Volume IV, No. 4, Summer 1977
Old photographs by George E. Hall, courtesy of Lillian Hall Tyre
Story and photographs by Carla Roberts and Diana Foreman
"The story, so very old, is still in the telling," Harold Bell Wright wrote in 1903 about his novel
The Shepherd of the Hills. For Wright the telling began in 1896 when he first went to the White
River area of Missouri. For us the telling began last fall with Lillian Hall Tyre lending us some
photographs her father had taken of the characters and scenes shortly after the novel was
published. We read the novel, then went to Branson and the Shepherd of the Hills Farm to see
where the story took place. We found that the friendly, hospitable hills people like those who took
Wright in still live there when John and Donna Tetfenhurst took us in their home to warm up after
they pulled us out of a snow drift at the post office at Notch. We stood on Inspiration Point and
looked for miles over the same hills covered with snow that Wright saw covered with green when
he was collecting notes for the book.
But we also saw lines of empty motels lining the highway, preparing for the first onslaught of tourists. We saw souvenir shops, eating places, entertainment places, trail rides, crafts shops, all with the same air of waiting for the first of April when the tourist season begins--the tourist season that first began when Harold Bell Wright wrote his story, The Shepherd of the Hills.
FROM YESTERDAY'S HILLS...
Harold Bell Wright was a minister of the Christian Church, artist, novelist and was trained in the skill of house painting and decorating. The most famed of these accomplishments is his writing his unusual way of captivating his readers, making sure each understands his meaning as he paints the personality of his characters and natural settings he loved so much.
Two years after entering Hiram College in Ohio, Wright seriously injured his eyes by over working and also contracted TB, or consumption as it was called then. His illness brought his college education to an immediate halt, for the only cure known at that time was moving to a more favorable climate.
Ben Wright (his father's brother) who lived in the Missouri Ozarks, heard of Wright's unfortunate illness and insisted that he visit them. Having no other plans for the future, Wright accepted. Uncle Ben and his family were waiting at the station in Springfield to welcome him home for an extended stay.
That following Sunday with his family he attended church services in a tiny schoolhouse. Wright was appalled as the preacher spoke for two hours on, "Ye are the salt of the earth and the salt hath lost its Savior." ("...the salt hath lost its savor.") He was thoroughly disgusted with the preacher's interpretation of the simple utterance of Jesus. Even though Wright had practically no training in the ministry and absolutely none in theology, he knew for sure he could at the very least read what Jesus actually said.
But it was a few months later that he got the chance to preach, according to Rev. J. Blaine Walker.* [*Walker, Rev. J. Blaine, "Harold Bell Wright," THE UNMUFFLED VOICE, Feb., 1974, 61:2, p. 12]. "At Thanksgiving time neighbors brought baskets of food for a co, unity dinner followed by church services. At the last minute for some reason, the regular preacher could not come. A long lean hillbilly asked Wright. 'Why can't you preach for we'uns?' This was the start of his preaching career which lasted for ten years."
One of Wright's friends, Don O. Vernon of Lebanon, wrote shortly after Wright's death of the events leading to his decision on becoming a minister.* [*Vernon Don O., "Harold Bell Wright Reminiscences Recalled by Don O. Vernon," THE LEBANON RUSTIC REPUBLICAN, May 31, 1944.] "His story to me is that after school he took up painting as his life work and before he had finished a certain picture, his eyesight became blurred and he was advised to stop his painting or he would go blind. He told the specialist he would finish the picture if it cost him his eyesight. Before the painting was completed he became blind. He was in darkness for many months and then again regained his usual sight. The doctor advised him if this happened again he might not recover. It is true, he was just a little stubborn and determined, so he began again. Then his eyesight failed again. He said, 'I thought the matter over carefully and made up my mind that there was some higher power than my own will, and perhaps it was intended I do some other kind of work than painting.'
"He added, 'I had always enjoyed boating, floating down the streams and fishing, so I fitted up the necessary boat with all the comforts I had at my command and started floating down a river, which was in the state of New York, paddling and fishing through the day and camping on the bank at night. On my trip I found many villages along the stream and a great many people who seemed to be starving for things of the outside world. I would arrive at one of these small towns early enough in the afternoon to let them know I would lecture to them at night, with their permission. I talked to them about the world at large, of God's out-of-doors, the Maker of the life and the earth upon which we lived.'"
