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.
Did You Know?
The monument for Branson's first postmaster and namesake, Reuben S. Branson (and his wife Mary), can be seen in Branson City Cemetery.
In 1882, one of the first settlers in the area, Reuben S. Branson, opened a general store and post office. When he submitted the paperwork to the U.S. Post Office department, he listed the community's name as "Branson," and the name stuck.
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.
Did You Know?
For a brief time between 1902 and 1904, Branson was renamed "Lucia" by its new postmaster, William Hawkins.
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 is 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 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 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.
Did You Know?
Only a city for a few months, virtually all of downtown Branson was destroyed in a fire on Aug. 29, 1912. The city had no fire department at the time.
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. 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. 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.
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.
The company later expanded to include other popular Branson attractions: White Water water park and the Showboat Branson Belle. Today, Silver Dollar City has grown into a multi-million dollar entertainment complex with thrill rides and attractions, shows, dining facilities, dozens of musicians and an evening music show with a professional cast. The park also hosts six themed festivals each year.
In 1998, Silver Dollar City was given the Applause Award by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions as the top theme park in the world. The family-owned company, Herschend Family Entertainment, currently owns, operates or partners in 19 properties in nine states. In 2004, Jack and Peter Herschend were inducted into the Hall of Fame of the amusement industry’s largest organization worldwide, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
Did You Know?
The popular TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies" was inspired by a Boy Scout camping trip to the Branson Ozarks?
Television producer Paul Henning — inspired by a Boy Scout camping trip to the Branson area — created "The Beverly Hillbillies," which went on to become one of the highest-rated television shows of all time. In fact, Henning brought the Clampetts "home" to the Ozarks in 1967, filming five episodes on location at Silver Dollar City.
Henning later donated 1,534 acres just outside Branson that became the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area. He also donated the Beverly Hillbillies' 1921 Oldsmobile truck to the College of the Ozarks where it is on display in the Ralph Foster Museum.
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 from Nashville, Tennessee, to host “Ozark Jubilee,” one of the first successful network television shows.
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 in Branson today.
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. Presleys Country Jubiliee made history in 1967 when the family built the first music theater on Hwy. 76.
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.
In 1985, Gary Snadon (school teacher and former cast member of the outdoor drama) along with his wife, Pat, purchased the homestead. They added the 230-foot tall inspiration tower in 1989, and in 1990, had the Morgan County Church relocated to the homestead to signify the churches where Wright once preached.
Today, the Shepherd of the Hills is the longest-running outdoor drama in the world and boasts a cast of more than 80 actors, dozens of animals, pyrotechnical displays and authentic props and sets. Western music legends The Sons of the Pioneers perform in a chuckwagon dinner show on the Homestead grounds.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s, more nationally known entertainers such as Roy Clark, Box Car Willie, Mel Tillis, Jim Stafford and Ray Stevens began performing in Branson. Still the existing family variety shows remained popular as the area welcomed new additions such as the Toby Show, Bob-O-Links Country Hoedown, The Texans and Chisai Child’s Starlite Theater where Japanese fiddle player Shoji Tabuchi debuted. By the late 1980’s and early 90’s, several national stars established permanent roots in Branson and along with local celebrities, built the theaters that literally formed Branson’s live music show foundation.
Did You Know?
The oldest remaining building in Branson is the old Sullenger's Saloon, which is now painted purple and called the "Plum Bazaar"
When the popular “60 Minutes” TV program came to town in 1991, there were 22 theaters in operation and many more in various stages of development and construction—such as Andy Williams Moon River Theater and The Grand Palace. When the show aired on December 8, 1991 and proclaimed Branson the “live music capital of the entire universe” is was true, but it was also a 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, Branson not only saw tremendous growth in the number of theaters, but the number of hotels, motels, Bed & Breakfasts, lakeside resorts, restaurants, attractions, shopping malls, condominium and housing developments, service businesses, and healthcare facilities grew proportionally as well.
The City of Branson and Taney County undertook major infrastructure projects in the 1990s to accommodate the influx of new visitors and residents. Over the past 10-plus years, the City has invested more than $40 million in road improvements, making it easy to get around town.
In 2006, the $420 million, 95-acre Branson Landing opened. The award-winning development on Branson's Lake Taneycomo waterfront blends retail shopping, dining, luxury lodging, river walk, condominiums, a town plaza, several marinas and nightlife into a dynamic, waterfront setting. Other recent developments in Branson included the multi-million dollar Titanic Museum Attraction, towering 100’ over the 76 Strip, with a permanent collection of 400 items and offering an interactive experience. In 2007, the new state-of-the art Branson Convention Center and adjoining 12-story Hilton Hotel opened. In 2008, Branson's largest theatre, the 3,000-seat Sight and Sound Theatres opened and began staging Biblical theme productions.
And in 2009, the new Branson Airport opened, providing convenient jet service for visitors from across the United States.