|Vol. III, No. 4, Spring 1990|
The Beginnings of Tourism in Missouri's White River Country
by Linda Myers-Phinney
Virgil, in the first century B. C. used the Greek region of Arcadia as a symbol of rustic simplicity and happiness. Arcadia, in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, is defined as "A region or scene of simple pleasure and quiet." The writer of a brochure for the Lake Taneycomo Chamber of Commerce in 1926 might well have been equating Forsyth, Missouri with Arcadia as he described that village:
Forsyth is the ideal spot for the vacationist. Her time-hewn hills call back to mind those almost forgotten days when man walked close to nature, those unhurried days when people had time to really live....The circling bluff, the noble trees with their refreshing shade, the unhindered creek moving tirelessly on its way, call one from the artificiality of our modern life to the simple days of nature. Forsyth offers you a spot where man has not yet marred the glory of the firm set hills....Forsyth is the dimple spot on the face of nature.
Between 1870 and 1920 America changed from being predominantly rural to predominantly urban, and industry replaced agriculture in the economic hierarchy. As cities loomed ever larger, the country landscape appeared to shrink.
And as the country (i.e. nature) seemed to disappear, it became ever more desirable. Country, assigned the attributes of Arcadian happiness, was viewed as an escape from the pressures of urban living, and nature became the symbol of a simpler, less stressful way of life. To the increasingly wealthy upper and middle classes who were vaguely ill-at-ease with their lifestyles, spending leisure time in the country seemed to ease the cultural transition from rurality to urbanity.
But those who visited the country wanted to experience it in a limited sense. They did not care to
confront the truth of country life--that it meant hard, unrelenting work, long hours for little
remuneration, and the lack of modern conveniences. They did not wish to confront the feral, the
fierce, or the uncouth; those things were unpleasant, and unpleasantness was not what they
looked for in the country. To make a country stay agreeable, therefore, travelers took the
comforts of urban life with them. While they sought refuge from the turmoil of modern life, they
did not reject its watered-down presence in the country. Most stayed in resorts, camps, and
country clubs where nature had been groomed to an acceptably controlled level, tamed by the
presence of modern amenities.
Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century Missouri's White River country, in all its apparent wildness, was "discovered" by those who wanted to experience nature. Three events, occurring in less than a decade, combined to encourage this process of discovery and to establish tourism as a part of the region's life.
First, access to the region was dramatically improved by the coming, in 1905, of the White River Division Railway to Taney and Stone Counties where the many natural recreational resources had previously been used by only a hardy few. Second, the area received nation-wide promotion with the publication of The Shepherd of the Hills, a 1907 novel by Harold Bell Wright, written in the Taney-Stone County area and which depicted the locale as an escape from civilization's cares. Third, the impoundment of Lake Taneycomo in 1913 offered visitors a family recreational setting, which was promoted as inspirational, natural, and wholesome.
At a time when many Americans were seeking a rural retreat to escape the problems of modern life, Missouri's White River Valley provided an Arcadian answer.
The White River Line, built by the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad and completed in 1905, ran 254 miles from Carthage, Missouri, to Newport, Arkansas, and generally followed the course of the White River. The railroad provided comfortable, affordable access to the White River hills, where terrain had previously discouraged travel. The rail line fostered an increasingly diverse commerce which centered around tourism. Souvenir post cards, for example, were sent far and wide, and john boats, designed and manufactured by a Stone Countian, were purchased by clients as far away as Canada. In the service of tourism, amenities such as electricity, decent roads, and indoor plumbing were introduced into the upper White River Valley.
Area development for, and by, outsiders began almost immediately after the arrival of the railroad. Following the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition World's Fair in St. Louis, a group of St. Louis sportsmen bought the State of Maine's exhibition building. Naming themselves the Maine Club, they acquired some 207 acres of land overlooking the White River south of Hollister in Taney County. In 1905 the Maine exhibition building was dismantled, shipped by rail to Hollister, and reassembled on the Maine Club property. In 1906 it opened as a lodge for St. Louis members who came to hunt and fish, arriving, of course, on the new White River Railroad.