His stay in the Ozarks was followed by five years of preaching in Pittsburg, Kansas, where Wright came to believe that the people would understand more if he put his sermons in story form. J. Morris Hill told us that a Dr. Williams upon hearing his services persuaded him to publish them. Wright, uncertain and not having the money, was against the idea. But with the doctor's financial assistance, he published the first 300 copies of That Printer of Udel's. It was a small success.
Once again ill health forced Wright to move to a more favorable climate, so during the summer of 1896 he went alone by train toward the Ozark region south of the white River. Near Marionville, Missouri, the railroad stopped. Wright's difficulties increased since he had to travel, the rest of the way by horseback. This method of travelling was completely undesireable since it was the rainy season in a very wet year. when he reached the flooded white River, he was unable to cross, so he had no choice but to turn back.
Exhausted and expecting nothing but a wet night in a tent, he came to the cabin of J. K. Ross and family in Mutton Hollow where he was promptly invited to spend the night, when the men settled on the porch Wright told of his life and illness. Ross told Wright of a beautiful spot in his cornfield where Wright could camp if he liked. The next morning Mr. Ross helped him set up his tent looking south over the wooded Ozark terrain on a spot which became known as Inspiration Point. Wright said it was medicine for his soul.
When it finally came time for him to leave, the Rosses invited him to return the following year. Wright accepted and returned frequently during the summers until 1904. Mr. Ross and his son built a floor of lumber they sawed out at the old mill and stretched his tent on this floor. This was where Wright spent his time during those frequent visits.
While living on Inspiration Point he became fascinated by the Ozark people, their rare hospitality and characteristics. Since having experience in the ministry he was interested in people, and he began taking notes trying not to pry, knowing that his curiosity would turn the people away. "He didn't go nosing around the community asking questions, trying to uncover family secrets," Gil Elmore, promotions director for the Shepherd of the Hills Farm, said. "All he had to do was listen to the children. This was fairly easy since in his tent were jellybeans and licorice and other sorts of candy. Wright never asked questions. He knew all that was to be said would come out of the mouths of the kids between nine and thirteen years old, and if he asked them questions they'd stretch it out and elaborate on it until it was way out of proportion. Just listening to them talk you'd know exactly what goes on in their homes. That's the reason he was able to look right into the people's very souls."
The year 1902 was one of the most trying in this area being known as "the year of the great drought." Having past acquaintance with the literary world, Wright picked up the unusual series of events. He gathered notes about the people he had become so fond of and using the circumstances at hand he wrote the outline for his beautiful story, The Shepherd of the Hills.
A lover of nature, he was constantly roaming the hills and streams of the Ozarks, capturing the setting and feeling of the land which he so vividly described in his book. Ella Dunn remembered one day as she was visiting her uncle on the White River, Harold Bell Wright came to the house. He and some companions were floating down the river and fishing and wanted some eggs for their dinner.
"He was a distinguished looking man, Ella remembered. "I could tell he wasn't from around here by his clothes and the educated way he talked. He said he was collecting material for his book." After she and a cousin gathered the eggs they headed down to Wright's camp nearby.
After this period of note taking and learning about the people, Wright moved to Lebanon, Missouri, in 1906 where he was called to preach at the Christian Church at a yearly salary of $800. He summoned his wife and two sons to join him there. There are many versions of Harold Bell Wright's life. Here's one about his coming to preach in Lebanon, according to Jessie Burley, who as a young girl was a member of Wright's church.
"One Sunday morning he strolled into our church and he was dressed kind of like an artist. He had a long flowing tie and he wasn't dolled up very much, but somebody recognized him. So they asked him if he wouldn't like to preach. He didn't want to then. He said he wouldn't, but if they'd let him, he'd make a talk each evening just after supper. If everybody would bring his own seat, he would talk in a big vacant lot in front of the house where we lived. He would make a little sermon, a talk at night. And boy, they really were something. So every Sunday evening he'd give a little talk. One Sunday I saw him when he went over there. He reached down and picked up something. I found it was a little twig off of one of the oak trees. When he made his little talk that night he stood with that little branch in his hand. And oh, he just talked so beautiful. He was so crazy about nature, you know."
Another account of the same or a similar sermon comes from Don O. Vernon, who was very close to Wright when he was in Lebanon. Both men were the same height, six foot two, weighed about 125 pounds and since they enjoyed the outdoors, they were together much of the time.
"After fishing all day, we started to drive sixteen miles to Lebanon in an old hack pulled by a pair of broncos. He said, I have to preach a sermon at the church tonight and I have not thought of anything but fishing all day. You drive on, but do not say a word to me.'
