HIGBEE — John and Tonya Perry began looking for a place to hold their wedding last winter, but finding a location within their budget was a challenge.
"Everybody wants that fairy-tale wedding," Tonya Perry said. "For couples paying for it on their own dime, it's almost impossible."
Searching online, she discovered Murphy Lakes close to the Hungry Mother Conservation Area in Howard County. Digging into the website, she realized the lakeside property — and its affordable package price — would be perfect for the wedding.
In March, they were married in the dance hall.
"We liked the idea of having the lake in the backdrop in a quiet setting," she said.
The quiet setting is what attracted Rob Alongi to Murphy Lakes 16 years ago.
"I was just looking for property with a lake," said Alongi, who runs a property management business in Columbia. "I spent seven years looking before I found this place."
He purchased the 400-acre Murphy Lakes property in 1996. Originally cobbled together as separate parcels of land, it had been a ranch and coal mining operation in the late 1800s before it evolved into a camping and nature resort.
The lake property now offers services onsite for fishing and hunting, as well as family reunions, graduation parties, church retreats, Scout activities, company picnics and other get-togethers.
During the fall, Alongi schedules outings for turkey hunters and family carriage rides on his nine miles of horse trails. Recently, he added weddings and dance lessons to the expanding list of services.
Since the day he bought Murphy Lakes, Alongi has worked year-round to update and maintain the place. His biggest project has been restoration of three 1800s-era barns that together can accommodate up to 150 guests.
The main barn features a large common area, dining hall, kitchen, a game room and the Dances with Wolves Dance Hall.
Lodging can be found in the Red Barn across Red House Lake. Guests can also stay in the Honeymoon Hayloft, which has heart-themed patterns painted on everything from the walls to the bedposts.
While the barns have the rustic charm of being two miles from any neighboring house, Alongi has also installed high-speed Internet, DirecTV and phone lines to supply the modern needs of his guests.
"They don't build barns like this anymore," he said. "It's a shame to let a barn go to waste. It's a beautiful place."
The resort's original developer was Mark Murphy Sr., the first telegraph operator in Higbee. He bought the land for farming and ranching and later added a coal mining operation.
In 1905, the coal venture ended, and six lakes were built on the site.
After Murphy's death in 1926, his son, Mark Murphy Jr., continued to maintain the property. Eventually, the livestock was sold, and he began to open the barns as guest housing for friends who wanted a weekend getaway.
He added two more lakes to expand outdoor recreational activities like hunting and fishing. Alongi bought the property from the son's widow after recognizing the historical importance of the barns.
"This is an old farm with a lot of history and a lot of creativity put into it," he said. "I've saved a part of history here."
His first challenges were updating the electrical systems in the barns and installing running water. The Red Barn and Honeymoon Hayloft required minor renovations, but the third barn was a steeper challenge.
Originally a dairy barn, Alongi decided to turn the building into a recreation center in 2008. He realized the 1,500-square-foot space would make a nice dance hall.
He and a work crew of about a dozen removed old hay, fixed the roof, built three stages, added light fixtures and put in a central air unit.
Downstairs, plumbing was added for bathroom and kitchen facilities. Swallows that nested in the barn were cleared out to furnish a large dining hall and game room.
To keep an eye on his 400 acres, Alongi said he spends a lot of his time in his "Bad Boy Buggie," an all-terrain vehicle he drives, often with his 2-year-old English Pointer named Belle by his side.
Belle is almost always nearby, or several paces in front of him checking the trail for rabbits.
"These dogs will hunt themselves to death," Alongi said. "They say dogs are like their owners, so there you go."
He also keeps two goats that have been on the property since before his acquisition of Murphy Lakes. Skip and Mama, he said, keep to a peninsula aptly named Goat Island.
He contributes to conservation projects in the area and has built around 100 wood duck nesting boxes for the birds that inhabit the forests.
Alongi attributes his love of the outdoors to a childhood growing up in a hunting culture. He remembers spending early fall mornings in the woods of northern Pennsylvania hunting deer with his uncles. During his college years, he would venture out to Slippery Rock Campgrounds with fellow students and hunting enthusiasts.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., Alongi came to Columbia for medical school after graduating from Slippery Rock University. He learned the importance of home repair and property maintenance during his first years in Columbia as a student. When medical school didn't work out, Alongi took an interest in real estate and became certified to restore and rent properties.
Though he loves the city life that Columbia offers, he said he prefers the quiet nature of Murphy Lakes.
"The serenity can't be beat out here," Alongi said. "Howard County is a nice, free place, and you can't get anymore free than Murphy Lakes."
His daughter, Sadie, recently visited the lake with her roller derby team, the Knockouts from Kansas City.
"We were thinking of doing something a little different this year," she said of the team's decision to have their end-of-season get-together at Murphy Lakes.
She recalls her childhood at Murphy Lakes and seeing the progress over the years.
"I remember spending hours of my childhood driving around in cars because my dad always wanted a property with a lake," she said. "And when he found this place, he said, 'This is it. We have to get it.'"
Sadie, along with her younger brother, Jake, would often join her father in the restoration projects.
"We were basically out there every weekend. We'd always be working hard building something," she said. "It's really come a long way, the barn, and has totally been converted into a nice facility."
Even with all the improvements going on, Alongi said he could find more to keep him busy.
"Projects are what I live for, I guess," he said. "Give me five days and you'll see a change around here."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.