Bothwell Lodge was ahead of its time

Owner’s desire to cut costs gave rooms character
Sunday, July 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:49 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

SEDALIA — A spooky feeling pervades the old Bothwell Lodge in northern Pettis County. With its winding staircases, a secret passage and hidden compartments throughout, the centerpiece of Bothwell Lodge State Historic Site seems the perfect place for ghosts to take up residence.

Prominent attorney and legislator John Bothwell began construction of the lodge in 1897, but it wasn’t finished until 1928. What started as a cottage for spring and summer grew to become a blufftop mansion of more than 12,000 square feet as three additions were built to accommodate guests and create space for parties.

The 31-room lodge was built in four phases, with different architects working on each section. Its design features walls that jut out at unconventional angles, several secret compartments that Bothwell used to store important legal documents and a hidden passage that runs from a hall closet to the basement boiler room. The lodge was a modern wonder when it was built, equipped with indoor plumbing and a Delco electric lighting system.

It also came with a view. Constructed on the highest bluff in Pettis County, it allows visitors to see for miles as they gaze out south-facing windows from the top level of the house.

The bluff not only served as the perfect site for the house but also provided much of the material. “All the rock used for the house was found on site,” Bothwell tour guide Marissa Cowen said.

Although Bothwell was wealthy, he was also frugal. Instead of buying paint for the walls, he used plaster that was tinted brown. Plaster on bathroom walls was scored to give a tile-like appearance and save money. And he liked to use newspapers as table linens, both to save a few pennies and to spark conversation with dinner guests.

“He knew ways to cut his costs,” Cowen said. But the bill for the lodge was still hefty. Bothwell spent about $44,000 on the mansion, which Cowen said would equal about half a million dollars by today’s standards. .

Though the house is impressive, Bothwell liked to say that it wasn’t the lodge but its guests that made it special. Bothwell enjoyed hosting visitors and at one point had 37 people stay for two weeks. Guests would spend their days canoeing, hiking and picnicking but spend their nights around the dinner table, enjoying meals that Bothwell cooked.

Bothwell made the lodge his permanent residence in 1926. When he died in 1929, he left the home to a group of friends and family called the Bothwell Lodge Club. His will stated that the home would be offered as a gift to the state of Missouri when fewer than five members of the club remained. The state took possession of the lodge in 1974.

Today, visitors can still enjoy hiking trails, picnic areas and tours of the home, which is cooled by air from one of the three caves underneath the house.

Alisha Dunay, 11, toured the lodge in June with her family. “I thought it was really cool going in the really high places,” she said.

Jim Dougherty has toured the house twice and said he was impressed. “He was a man ahead of his time,” he said of Bothwell.

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