"I took notice that he had a dead leaf, a white oak leaf, in his hand and he would turn it round and round and look at it closely, then wrinkle his brow. We reached town about church time. He immediately went to the office and I delivered the team to the stable and followed.
"When I arrived at the church he was standing at the pulpit holding that same leaf and a large audience before him was wondering what he was going to say. I wish I could repeat his words about that leaf. He began with the bud, the April showers, the soft zephyrs playing among the branches, how the leaf grew, how it hung on during the season, clung to the branch after the frost came, held in spite of the snow, hail, sleet and high winds, but at last, had to let go. How it circled over the lower underbrush, whirling, grasping at each limb and finally falling to the earth among a lot of its kind.
"Then he began with the babe, its struggles for life during its infancy, the toddling child, then in its teens going to school carrying its lunch in the little pail, then young manhood or young womanhood and how he or she leaped and ran and rejoiced in the strength of their young life, then middle age, the care of the family, and then old age, like the leaf hanging on, grasping for life. Finally comes death and the body rests with its fathers."
As showned by this sermon and his many descriptions of nature, Harold Bell Wright was a man who loved the outdoors. He once said, "The rocks, hills, valleys, streams and trees in the Ozarks are all preachers and they are the kind that do not backslide. There is a good sermon in each one."
That theory is shown throughout his books. Coming to Lebanon with his family also came his notes of his friends from Mutton Hollow and his memory of those beautiful hills waiting to be molded into his most famous book, The Shepherd of the Hills.
While writing this book he made the office of Don O. Vernon his headquarters during the weeks of work he put into the book and kept the manuscript in Vernon's safe.
Jessie Burley remembers that the manuscript was kept in a little tin suitcase under lock and key and Mrs. Wright carried it to church every Sunday until the book was published. She recalls that when he was writing the book, people would gather. Wright would read what he had and the people would discuss and criticize it. One time there were some reporters vacationing in Lebanon who were asked to come. They added incidents they knew from their experience. "For instance," Miss Burley said, "in one scene a character was riding along one evening and he reached back in his pocket and got a little sack and took a drink. And one of these reporters said he wouldn't do any such thing. He'd said he would have had it right on the front pommel of his saddle right there in front. He wouldn't have to reach back to get a drink. Little things like that that they corrected on his stories helped to make them interesting."
The Shepherd of the Hills was published in 1907, the same year Mr. Wright left Lebanon once again for ill health, this time moving to Red Lands, California, to pastor the Christian Church there, hoping the milder climate would help his condition. During this time with the completing of The Calling of Dan Matthews, and The Winning of Barbara Worth, Mr. Wright quit preaching and devoted all his time to writing, saying, "I can reach more people with my pen than I can from the pulpit.
Many of Wright's books were successful. The Winning of Barbara Worth sold over seven million copies and When a
Man's a Man sold 5,000 copies a day. But, his becoming rich was not to his liking. He was beginning to feel the presence of fame, and, being a quiet man, was quite upset at all the attention he was getting. Hoping to find privacy to write, he moved to a desert ranch near Tuscon, Arizona. "But I sadly underestimated the inquisitiveness of the public," Harold Bell Wright said. "Sightseers and shysters multiplied my troubles. I suppose it was the price of fame and all I wanted was quiet. You wouldn't belive the astronomical lengths to which the curiosity seekers would go. They used my lawn for their picnic lunches. They swam in my pool, they even stood at the dining room window and stared at us while we ate. I finally could stand it no longer."
So Wright sold that ranch and moved to another way back in California's San Diego County. The land was fenced completely around, guards placed at the entrance and signs posted warning, "Keep Out." Miss Burley remembers, "One time the Swetts who were good friends of the Wrights when they were here in Lebanon, were out there visiting their daughter who lived in California and they decided they'd go by and visit Mr. and Mrs. Wright a little while. So when they got there, there was this lock and key on the door and a guard there. They couldn't even get in! And so they fizzled around until finally they got word to Mr. Wright and he came down and identified them and let them in."
Wright wasn't the only one plagued by curious tourists. The areas west of Branson he wrote about in his book The Shepherd of the Hills, became extremely popular and was soon filled with tourists and curiosity seekers. After Lake Taney-como was built and the tourist trade was booming, Harold Bell Wright paid a visit to an old friend in Lebanon and told this story of his visit to Branson as remembered by Don O. Vernon.
