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Opinion: Weird, unique history revealed

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I’m a sucker for the weird. Luckily, the eccentric details of the Ozarks continue to surprise me.

In my role that’s largely dedicated to writing content for SBJ.net, hundreds of emails enter my world daily, and my curiosity is often piqued.

As the lead writer of our Today in Business e-newsletter summarizing state, national and international media reports, the weird is ever-present. At Apple Inc.’s new $5 billion headquarters, for instance, did you read about the problems the company is having with employees running into glass? You read that correctly. A MarketWatch public-records request found at least two men literally walked into glass – the headquarters comprises tons of futuristic-looking glass walls and doors – leading to emergency service calls and minor injuries. The Onion couldn’t write it better.

I’ve recently been enamored with unique history revealed via property sale notices coming through the SBJ newsroom.

On the property sale front, Ozark Mayor Rick Gardner recently told me a story about nearly 500 acres of land just south of the city that was once meant to be used for an agriculturally themed amusement park. That was almost 20 years ago, when the organizers of the park that would have been Farm Country USA bought up several parcels of land between 1999 and 2000.

Since then, not much has happened, other than cattle grazing. Gardner says exotic cattle that have resided on the land may have been part of the plans for Farm Country USA, but no one is completely sure.

“That was a big undertaking at the time,” Gardner says. “There were all kinds of rumors years ago about what that theme park was going to be. It just never came to fruition for whatever reason.”

The owner – who Gardner believes is an affluent Kentucky man – is now attempting to unload the acreage through R.B. Murray Co. and Gardner, who’s also a real estate agent with The Massengale Group of Keller Williams. Should someone choose to buy all of it, they’d need to bring $6.4 million to the table. It could be worth it just to own such an interesting piece of the Ozarks, though, Gardner – donning his salesman cap – notes commercial development interest is more likely.

If you’re like me, you probably never paid much attention to a mile of frontage on the east side of Highway 65 between Springfield and Branson, where an abandoned Blansit Dairy Cattle sale barn still sits. This sale process is certainly bringing to light an interesting chapter in southwest Missouri history.

In other unusual real estate news, it turns out the African safari is alive – and for sale – in southeast Springfield.

Springfield businessman Michael Willhoit is seeking to sell his home nicknamed “The African Queen” near Battlefield Road and U.S. Highway 65. The 2829 S. Lone Pine Ave. home was the centerpiece of a recent Wall Street Journal article, which emphasized Willhoit’s attempts to sell the property on eBay of all places. Willhoit, who owns luxury car seller Willhoit Enterprises LLC, told The Wall Street Journal that eBay “reaches a zillion people, even people from overseas.” In the article, Willhoit said he purchased the home in 2013 and invested $7 million-$8 million renovating and expanding the property he’s now listing for $8.9 million.

What’s resulted is a two-bedroom, 3,125-square-foot home complete with a 650-pound mounted lion and other taxidermic animals, a man-made lake and waterfall, numerous African artifacts, and a toilet shaped like a lion. From the exterior to the living areas, the home looks like it’s right out of Eddie Murphy’s classic 1980s comedy, “Coming to America.”

More unique history is here, too, since the home built in 1964 was designed by Don Russell, who Willhoit calls “the most celebrated and socially successful architect ever to come out of Springfield, Missouri.”

“He wanted every home to adapt itself to its own environment, surrounded by huge exposed beams and skylights as part of every roof,” Willhoit wrote in the eBay description of the property. “So, as fate would have it, an idea to build a house over a peaceful rolling natural spring was born.”

Russell surely would not have foreseen its current use a homage to Africa.

As any resident of the Ozarks knows, this area of the United States is a beauty to behold. Look a little bit closer and you’ll find even more reasons to love it.

Springfield Business Journal Web Producer Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.

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