Over the centuries, the Southern wilderness has revealed many of its deepest, most valuable secrets to those willing to listen. The discovery of ore hidden within the curves of Appalachian mountains gave birth to a region-defining mining trade, and the timbers of our forests provided the impetus for a booming lumber business. Nature’s bounty has never failed the watchful, prudent eyes of us Southerners, but no one could have predicted the success of a small track of land in the Ozarks—now the locus of Branson, Missouri’s Silver Dollar City—that initially gained its notoriety from a very large hole in its ground.
That hole in the ground, originally known as Marble Cave, was first discovered by the Osage Indians in the 1500’s. When Americans began exploring the deep, recessed cavern, they mistakenly assumed the pale, limestone walls were marble, thus bestowing the cave with its name. Geologists and then adventurers began exploring the cave after the Civil War, descending into its cavernous main chamber, 200 feet underground, via thick, braided ropes. A group of Union Civil War veterans began mining Marble Cave in the 1800’s, but instead of marble they only found tons of the natural fertilizer bat guano.
It is at this point that we sensible Southerners probably begin to question the value of a hole in the ground filled with bat feces. How did a noble mind transform this natural compost bin into one of the most successful theme parks in history?
Although mining operations were abandoned and the cave deemed worthless by those veterans, visitors still wondered at the natural beauty of the cave. Scientific American magazine published an article on Marble Cave in 1885, garnering the cavern many new fans, including mining expert William Henry Lynch. Marble Cave so intrigued Lynch that, upon reading the article, he almost immediately purchased the plot of land without ever having set eyes on the cave and moved his family (himself and his two daughters) across the Canadian border all the way to the Ozarks.
Where previously visitors were able to visit the cave freely, Lynch saw an opportunity for profit and capitalized on it. Lynch’s vision for Marble Cave came to light quickly and in 1894 he reopened the cave to tours. His passion for the cave’s beauty was contagious, bringing in visitors from across the region, including Harold Bell Wright. When Wright published his famous novel The Shepherd of the Hills, he described in depth the breathtaking beauty of the Ozarks—including the chasmal, shining depths of Marble Cave. Readers flocked to the hills to witness the sights described in the novel and, for many, Marble Cave was their first stop.
The popularity of Marble Cave continued to grow through the early twentieth century alongside the growth of automobile travel. In order to ensure the quick and safe arrival of guests via automobile, Lynch oversaw the creation of the new road to the Cave, hacking and sawing at brush himself in order to create what would later become Missouri Highway 76. By the 1920’s, automobiles were commonplace and visitors could easily access Marble Cave, now an entrenched part of Branson culture.
Though Marble Cave (which eventually came to be known as Marvel Cave, in honor of the sheer magnitude of its walls and the awe of visitors) continued to attract small groups of visitors through the decades, it wasn’t until a new kind of visionary gained control of the property that the site would bloom to its full potential. In 1946, Hugo and Mary Herschend visited the Ozarks from their hometown of Chicago, immediately falling in love with the region and Marvel Cave. When the Lynch sisters, looking to retire, offered the Herschends a 99-year lease, they immediately seized the opportunity and moved South with their two teenage sons, Jack and Pete.
Under the new management of the Herschends, the property surrounding Marvel Cave quickly began to change. After improving upon transportation into the cave, the family began thinking of ways to improve the attraction above-ground, as well. Though Hugo suggested demonstrating local crafts, it was an old man by the name of Charlie Sullivan who ignited the flame of their fortunes.
Sullivan, an aged traveling salesperson, claimed to have grown up around the cave, born into a small community called “Marmaros,” Greek for “marble.” According to Sullivan, the tiny town sprouted around the mouth of the cave, was home to a mere twenty-eight residents, and included a hotel, school, pottery shop, and furniture factory. The Herschends enjoyed his tale but doubted its validity until Sullivan led them into the woods, swept away a life’s worth of growth, and pointed out the foundations of the buildings from his story. The Herschends’ vision of a collection of craftsmen blossomed into a dream of an entire theme park fashioned after an 1880’s mining village.
Though Hugo Herschend passed away before his vision could come to life, his wife and sons continued his dream. Mary was particularly devoted to the ideas of accuracy and conservancy, ensuring that the buildings were meticulously crafted and the surrounding wildlife preserved. Finally, in 1960, Silver Dollar City opened, presenting visitors with an 1880’s-era blacksmith shop, general store, ice cream parlor, doll shop, and two genuine 1880’s log structures, painstakingly relocated and restored. A small group of actors, including the Herschends themselves, traipsed around the property performing live-action theater in historically accurate garb. The first year alone drew in 125,000 visitors—more than four times the annual visitation to the Cave alone.
The theme park’s name, Silver Dollar City, also proved to be its most successful marketing campaign. Mary had the idea of using silver dollars, rather than common notes, as change for customers; when visitors left and used the coins in their everyday lives, at the supermarket or laundromat, it always inspired questions to which the inevitable answer was a tale of their time at Silver Dollar City. Word of the theme park spread quickly, riding along the ridges of those silver coins, its popularity growing daily.
By 1969, Silver Dollar City was a household name, in large part because of the five episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies that were filmed there. The park added other attractions, like stage coach rides and a steam train, followed by interactive activities and thrill rides. Today the park is home to over 100 resident craftsmen who exhibit a variety of traditional crafts like soap making, weaving, and blacksmithing.
Branson is known for its shows and attractions, meaning older venues like Silver Dollar City might have to work even harder to earn its share of visitors—but that certainly hasn’t been a challenge for the legendary theme park. Over two million visitors flock to the park annually, drawn in by its aura of authenticity, that feeling of escape from the ordinary. Over one hundred years ago, a man heard of a cave and envisioned something more, but what he inadvertently created was an empire. But what drew Lynch in, what drew the Herschends in, is what continues to draw in new visitors today: the sheer, breathtaking beauty of the nature of the Ozarks—a valuable asset for those who were willing to listen.
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