When just a boy and hungry during World War II, Frank Baldwin scavenged leftover food from British soldiers in the Netherlands.
Now 82, he lives in a large, lakefront home on a rocky point near the Tan-Tar-A Resort. The blue of the Lake of the Ozarks fills the view out the living room’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
He came to the New World and lived the American dream.
Now he’s got a new dream: He wants to build the world’s tallest Ferris wheel in Osage Beach.
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Not himself. He designed shoes for 70 years — what’s he know about building a Ferris wheel? Let alone one bigger than Las Vegas’ High Roller or the London Eye. First thought might be that a bird’s-eye view of Osage Beach’s go-carts and putt-putt golf won’t provide quite the same thrill as the Vegas Strip or Westminster Abbey.
But then, how about a view from the tip-top of a 560-foot Ferris wheel looking out over the Lake of the Ozarks at sunset? Sailboats, resorts, rock cliffs and the Grand Glaize Bridge.
“People might come for that, don’t you think?” Baldwin asked.
He and his wife, Gert, who grew up in Germany, love Osage Beach. They came here in the 1960s and raised their two sons. A few years ago, they watched businesses in town begin to suffer because of a new expressway that bypassed an old commercial tourist stretch.
Sure, Baldwin could ignore the whole thing. He could sit in that big living room and watch the boats pass by, but he has more energy than cable channels and then there’s that thing his mother told him when he was a boy in the Netherlands — “If you can help someone, you do it.”
So this soft-spoken, semi-retired, neatly dressed, kindly and perhaps just-a-tad-pushy gentleman, who grew up one of 14 children, is busy these days pitching his Ferris wheel idea to developers and business groups. Local news stories have featured Baldwin.
Will he get it done? Odds aren’t with him. But maybe scraping up leftover food to survive opens the mind to dreams. And now in his ninth decade of life, this man dreams of a giant Ferris wheel.
Late last month, he spoke to City Administrator Jeana Woods about his idea. On Thursday night, he took it to the Osage Beach Board of Aldermen.
“Well, I can tell you that there’s no room in the budget for a Ferris wheel,” Woods told The Star. “But the city is here to help development. This man has done homework and he has a vision. I think what he’s talking about would definitely spur activity. Our biggest thing is tourism and I would be interested to see what he comes up with.”
People here may not recognize Baldwin’s name right off, but if given a hint — “Oh, right, the Ferris wheel guy.”
Dennis Klautzer, owner of radio stations KRMS and 93.5 Rocks, has been around since 1976 and has listened to lots of people come in with grand plans to boost lake traffic. In other words, he’s heard a lot of half-baked pipe dreams.
Then not long ago, in comes Baldwin.
Klautzer’s initial reaction: “Who the hell wants a 560-foot Ferris wheel?”
But he kept listening. This old guy was smart and made a lot of sense, Klautzer decided. The town could have used him 40 years ago when Branson left Osage Beach in the go-cart dust.
“He’s talking to people and getting some momentum,” Klautzer said. “I don’t know if he’ll ever get it done, but the man has the kind of passion it will take to make this place great again.”
Who would have figured? The kind of passion Osage Beach needs is that of an 82-year-old shoe designer from the Netherlands.
But Baldwin will tell you that Osage Beach is home now. He and Gert seem more Ozark than European. All those Dutch bakeries down here — that’s home cookin’. On one recent day Baldwin climbed into his Lincoln SUV and turned the radio dial until he heard Little Jimmy Dickens singing “Take an Old Cold Tater (And Wait).”
He turned and smiled.
“I grew up listening to polkas. Now I like hillbilly music.”
Kenny Homm sits in his family’s City Grill on Old U.S. 54 and talks about the 40-some-thousand cars that used to pass by the restaurant daily.
Not anymore. That all changed with the completion of the U.S. 54 Expressway in 2011. Traffic through town no longer needed to come past the diners, motels, putt-putt golf places and go-cart tracks. The eastern part of the parkway still has the draw of Osage Beach Premium Outlets, a popular mall, but to the west, across the Grand Glaize Bridge, businesses took the big hit when the new highway opened.
“It’s been a rough couple of years,” Homm said.
Woods, the city administrator, acknowledges an economic downturn. For example, tourists bound for Branson — and that’s a lot of cars — no longer had to drive through Osage Beach.
“Some businesses were negatively affected, no doubt about it,” Woods said. “But our sales tax has stayed pretty much the same. We had an initial dip then a steady increase.”
Homm says things are still tough for him. A poster touting the “Osage Beach Ferris Wheel” hangs on the wall inside City Grill. People ask about it often.
“I think he’s (Baldwin) got a great idea,” Homm said. “We sure need something around here.”
Not far away at Blinds and More, owner Joni Walden is working on a rescue effort. She heads Passport to the Parkway, a group formed to promote businesses along Old U.S. 54.
“We’re not the first town to have a bypass,” she said. “But we do need to do something.”
She’s just not sure the world’s tallest Ferris wheel is the answer.
“But it would sure be an eye-catcher, that’s for sure,” Walden said.
Baldwin doesn’t know what a giant Ferris wheel would cost. He knows of one elsewhere that cost $15 million; another, many times that.
He wants the Osage Beach version to include a carnival park. A businessman has offered 10 acres for the project, he said. The businessman could not be reached for comment.
Baldwin knows it’s an uphill fight, but says he will stay at it because of family and upbringing. Not a lot of quit in his genes. With 14 children in the house, his mother needed her children to learn trades that would help the family.
One son became a shirtmaker. Another became a floor man. Two took up machinery.
So young Frank chose to become a shoemaker?
“No, my mother told me I was going to become a shoemaker,” he said.
In 1957, he moved to Toronto for work. That’s where he met Gert. The couple soon moved to St. Louis when Baldwin took a job with the Brown Shoe Co. He later worked for Florsheim and Wolverine.
He took pride in his many designs.
“When you create a shoe, you see it in a store window,” he said.
Gert wants him to stay on the Ferris wheel. She works in real estate and knows firsthand the negative impact of the new highway.
“I don’t really know where his Ferris wheel idea came from,” she said. “But it would certainly liven up the neighborhood.”
So Frank Baldwin will continue to push his plan to bring the world’s tallest Ferris wheel to his little town in the Ozarks. As he drove the other day, wearing an argyle sweater and with hillbilly music coming from the car radio, he said:
“Oh, I’ll make a little noise.”