When Reub Branson opened a general store close to the White River in southwestern Missouri, he was undoubtedly a man of vision, enterprise, and fortitude. The Ozarks Mountains, to begin with, are not for the skittish: they are incomparably beautiful, verdant, vibrant—and wild of man and beast.
The 1882 in which Branson launched his long-reaching mercantile business was riding hot on the heels of a post-Civil-War lawlessness that governed these hillsides and hollers—this is the area that gave birth to Jesse James, remember, and a hundred others just like him. Vigilante “justice-keepers”—the Baldknobbers—were as fearsome as the “law-benders” they pursued. It was a wild place in wild times.
Reuben Branson was looking past all that. And the town that sprang up from his store and bears his name today has demonstrated the same hell-or-high-water entrepreneurial spirit from beginning to end.
The first settlers of this Scottish-highlands-like land had plenty of game to go around for everyone, but when that stock was depleted, farming got serious. Steep hills, however, make for hard farming, and before twentieth-century dams were built, valley farms were frequently devastated by floods. Well, what about all these trees? With the railroad laying track north to south and east to west, the call for timber in the late 1800’s knew no bounds, and Ozark men with axes and saws knew how to answer.
In 1903 the Ozark men of Branson, Missouri, did more than answer: they dreamed a dream. They decided their town was going to be the industrial hub of the region, disseminating timber, lumber, and manufactured goods to those outside in exchange for a decent living for their families. They built a new bank, a new livery stable, a new hotel—and, due to an increasing number of visiting fisherman and money-bearing travelers, the area’s first “resorts.”
One such traveler, recommended to the area by a doctor for his tuberculosis, was a minister named Harold Bell Wright. Wright stayed with Branson’s Ross family, fell in love with the people and the region, and returned every summer for the next eight years. During that period of time, in 1907, Wright’s novel Shepherd of the Hills published, portraying the beautiful Ozarks, its folk, and the hill people’s way of life. Somewhat surprisingly, it became one of the nation’s first overnight bestsellers (and first to sell over one million copies).
Just as overnight, the tourists came pouring in. By the time Branson officially incorporated in 1912, a new vision—the one that took—was firmly in place. Branson would not focus on taking Ozark products to the world: the world was coming to Branson instead. Tourist-town Branson was born.
With just over 1000 residents, the fledgling resort town boomed with gusto. In a flood of industry, a commercial ice plant went up, a soft drink bottling plant, a candy factory, an ice cream factory (on the waterfront, of course), the Winch Spoke Company, and a major logging operation built by the American Pencil Company. Three hotels provided lodging in town, and vacation cabins were built just upstream. Town edicts were issued to all mills, factories, and businesses: tidy up, straighten up, and always look your best—company’s coming.
When the Ozark Beach Dam was constructed downstream the same year, things went from great to even better. A big, long Lake Taneycomo formed on a stretch of the White River that included the Branson area, and fishing, boating, swimming, and picnicking-on-the-beach went into high gear. When the Depression hit twenty-some-odd years later, Branson businesses survived better than many others in this hard-hit area, primarily because the visitors kept showing up, since it was a relatively inexpensive vacation spot for the times. And after World War II, people not only came for visits—now they were coming to stay.
Among them were Hugo Herschend and family. Hugo and his wife Mary caught the Branson vision on a visit in the late ’40’s and ended up obtaining Marvel Cave, whose tours were a growing attraction. For the folks who didn’t care to venture too far below the sunlit lands they started providing entertainment up top—eventually resulting in one of the most popular theme parks in America, Silver Dollar City. Hard to believe, but Silver Dollar City had 125,000 visitors their very first year (1960)—not too far off the millions they have each year now.
Along about the same time, in 1959, the first of the famous Branson shows, The Baldknobbers’ Hillbilly Jamboree, made its grand appearance in the basement of City Hall, complete with fifty folding chairs for the audience and a portable stage that was broken down after each performance—after all, this was the police station as well. The homemade-instrument band was composed of the Mabe brothers—Bob, Jim, Bill, and Lyle—and their friend “Chick-a-boo” Allen. To help gather a crowd, their wives stood out on Highway 65, the road to Springfield, holding signs. The crowds came, and they haven’t stopped coming ever since.
The following year the Trimble family jumped on the bandwagon and opened up the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor theater on the very grounds where Wright had found inspiration for his blockbuster book—the show turned out to be a blockbuster as well, becoming in 1995 the most-performed of all outdoor dramas in America.
Meanwhile, the Presley family followed the Baldknobbers’ lead and started their own music show in a metal building on the highway west of Branson. Seven years later they moved in closer and opened the first theater on what became “the Strip” on Highway 76. The Baldknobbers, of course, followed them there, and then the Plummer Family, and then the Foggy River Boys, and on and on, music show after music show—until “Hwy. 76” was transformed into the “Country Music Boulevard” now endowed with twenty-five kazillion (or so) theaters and shops and restaurants and hotels and multitudinous other attractions.
That trend really got the ratchet-up in the mid-eighties when “Boxcar Willie” became the first big-time celebrity to open a year-round show on the Strip. Big names right and left started opening theaters—Mel Tillis, Mickey Gilley, Ray Stevens, Moe Bandy, Andy Williams, Jim Stafford, Kenny Rogers, the Osmonds, Tony Orlando, Wayne Newton, Charlie Pride—good grief, even Lawrence Welk, Dolly Parton, and the Radio City Rockettes got in on the act. All the while, the “quiet,” little industrious town of Branson-with-a-vision was cashing in on the flood of tourism that seemed to know no bounds.
As the tourism side of things continued to grow on all fronts, Branson folks started making plans of their own. Three hundred million dollars went into the Branson Landing in downtown Branson on the same Lake Taneycomo waterfront that once sported an ice cream factory. Ninety-five acres of over 100 shops, including giant Belk’s and Bass Pro stores, a twelve-story Hilton, a 220,000-square-foot convention center, and restaurants to feed an army. A new public square accommodates 5,000 for town festivals, and, get this, to receive her guests in fashion, Branson added in 2009 the first-ever privately-operated commercial airport in the nation.
All this, and yet the town’s population is still only just over 10,000. Branson is a small, southern-Missouri, Ozark-mountain town. They still sit on a beautiful lake and sport some of the most beautiful scenery and some of the best fishing in America. The townspeople are friendly and still work hard to keep everything nice for visitors. Fact is, Branson is well known as the most family-friendly tourist-town in the nation, and they are more conducive to multi-generational fun than just about any place you can think of.
Looks like Reub Branson’s work-hard-at-serving-folks ethic beat out the outlaw trend after all. Branson is still a great hideaway—if you don’t mind sharing it a bit with the million or two others beating a trail to get there to join in all the fun!
See All of the Branson Beginnings Photos Here