The following year, 1907, The Shepherd of the Hills was published. Harold Bell Wright was himself an urban tourist who had sought respite from poor health in the wholesomeness of the White River hills. He camped one summer west of Branson and began writing a novel. By critical standards The Shepherd of the Hills could hardly be judged great literature, but it proved a roaring popular success. Wright's biographer, Lawrence Tagg, attributed this largely to the book's timing: a public steeped in the back-to-nature ethos wanted decent, outdoor romances with a clear-cut, moral message, and Wright provided just that.
Within three years of its publication people came to explore the book's settings, which were not fictitious. Visitors could actually trace the steps of the book's characters and find residents who seemed to be Wright's characters. They could visit with Levi Morrill, upon whom Wright had modeled "Uncle Ike," at the Notch Post Office and tour the homestead (Old Matt's Cabin) of Mr. and Mrs. J. K. Ross, themselves loosely used by Wright as the patterns for "Old Matt and Aunt Molly." The book became so closely identified with that environment that it came to define the district, creating a roughly outlined geographical region west of Branson known as "Shepherd of the Hills Country."
Meanwhile, plans had begun for what was to be the area's greatest tourist attraction--Lake Taneycomo. In 1910 the Ambersen Hydraulic Construction Company examined possible sites for a power-generating dam planned by the Ozark Power and Water Company. The place chosen lay upstream a short distance from Forsyth, in Taney County. Construction started in 1911 on the Ozark Beach Dam, also known as Powersite Dam.
Ozark Beach [later Power-site] Dam under construction. Camp Ozark in background housed a thousand construction workers.
Impounded in early 1913 by the new dam, Lake Taneycomo triggered development all along its shores. One of the largest projects was Rockaway Beach. Platted in 1914 as a pleasure resort, between mid-September 1914 and January 1915 all lots were sold and twelve houses built. By 1925 the thriving town boasted a dance pavilion on which an orchestra performed all summer, new summer cottages, and the addition of sixteen rooms to the Taneycomo Hotel. Newly-installed electric lights illuminated the bathing beach and diving tower.
R. W. Wilson's Cliff House Club, above the dam at the town of Powersite, enjoyed similar expansion. The lake's oldest resort (1913), the Cliff House Club by the mid 1920's boasted clay tennis courts, private dances, and an excellent dining room. In 1926 the original clubhouse was torn down and a new one begun at an estimated cost of $50,000.
The White River Railway (which became the Missouri Pacific after a 1917 merger) was active in establishing the area as a tourist mecca. It commenced the development of a resort town along the rail line. This was Hollister, in west-central Taney County near the White River. Unlike many villages which sprang up along the track, Hollister was a planned community--a collaboration between Springfield developer William H. Johnson and the railroad. By 1910 the rail company had constructed Hollister's English-style depot, and in 1911 the town was turned around--replatted so that it faced the depot rather than away from it. The railroad assigned Jerry S. Butterfield, a landscape engineer, to beautify the town, and subsequently enforced modernization by insisting that if Butterfield's work were to continue, a stock law must be passed to prevent farm animals from roaming Hollister at will. For many years the railroad publicized Hollister and the whole White River region, offering special excursion rates to weekend and holiday visitors and summer tourists.
Besides its many tourist camps and two inns, Hollister had two institutions which hosted numerous visitors and promoted the area. The summer recreational facilities of both the Southwest Presbyterian Assembly (Presbyterian Hill) and the Y.M.C.A. camp welcomed visitors, then sent them home with an expanded knowledge of the area's attractions.
Promotion of the White River Valley area of Southwest Missouri came from many sources. Tourist-supported enterprises such as the railway and various boating companies actively touted the Taneycomo region, as did people motivated solely by personal enthusiasm.
