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A Visit to the Oldest Federal Fish Hatchery

September 23, 1989

NEOSHO, Mo. (AP) _ Rainbow trout and romance normally don’t go hand in hand, but plenty of each have been nurtured at the nation’s oldest federal fish hatchery in the last century.

The Neosho National Fish Hatchery is a park-like oasis of ponds, trees and finely trimmed lawn on 15 acres in the midst of this southwestern Missouri community of 10,000.

For 101 years now, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has been raising millions of rainbows annually at Neosho for stocking in the deep, cold waters of southwestern Missouri and northern Arkansas, where anglers find some of the best trout fishing in the country.

And for as many years, the lush hatchery grounds have attracted lovers who stroll, spread a blanket and picnic lunch in the shade of a tall oak, or feed begging members of the resident flock of wild mallard ducks.

The hatchery also is a magnet for children, who can dump handfuls of free fish food into the six 80-foot raceways or catch a trout in fishing derbies just for them.

For Hughla Bliss, a sprite 89-year-old Neosho native, the hatchery harkens back to a time when life seemed a little simpler, before television, automobiles, computers or shopping malls.

″Every time we had company, we took them to the fish hatchery. It was so beautiful, with flowers and shrubs everywhere,″ she said.

″It wasn’t a place for necking, as we called it in those days,″ Mrs. Bliss said. ″It was a special place for young lovers to walk, hold hands and talk.″

Helen North Dougan’s father and brother helped build the hatchery, now set squarely in the middle of a residential neighborhood, out of a cornfield. On summer weekends, throngs of people frolicked at the hatchery and in the cool waters of Hickory Creek on her family’s farm nearby, she says.

″In the winter, I’d hide my skates in a pine tree at the hatchery on the way to school and then skate on the pond on the way home,″ said Mrs. Dougan, 89. ″Sometimes my brothers took an old horse and fixed up a sleigh, and we all went down and built a bonfire and skated in the moonlight. That was wonderful.″

Mrs. Bliss recalls as a child seeing Thomas Hart Benton, the Neosho-born painter and muralist famous for his Midwestern scenes, stroll past her house dressed in a fancy Paris suit, bow tie and hat, bound for the hatchery to woo the ladies and chat with the workers.

More recently, the one-third-mile concrete path encircling the trout ponds has become a favorite of the fitness-minded.

″I come to work and there’s a traffic jam of people waiting to get in to walk and jog,″ hatchery manager Norman Hines says.

Hines, who has managed the hatchery for 15 years, occasionally walks a brisk lap or two with the visitors.

″Talk about all the BS that’s slung out there,″ he said, smiling and shaking his head. ″It’s interesting to hear ’em gossip about what’s going on in town. The hatchery is still a meeting place.″

It remains a big fish producer, too - some 60 million since 1888, when Neosho was chosen as site of the government’s first federal hatchery because of its abundant, 60-degree springs and top-notch rail service, a key to moving fish across the Midwest for stocking.

Each year, 2.8 million 3-inch rainbows are raised from eggs and trucked to the Norfork and Greers Ferry national hatcheries in Arkansas. Another 130,000 9-inch trout are sent to Lake Taneycomo in Missouri, and 7,000 10-inch fish are released in a reservoir at Fort Riley, Kan.

About 30,000 people tour the hatchery each year. It was nearly closed in 1984 due to budget cuts, but residents’ protests were heard in Washington and the facility survived to celebrate its centennial last year.

The Neosho National Fish Hatchery is not the most modern of the government’s 65 hatcheries. Indeed, Hines has asked for - but given the tight federal budget, is unlikely to receive - $1.25 million to update the raceways and other ancient equipment.

Nonetheless, the Neosho hatchery remains an efficient fish producer and a gem in the hearts of townspeople.

″It’s so perfect here,″ says assistant hatchery manager Bill Miller. ″In the fall, the maples turn a vibrant red. We invite people to collect the black walnuts that fall. It takes you back to a different era. You can see why this place remains so important to the people who live here.″

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