want to check on the bats.
So I checked.
For the past couple of months my daughter and I have been camping at the Bixby Conservation Area campground. It’s located about 400 yards upstream from the “Bat Cave,” so it’s pretty convenient. We shared the campground with other campers the first two times we visited. We camped solo on two other occasions. Nothing seemed out of sorts. On two separate trips, I woke up in the middle of the night and visited the cave. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. No other campers had any problems.
Last weekend, I woke up and saw something new: a light in the distance from the direction of the cave. I walked towards it. The night was crisp and leaves had fallen on the wet ground. As I neared the cave, the light was almost immediately overhead, and I could see it was coming from an old house. An old mill house had sat above a small stream that dumped into Glades Creek just past the cave. It was 50 yards further and 50 feet above me.
I finally made too much noise. It could’ve been the leaves, or the gravel in the creek, but my footsteps became too noisy. The light went out. I stopped. The cave was just behind me, somewhere off to my left. I couldn’t see it. I heard something behind me.
It was my daughter.
She had gotten out of her sleeping bag. She left the tent. And now she was walking through knee-deep water…heading for the cave. With my flashlight directed at her, I called out and got no response. She was trance-like. She continued through the water as if she knew exactly where she was going. I began to run, and got to her just as she reached the gravel bar below the cave. I really didn’t know what to do, so I just picked her up and hustled toward the car. She made no sounds the entire time. Within ten minutes, I had broken camp and was on the road; my daughter safely in the passenger seat. By the time we reached the interstate, she was asleep. In the morning she didn’t recall her midnight hike at all.
The following Monday, I contacted the local conservation agent and talked my way into getting into the cave. Sure enough…bones in the deepest chamber. There were no other signs of human activity in the cave. This time, the state was able to identify them as belonging to the young boy from three years ago. According to the state, the cave had been locked for at least twenty years, with no one in it for the last five. They were wrong. Someone had been in it. They simply locked it back up. The old mill house was empty, too, except for a old doll. They didn’t lock it up.
The campground is still open at Bixby - under the sycamores along the banks of Bur Oak Creek.