A Branson History

For more than 100 years, the Branson/Lakes Area has been attracting visitors to the Ozarks, lured by natural beauty and outdoor recreational activities.

Branson itself was incorporated as a town on April 1, 1912. But the history of settlers and visitors coming to this beautiful part of the Ozarks goes back more than a half-century before that.

A Marvelous Beginning

The first family attraction to draw visitors was Marvel Cave (beneath the property where Silver Dollar City theme park is currently located). First called Marble Cave because its limestone walls were thought to be marble, the cave was described by geologists in the 1860s and explored in the 1880s by adventurers who lowered themselves on ropes 200 feet into the main chamber.

Scientific American magazine described the cave in 1885, and word of the natural wonder spread throughout the continent. Canadian mining expert William Henry Lynch read of the cave, purchased it sight unseen, traveled to the Ozarks and, with his two daughters, opened the cave for public tours in 1894.

On the advice of his physician, minister Harold Bell Wright traveled from his home in Kansas to the Ozarks in 1898 to seek a more suitable climate for his health. He stayed at the homestead of John and Anna Ross, whom Wright later immortalized as the characters Old Matt and Aunt Mollie in his best-selling novel “The Shepherd of the Hills.” Published in 1907, the book told the story of the self-reliant and stoic hill people he encountered in the area and of the wooded valleys, the mountain “balds” and the incredible cave he had seen.

The book was a huge success. Millions of copies were sold in several languages, and four movies were filmed, including a 1941 version starring John Wayne, in his first Technicolor film. Wright’s novel has become the fourth most widely read book in publishing history.

Following the publication of “The Shepherd of the Hills,” local residents began noticing a great influx of visitors. Many came to the Ross homestead. The Rosses eventually sold their homestead to Miss Lizzie McDaniel of Springfield, who began presenting the very first dramatization of Wright’s story, right on the front lawn.

When Ozark Beach Dam (also called Powersite Dam) was built in 1913 near Forsyth and Lake Taneycomo was created, the area became quite a haven for outdoor enthusiasts who came to fish, boat, swim, hunt and enjoy the rugged beauty of the Ozark Mountains. Travelers flocked to the Ozarks on the newly-built White River Line railroad that stopped in the neighboring town of Hollister.

Television and Hydroelectric Power

The area first gained national prominence in the entertainment industry in 1954 when Red Foley, a legendary country singer with 38 top ten hits, moved to Springfield, Mo., from Nashville, Tenn., to host “Ozark Jubilee,” one of the first successful network television shows.

In 1959, the area was changed forever with the completion of Table Rock Dam. This brought much needed power to the area, spurring the growth of many area businesses. Until 1959, Rockaway Beach, located just a few miles east of Branson on the banks of Lake Taneycomo, had long been a playground for America’s rich and famous with movie stars and U.S. presidents among those who retreated to the small resort community.

Construction of a dam created Table Rock Lake, nationally renowned for bass fishing and water sports. In addition, the cold water from the bottom of Table Rock Lake that was now flowing into Lake Taneycomo changed it into one of the country’s most popular trout fishing lakes.

Branson’s First Families of Entertainment

Baldknobbers Jamboree

In 1959, Mabe brothers Bob, Bill, Lyle, and Jim began performing twice a week in a converted roller skating rink on the Lake Taneycomo waterfront in downtown Branson. The brothers combined popular country tunes with Ozark Mountain music and threw in a dash of comedy to entertain audiences. In 1969, the Baldknobbers, as the brothers called themselves, built a theater on Highway 76, making their act the longest continuously running show.

Shepherd of the Hills Homestead & Outdoor Drama

A few miles east of Silver Dollar City, Dr. Bruce Trimble and his wife, Mary, began staging an outdoor pageant in 1959 based on the best-selling novel “The Shepherd of the Hills.” The amphitheater was actually located on the site where the models for author Harold Bell Wright’s characters lived. Under Mary, her son Mark and his wife Lea’s direction, the production grew into one of the nation’s most popular outdoor historical dramas (closed 2017).

Silver Dollar City

In 1960, the long-term plans of Hugo and Mary Herschend came to fruition with the opening of a small, old-time Ozarks village attraction atop the long-popular Marvel Cave, about 10 miles west of Branson on Hwy. 76. They called it Silver Dollar City, and it offered an 1880s steam train ride, demonstrating craftsmen, themed shops and music. The first year, it drew 125,000 people.

Following Hugo’s death, Mary and her sons Jack and Peter continued to direct the growth of the family business, and by 1963, Silver Dollar City was Missouri’s top tourist attraction. In 1967, Silver Dollar City received national exposure when the popular “Beverly Hillbillies” television show filmed five episodes at the park.

The company later expanded to include other popular Branson attractions White Water water park and the Showboat Branson Bell. Today, Silver Dollar City has grown into a multimillion dollar entertainment complex with thrill rides and attractions, shows, dining facilities, dozens of musicians and an evening music show with a professional cast.

Presleys’ Country Jubilee

In 1963, the Presley family began a music show at The Underground Theater near Talking Rocks Cavern in Kimberling City with special guests from “Ozark Jubilee,” including Red Foley. They made history in 1967 when they built the first music theater on Hwy. 76. Today, Presleys’ Country Jubilee stars four generations of Presley family members including three original members of the show: Lloyd Presley and his sons Gary and Steve. Together with other cast members, they perform a variety of musical styles on a wide range of instruments, and do comedy skits.

The Boom

On December 8, 1991, the popular “60 Minutes” TV program proclaimed Branson the “live music capital of the entire universe.” There were only 22 theaters in operation. Today, Branson has more than twice that many, due in part to that turning-point proclamation. Many agree that “60 Minutes” launched Branson into a new era of growth by revealing to the world the wonderful playground of fun and entertainment this small southwest Missouri town had become. Performers, visitors, developers and new residents flocked to see what was going on.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Branson not only saw tremendous growth in the number of theaters, but the number of hotels, resorts, restaurants, attractions and shopping malls. Housing developments, service businesses and healthcare facilities grew proportionally as well.

For more details about the history of the Branson area, visit the White River Valley Historial Society.