"I wanted to see some of the changes there, so I stopped at the Branson Hotel. While sitting in the gallery, a voice said, 'Stranger, you see that gal crossing the street?' I looked around and noticed a native sitting on the porch with me. I said, 'Yes, who is the girl?' He said, 'That is Sammy Lane. Who is Sammy Lane? She is the gal in the book that man Wright wrote.' I said, 'That cannot be Sammy Lane. How old is she?' 'I allow about eighteen,' replied the old man. 'No,' I said, 'Sammy Lane was old enough to get married many years ago. That cannot be she.' The man replied, 'I guess I know what I am talking about.' I said, 'I guess I know what I am talking about.' The old man said, 'Mister, who are you?' I said, 'I am Harold Bell Wright.' The old man looked me in the eye for about a minute and said, 'Wa'll I be damned.'"
As this story shows, many people were claimed to be characters in The Shepherd of the Hills. But Wright once said, "It takes the characteristics of twenty characters to make one character in a book." So many people could claim to be Sammy Lane and be partially right.
Although there are many conflicting stories who some characters were, several characters were undisputedly based on actual people. Old Matt and Aunt Molly are accepted as based on Mr. and Mrs. J. K. Ross whose hospitality and cornfield Wright shared while there. They were the ones who homesteaded the land and built the cabin and mill.
The Rosses were a well-loved and respected family. Mr. Ross was the owner of the only grist mill for miles around. The grist mill, a combination of a sawmill and a ground corn mill, was the center of the community. Families came once a week to get corn ground and pick up medicines and other supplies they couldn't raise or find in the hills. Every milling day all the neighbors would come from twelve, fourteen to fifteen miles away to have their corn ground. The women would bring covered dishes and make a day of it. Milling day gave the people a chance to keep up with the latest gossip and news in the entire neighborhood.
As the surge of tourists began to move in, Old Matt's cabin became a very popular place to see. Mr. Ross and Aunt Mollie finally had to move out because of the constant annoyance of the people. Back then it was customary to eat with the family if you happened to be on the place at mealtime. The Rosses would have fifty or sixty people at a time following them around, so they finally moved across Roark Valley to Garber. They stayed at Garber their remaining years running a little store and post office.
The character of Young Matt was probably based on Charles Ross, their only son who went west to California and was killed in a motorcycle accident. There were not any direct descendents of the Ross family.
Other characters that are known definitely to be patterned after one particular person are the Shepherd, Ollie Stewart and Uncle Ike.
The Shepherd was modeled on Truman S. Powell, the publisher of several papers. Upon retiring he homesteaded in Mutton Hollow spending his time farming and raising fruit and teaching a term of school at Notch. Later he served in the 44th General Assembly as a representative from Stone County and was a member of the 50th Assembly at the time of his death.
Ralph Waldo Powell, his son, appeared in the novel as Ollie Stewart. What inspired Wright to create the character of Ollie was Ralph Powell's attending college in Springfield. That was very unusual then.
Uncle Ike is based on Levi Morrill, the postmaster at Notch, who built his Post Office on the well traveled "Old Trail Nobody Knows How Old." It was his son O.R. Morrill who carried the mail three days a week by mule.
There is some discrepancy among the stories as to who Sammy Lane was. There are two popular claims. One of them states that she was Susie Morrill, the granddaughter of "Uncle Ike." During the last term of the school when Powell, the "Old Shepherd" was teaching, the school house burned down. So in order to finish so she could teach in the new school, Susie Morrill rode her pony Brownie down to the Powell's house everyday to finish the term. This fits in the events in the novel with Sammy riding to the Shepherd's cabin for lessons.
The most popularly accepted Sammy Lane was Grace Shearer. She lived for a time in Oklahoma but history bears out that the time the story took place she lived in the area. She and Charles Ross were close. It is reported that Charles Ross was in love with Grace Shearer, but she didn't have the same feelings for him. She later married someone else.
Many characters can't be placed with any one person or even proved that they existed such as Jim Lane and the artist, Mad Howard. Also no one is actually sure if there ever was a Little Pete. Some say he was merely a figment of Harold Bell Wright's imagination. Others believe that he was a wood's colt (illegitimate child) who came in with a lumber camp. This child believed to be "tetched," roamed the hills living with first one family then the next. Others say he was based on a local illegitimate child. At the time of the story having a baby out of wedlock was rarely talked about. The mother's life was ruined. She could only live at home, rarely ever being accepted back into society.