As the image of the area as a playground gained momentum, thirteen counties in southwest
Missouri and northwest Arkansas institutionalized the playground idea and organized the Ozark
Playgrounds Association in the fall of 1919. Aimed at publicizing the Ozarks and encouraging
tourism, the O.P.A. adopted the slogan, "The Land of a Million Smiles." The motto adorned
picture postcards and entitled poems and songs. The O.P.A. published an annual illustrated
guidebook, a "Master Map of the Ozarks," and ran advertisements in leading newspapers in
southern and mid-western states.
An Early excursion boat on Lake Taneycomo
Photography was important in promotion, and popular souvenir postcards spread the word, and the image, of the Ozarks far and wide. Artists were attracted to the region and their paintings served to publicize the area by displaying it visually. Rudolph F. Ingerie and Carl Krafft were among the artists who came from Chicago to the White River hills, and who later displayed their southwest Missouri canvasses, as well as those of local artists, as far away as Chicago and San Francisco. Ingerie and Krafft joined St. Louis artist Frank B. Nuderscher to found the Ozarks School of Artists, to help "bring before the American art lovers the beauty of this almost unknown section of the country."
The White River country lured writers as well as artists, and a multitude of articles on the region appeared in regional and national publications. The various forms of promotion--articles, paintings, photos, brochures, ads, books, and the informal spread of information--all communicated knowledge about the White River Valley and utilized, some blatantly and some subtly, the promise of Arcadia as a drawing card.
Tourists drawn to the lake area required things to do as well as places to stay, and enterprising business people lost no time in meeting their needs. In the first ten weeks after Lake Taneycomo filled, six excursion boats began operating out of Branson. These offered sightseeing trips downriver to the dam, moonlight rides, and later, dance trips complete with orchestra. While in the Shepherd of the Hills country, visitors could tour Marble Cave (later Marvel Cave and part of Silver Dollar City) and Fairy Cave (today operated as Talking Rocks Cavern). Or they could participate in local festivities: bronco-riding exhibitions, camping-out celebrations featuring nationally-known traveling vaudeville troupes, plays and musicals performed in Marble Cave, fiddling contests, art exhibits and competitions, and picnics. And there was always the lake for swimming and fishing.
Float fishing on the James River (which empties into the White River in southern Stone County) and the White River predated formation of the lake. The number of float fishermen coming to the area warranted the establishment at Galena in 1904 of Southwest Missouri's first commercial float fishing company. The longest and most popular float trip, which became known as the "Famous Galena to Branson Float," began at Galena, then went south on the James River. At the confluence of the James and White Rivers, the route turned east onto the White. It wound a total of 125 miles past the present sites of Cape Fair and Kimberling City, terminating at Branson. After the week-long trip floaters returned to Galena on the train, a ride of only 21 miles.
A number of camps serving the new river tourist trade lined the riverbanks of both the James and White Rivers. These camps not only provided scenic vacation spots for non-floaters but also offered alternatives to the week-long Galena to Branson expedition. People could, for example, float one day from Galena, ending the day at Bear Den Camp. Or they might choose to embark at
Bear Den and go one or two days further, returning by wagon either to the camp or Galena. These camps supplied stopping places for Branson-bound floaters as well, purveying accommodations which ranged from tents to running water and croquet courts.
With the influx of tourists which accompanied the lake's formation and increasing number of automobiles, it became evident that Taney and Stone Counties must provide better roads in order to keep visitors coming. Before cars became common, tourists arrived by train, then hiked or rode horses to local sights. At some locations horse-or mule-drawn wagons could be hired, but their utility depended partially on the existence of roads.
The growing local awareness of the need for better roads coincided with a national road-improvement movement. Prior to 1916 most read improvements were financed at the local level, often by volunteer booster organizations such as the Ozark Trails Association or the Branson Commercial Club. In both Taney and Stone Counties improvements were made, but they were woefully inadequate. This picture brightened, however, when in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Road Act which provided federal financing for rural road-building and required state participation in administration and funding. This took road development out of the realm of volun-teerism and placed it under governmental auspices. Consequently, roads in these counties were improved by 1926, although by modern standards their condition was still miserable. The best Stone County could boast was a 12-mile stretch of State Highway 43 (later 13) with a graded earth surface; the rest of it remained unimproved. Nevertheless, automobiles carrying visitors to Marvel Cave usually came through Reeds Spring on that highway because it was still the best route. The alternate way, from Branson around the southern foot of Dewey Bald Mountain, remained practically impassable until the creation of Highway 76 in 1933. Taney County had done better than Stone: the gravel-finished portion of Highway 3 (later 65) extended east to Forsyth. Improvements did shorten travel time considerably. By 1921 the trip from Springfield to Fairy Cave, a distance comparable to the mileage from Springfield to Branson, could be made in just over two and one-half hours.