The only other major character is Wash Gibbs. Though there is only a hint of recognition as to who he was, the research of the people from the Shepherd of the Hills Farm says he may be based on two men. The first, Wash Middleton, lived across Roark Valley by the Union Pacific Railroad. He was a tall, ruggedly built and burley-looking man who possessed a very gentle personality. The second Gibbs, a man by the name of May who rode with the Bald Knobbers, was quite different. It is felt that Wright combined Middleton's physical characteristics and May's personality to make Wash Gibbs as he appears in The Shepherd of the Hills.
Though the characters may not be historical, one thing we are sure of is the setting. You can still pick out Inspiration Point, Dewey Bald, the Trail That Nobody Knows How Old and many other places that characterize the Mutton Hollow region.
The people of the Ozarks are a proud and defiant group of people when it comes to strangers and changes, but at the same time they are warm and considerate. Harold Bell Wright brings out these aspects of the Ozark people in his novel.
The Shepherd of the Hills is an extremely popular story that has been made into a movie four different times, and is put on now every night during the tourist season as a play on the actual site. The novel first opened the hills to tourists changing the lives of all in the area. But the only result of the novel that really made the people angry was the first movie.
The first Hollywood version of The Shepherd of the Hills was not filmed in the Ozarks but in the California mountains which in no way look like Missouri hills. Gil Elmore said, "The first movie starred John Wayne as Young Matt in one of his first starring roles. Ward Bond played Old Matt. They used the names of the people and the name of the story and that was it. The rest of it was all completely different. These people here knew Aunt Mollie for she was called Aunt Mollie in real life. Mrs. Ross was an aunt to everyone and a very lovable person. Well, in the movie they changed her to some kind of old witch, and in fact, she wound up at the end of the story burning Little Pete up in the cabin. The movie people brought it in and put a tent up on Inspiration Point to show it in this area. They only made one showing, for the local people tore their tent down and ran them out of the country. The movie was a great insult to them because this was their community, part of their people and the movie had insulted the story."
When the film first came out, one of the local ministers remarked that it was one of the most deplorable productions he had ever seen. "Every motion picture house in the Ozarks should boycott Paramount Pictures until this bastard child of some crackpot producer meets the same fate as this production meets out to Little Pete."
There was a true feeling of sincere hurt in the people that witnessed the film. Uncle Matt and Aunt Mollie and other characters Of The Shepherd of the Hills had lived in the midst of the Ozarks. There were good strong people and the representation had been unjust. Harold Bell Wright had captured the dignity and pride of the people in a beautiful story.
Although the book and the people were seriously wronged by the first film, it did not affect the popularity of The Shepherd of the Hills. It has been read by generation after generation and is still being read in today's classrooms. Subsequent films and the sympathetic dramatic portrayal put on the Ozark people on the old mill site has played a tremendous part in reviving interest in the story.
...TO TODAY'S HOTELS
"Before many years a railroad will find its way yonder. Then many will come, and the beautiful hills that have been my strength and peace will become the haunt of careless idlers and a place of revelry. I am glad that I shall not be here," said Harold Bell Wright's famous character, Dad Howitt, the Shepherd, more than seventy years ago.
How very right he was. It was only a very short time before the railroads, highways and people found their way into the Ozark wilderness until today it is a multimillion dollar tourist attraction.
It all started in the first decade of the twentieth century. Harold Bell Wright is credited with starting it as a tourist area in 1907 with the publication and great success of his second novel, The Shepherd of the Hills.
Almost simultaneously the Missouri Pacific Railroad was making its way to the town of Hollister, Missouri, about four miles south of Branson.
When the railroad came through the town, W.W. Johnson did not want Hollister to develop into a hodge-podge of shanties and buildings like most small towns along the railroad. To prevent this he wrote the railroad company requesting the privilege of designing the station. For the right of doing this he enclosed his check for $500. Impressed by his design the railroad agreed to his plan and returned his check.
Johnson designed the station in an English village style. It was located on Front Street, which then ran behind the town so few people paid much attention to it. Johnson was an outsider who wanted to promote the little village as a tourist center. Since the natives did not want this to happen and they did not like him or his plans, they deliberately ignored h/s depot, until Mr. Johnson poured a sidewalk along Front Street, which was also the rear of the stores that faced the main street. Sidewalks were unheard of in rural towns in those days. Since the main street was dirt and much used by horses, the streets were either rather muddy or dusty from traffic and weather conditions. The sidewalk, providing the ladies a place to show off their new dresses without tracking through the muck to do so, literally turned the town around. The storekeepers had to put new fronts on the back of their buildings--fronts in the English fashion for Mr. Johnson had also passed an ordinance that required this style.