The construction of the railroad, the dam, and better roads within these two counties were the key events in the modernization of Taney and Stone Counties between the turn of the century and 1930. These developments changed the White River country from a place characterized by frontier conditions to a tourist playground. The other great factor which brought modernity to the area was the tourists themselves. They were mostly urban, middle-class people who were acquainted with modern amenities and expected to find them wherever they went. In response to their tastes and demands, business people provided communication, transportation, recreation, electric lights, and running water while continuing, nevertheless, to promote the area as rustic, natural, and wholesome.
In 1916 the first electricity in these two counties was seen at Presbyterian Hill, where generating equipment had been installed. Parts of Branson were later illuminated, and in the 1920s Galena installed a streetlight system powered by its own generator. In 1925 power lines were strung from Powersite Dam upriver to Rockaway Beach, providing the area's first hydroelectric power. (Telephone service predated the tourist boom. Three companies had build lines as early as 1898 connecting Forsyth with Walnut Shade, Protem, and Chadwick. In March of 1904 lines linked Forsyth with Kirbyville and Branson, and in 1909 three phone systems centered at Hollister.)
Along the Galena to Branson float vacationers found many comforts. One enterprising businessman opened a cold drink and ice cream concession stand on the riverbank at Galena, and the owner of Arnold Lodge, near Galena, piped water to all his cabins. He built toilets, installed lavatories, a shower, and in his own home, a bathtub. This fixture caused one astounded visitor to exclaim, "What left me absolutely dazed was the ... revelation of a glistening bathtub with high-pressure running water. Imagine, a real, functioning bathtub at a river camp miles from where you'd expect it!" Many of the camps had dining rooms where meals could be purchased if one did not desire to cook, and float trip outfitters even carried ice for their clients' comfort on the river.
Although the appearance of rusticity was crucial to the image of the White country as an Arcadian paradise, "One does not need to 'rough it' .. at any season," a brochure of the co Ozark Playground Association promised. "Here you will find.., every accommodation provided by the most elaborate city hostelry." The Hotel Taneycomo in Rockaway Beach, for example, was described as "thoroughly modern with electric lights, running water, showers and toilets in every room."
Although Arcadia did not exist, it is not difficult to understand why people thought it lay in the upper White River Valley. Here they found an aesthetically pleasing physical environment that was not man-made and accommodations which were as primitive or as posh as they desired, although a rustic facade maintained the appearances of naturalness. And they escaped from the workday world in which they had been stressed to a revitalizing clime which induced in them a sense of well-being. Indeed, part of the mystique generated about the White River country was that the pure Ozark mountain air had a special, almost magical ability to induce good health. Some places even billed themselves as health resorts. Promoters of the healthy Ozarks boasted of its effects on Harold Bell Wright, who came to the area to convalesce, and on Levi Morrill, who supposedly came to Stone County after being told he had only a few months to live. After a short time in the mountain air, however, he cast aside the canes he walked with and lived 33 years longer to the age of 90. Pearl Spurlock, who operated a taxi service in the area, also emphasized the wholesomeness of the climate. In her book, Over the Old Ozark Trails in the Shepherd of the Hills Country, she recounted the tale of some great-great grandsons who wanted the family patriarch, aged 145, to die so they could finally receive their inheritance. They took him from the Ozarks to Chicago, where he promptly expired. When the family brought him back home to be buried, however, the Ozarks air resuscitated him. When he finally died of natural causes, the heirs interred him in Chicago to prevent another resurrection.
This was Arcadia, indeed!
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