The railroad considered Hollister its favorite child and gave the little English village in the heart of the Ozark hills national publicity. With this publicity and the recent release of the best selling novel, the area was well on its way to becoming a very popular tourist center.
People poured into the Hollister railroad station by the hundreds. The station was so crowded that three depots were required to handle the traffic--one for freight, one regular and one especially for tourists. The popularity increased to the extent that the railroad set up a special package deal for vacationers from New York to Hollister. There was not a lot to do but see the country, but they came nevertheless.
There were no convenient accommodations as we know them today, only the English Inn across the street from the railroad station and the American House, a log cabin hotel which advertised, "Rooms, neat, clean and moral." Since these two hotels did not furnish enough rooms, the majority of the visitors pitched their tents on the hillsides all around.
Hollister's popularity lasted until the mid 1940's when a big flood filled the streets with water and the visitors staying at the English Inn had to be rescued from the second floor by a row boat in the lobby. After this the buildings on Front Street were boarded up with cedar slabs until the mid 1960's when the village was revived. The local people held a barbeque on Front Street to raise the money to have it widened. For five or six years the little village had a good tourist population, but was forgotten again. At the present time several local historians are trying to get it declared an historical landmark.
Even though Hollister was first, Branson plays a much more important role in the tourism industry now. Branson had its beginning in 1882 when Reuben S. Branson from Greene County homesteaded a piece of ground along a freight road from Springfield, Missouri to Harrison, Arkansas, and started a general store and post office.
Word of a railroad near Hollister in 1903 aroused interest in good business prospects, and in the following year a bank, a hotel and livery stable opened. By the end of another year a new school district was created, and the completion of the railroad continued to draw in new residents, mostly from Tennessee and Kentucky.
In 1907 when the tourism boom occurred in Hollister after the publication of The Shepherd of the Hills, sightseers began pouring into the area. They came to watch the characters from the novel, to see the beautiful country painted by the words of Harold Bell Wright, and to get away from the cities and into the serenity of the hills.
To them the hills were serene, but no longer so for the residents who were plagued with tourists. When the Hall family lived in what came to be known as the Jim Lane cabin in Mutton Hollow, tourists would constantly be at their door asking for things. ?ne of the common souvenirs they asked for was a rock from the fireplace. Since there were no shops for the people to purchase a token to prove that they had visited the Ozarks, Mrs. Hall would oblige them by removing a loose rock to give to them. When they had gone she would go out in the back yard to find another rock to replace it.
The stories of how people reacted to Mr. Wright after the novel was published vary. Some say the Rosses remained friends and the community continued to welcome him. Others like Chris Meadows, who has played the part of Old Matt for years indicates the book caused bad feelings. [*Meadows, Chris (Old Matt) SHORT STORIES AND POEMS OF THE OZARK HILLS, School of the Ozarks Press, 197 I, pp.63-64.]
"The story published in the book did not end there. It did the one thing the mountain people hated the most. It gave the outside world a view into their lives and their way of living," he wrote. "It was quite awhile after Wright left the hills before the book was published. These people had no way of knowing just what he intended to do with the questions he asked and the answers he got. He was a good Christian man trying to help the people and they respected him as a preacher. Had they known what would happen, he would have been told to get out because of the invasion into their private lives. He started strangers coming into the hills to see and ask the mountain people questions and to run over their homesteads. They resented this invasion of their property and lives. These were sacred to them. Old Matt and Aunt Molly gave up their homestead, and moved deeper into the hills to escape the trouble that Wright had caused them. The old mill sat idle where once the friends of the Ross family came to have their grain ground into meal, where they came to visit among their own people, and where news was exchanged among them, for this was the meeting place for the people of the community. Now all was gone because the Ross family had befriended a preacher who had betrayed their confidence. He was no longer welcome in the Hills.
"Old Matt and Aunt Molly lived out their lives in the new home, never forgiving Wright.
"By this invasion of those things that were so great and good to them--the life they held so dear--the life they had looked forward to when they left their former homes and emigrated to this new land, their whole world was changed. But a change would have come regardless with the new people buying land and building new homes. It brought in new ways and new ideas. Slowly but inevitably the change would have come. But the old-timers still stuck to their own customs. The new generation was willing to accept the change. It was a better way of life for them. The resentment of strangers disappeared, though it took a great many years."
The people were not yet used to all the tourists that came because of Hollister and the book when another attraction was added. Powersite Dam was completed across the White River in 1913 to form Lake Taneycomo, (named after Taney County, Missouri, contrary to the old tale that it was an Indian name from which the county was named.) This lake provided the tourist with another pastime, bringing in even more to enjoy the cool clean Ozark lake.
Today when tourism is so much a part of the area, most of the people are a part of it in one way or another. Native residents and newcomers react to it in different ways.
Ella Dunn said, "The love neighbors used to have for each other is gone. Used to be when a newcomer moved in the folks around them went to visit. They returned the visit and soon were very close friends. Now most of the people here are newcomers. The tourist trade lets people here live better, but I think we had a better world without it."
Many inhabitants moved away. Some older people who stayed try to ignore the invasion of their homeland by vacationers, commercial establishments and whole towns of retired people like Kimberling City by pretending they don't exist. Many who have lived in the area all their lives watched the birth of tourism and the outsiders coming in and building the attractions that brought even more people, yet they themselves never attended the play or any of the other attractions. Why should they, they reason. They knew the real thing. Why see a re-enaction? Some local artists and craftsmen benefit by the crafts exhibits at Silver Dollar City, but others abhor the commercialism of their way of life.
Some of the people are glad that tourism has brought in so much business, realizing that before there were fewer opportunities of making a good living. However, Glenn Thornton, local plumbing contractor, does not agree. "I'd much rather it was left like it was before being built up. I would have enjoyed my work more and probably have been as well off financially. There are so many people now--so conjested--it takes away from what it was. Besides, the biggest percent of the big tourist money goes to foreigners."
Gil Elmore said, "It was kind of rough around here back in the early part of the century. People raised what they ate. They all had a cow for milk and a few chickens. They raised a garden and put out corn for their stock. It was a poor living--a very poor living--mostly agriculture. Oh, some of them made it in timber. They had a pencil factory for the cedar and some would make their living that way. Most of it was just kind of rough life. Now if it wasn't for the tourism here this area would be a lot like it is in the coal mining areas in Virginia--it would be a destitute area because there's not much of a way to make a living here. This community here has kept industry out because of tourism, for the two just don't mix very well."
Tourism is now the number one industry in the area. It is estimated that about 75% of the jobs are directly connected with tourism. Mr. Elmore believes that 100% of the jobs are dependent on tourism. "Even though they're not directly related, some of them make better wages because of tourism. Even the funeral home, because the people live through tourism, and the more money they make the better funeral they can have."
There are very few other industries and they are concentrated in Branson. The area Chamber of Commerce welcomes any new compatible non-polluting industries. There is a cheese factory, an asphalt company, a garment factory, a charcoal plant, several contractors and some smaller craft oriented industries. It is quite obvious that most of these could not exist without the mass number of tourists in the area each year.
Within the past twenty years the population of Branson has doubled to its present 2,400. But, each summer an increasing number of tourists fill the 8,000 motel rooms and the over 700 camping spaces enticed by the construction of two more lakes and several new tourist attractions.
In the late 1950's Table Rock and Bull Shoals Dams were built on the White River, the first above and the second below the much smaller Lake Taneycomo. These lakes contributed greatly to the increase in tourism providing fishing, boating, swimming and other water sports as well as power for wide areas of Missouri and Arkansas.
Gil Elmore thinks that at first the lakes themselves were the main attraction, but now they are of secondary importance in the west Branson area. Most of the tourists come to visit Silver Dollar City and to see the play, and then go to the lake to spend another day. Farther up the lake away from all the attractions is where the fishermen go.
Probably the largest and fastest growing attraction to come in after the lakes were built is Silver Dollar City, a re-creation of an 1880 mining town. There are twenty-four native crafts in action daily such as wood carving, basket weaving, candle making and blacksmithing. In the spring and fall an Ozarks crafts festival features over a hundred craftsmen. There are also amusements at the park such as an authentic steam train, a float trip through a flooded silver mine and underground roller coaster called Fire in the Hole. The entire park is built over beautiful Marvel Cave and a ticket into the park is also admission to a tour of the cave. The park tries to keep the Ozark look and atmosphere within its bounds with native costumes, crafts, buildings and furnishings.
Another very popular attraction is the Shepherd of the Hills Farm. This attraction is built on the Old Ross homestead, the setting of Wright's novel. One of the features is Old Matt's cabin which has been restored with all the original furnishing. Lizzie McDaniels was the first of several who have promoted the site. In 1926 she bought the homestead and moved her house from Springfield to the farm. Her house is now part of the museum. She would sit in the lawn of Old Matt's cabin and read portions of the book to spectators.
The feature attraction at the farm however, is the dramatic production of The Shepherd of the Hills. This remarkable outdoor play, presented nightly from April through October, is an authentic portrayal of the novel using 85% of the dialogue straight from Harold Bell Wright --quite different from the first movie. All the actors in the play are local amateurs. The directors prefer that the people have very little or no prior acting experiences, so that the true native Ozarkians playing the part of one of his predecessors. Most of the actors have other jobs or attend the nearby college, The School of the Ozarks, playing the parts as an extra income or hobby. Several of the ninety actors are also employed at the Farm in the day, for it takes many people to operate the business, to have everything ready for the next performance, act as guides on the tours during the day and staff the shops for daytime visitors.
The theater, on the actual mill site just down the hill from the cabin, seats 1,700 people. The producers have designed an ingenious sound system to insure good audio effects. The actors speak from a huge arena which includes the mill, the Shepherd's cabin, a square dance platform and a road big enough to hold several teams, wagons and buggies at one time.
Not far from the Shepherd of the Hills Farm is Mutton Hollow where more cabins that were the homes of characters in the novel have been made into a museum. Trail rides and other native festivities are also a part of this attraction.
On the highway between Branson and Silver Dollar City there are four large music theaters where native musicians provide nightly entertainment for the entire family.
Some not so native attractions provide transportation around the area and also a way to enjoy the hills in a different method. Helicopters, amphibian vehicles and bus trips are ways to see the area other than driving your own car and stopping where you want and staying as long as you like. However, there are some disadvantages to driving your car. Once last season the traffic became so heavy that people were backed up seven miles waiting for a traffic light to change. During peak days it may take twenty to thirty minutes to turn off the highway into the road leading to Silver Dollar City. To remedy this bulldozers level the hills to widen the highways.
Each year hundreds of thousands of tourists visit. In 1976 the figures reached the highest level ever with two million tourists staying an average of three days. The amount of money brought in by tourism is almost unbelievable--about $180,400,000.00 in 1976, one of the biggest years ever.
We asked Mr. Elmore if the recent recession or the energy crisis had hurt their business any? He was very quick in replying, "No, I think starting with the gasoline shortage its helped us. The more the gas is restricted and money is restricted for getting long distances the shorter the trips people take. So where else can they go?"
The facts and figures represent the tourist season--April through October. After this the tourist businesses close. Some of the people make enough money from their establishments in the summer to live all winter, others draw unemployment, and still others must find other employment for the winter. Mr. Elmore quoted an old fellow who was asked how they made a living in this area, "In the summer we live off tourists like you, and in the winter we live off each other."
But though hundreds of people come to the area to retire, an unfortunate result of tourism as the main source of income forces the college educated young people to go elsewhere for jobs. Then, if they are fortunate and make enough money, they can afford to return and retire themselves.
Though the Taney County people have benefitted financially with all this business, they are not the ones getting rich. It is the people who come in from the outside with capital to open a business or promote new attractions. They are the ones to reap the profit and get the big paying jobs these establishments provide. Just as Harold Bell Wright became rich from his book about the region, so have many others following him used the Ozark people and their land for their own profit.
The area is a very beautiful and an exciting place to visit. What we really enjoyed was the beauty of the as yet unspoiled hills you can see in all directions from the top of Inspiration Point. Visiting in the winter months can be a special treat to see the country without all the people. In January we drove for several miles on a road lined with closed motels and resorts and suddenly came to the free open hills where man has not yet erected his buildings and paved his parking lots. The amazing change takes place so quickly that one glance shows restaurants, gift shops, and motels closed for the season, and another look brings the wide open beauty of the Ozark hills from which the Shepherd found his strength and peace.
But these hills are rapidly being destroyed. Driving through the forest with nothing but tall towering oaks on either side of the highway, for three or four miles, suddenly we came to a break in the trees and saw to the right a huge concrete structure being built. From the design we could see it would soon be a motel.
It is not hard either to tell that Harold Bell Wright was very instrumental in making the area what it is today. The billboards are plastered with his name or the names of his characters. Over twenty-five of the businesses in the immediate area are named for characters or happenings in his book, such as Little Pete's Cafe, Shepherd of the Hills Real Estate and Sammy Lane Pirate Cruise. The names taken from the novel are not limited just to that area but extend even to Lebanon, eighty miles away and Jefferson City, 180 miles away which have a motel and a subdivision respectively named Shepherd Hills. Mr. Wright had a big and lasting effect on the area.
But even as the buildings, lakes and highways cover it up, the beauty of the Ozark hills will live in the words of many authors. Harold Bell Wright is one of them.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.