Vol. III, No. 4, Spring 1990


Old Matt's Cabin

By Lynn Morrow



"Old Matt's Cabin,"the J. K. Ross house, is a symbol of tourism in the Shepherd of the Hills country of Taney County. Soon after Harold Bell Wright's The Shepherd of the Hills, was published in 1907, tourists began arriving on the new White River railroad to visit the locations described in the book and to meet the real life counterparts of Wright's fictional characters. The Ross house consequently became one of the most visited and photographed houses in Missouri. In 1982 Southwest Missouri State University art historian David Quick successfully nominated the Ross House to the National Register of Historic Places.

John K. Ross, born in the 1850s, grew up in eastern Pennsylvania as the son of a Union Army veteran. After the Civil War Ross hired out to other farmers to help support his parents. The family moved to western Pennsylvania and then to western Indiana where the parents remained. Young John migrated to Kansas, married a Kansas girl, moved to Iowa, and then back to Indiana. His first wife died, leaving John with a young son, Charles.

John Ross married again, this time a Kentucky girl. Attracted by promotional ads of the Kansas City, Ft. Scott, and Memphis railroad, the couple migrated to West Plains, Missouri. Shortly thereafter they moved to Greene County and made their home in Springfield. There they rented a large house and advertised for boarders. John was a skilled carpenter and soon the construction work he was able to get supported the family and ended the need to rent out rooms for extra income. The Rosses bought forty acres ten miles from Springfield, but John continued to work in town. The Panic of 1893 led to foreclosure on the farm; however, the Rosses were able to sell it before it was lost.

In the mid-1890s John and his son, Charles, by then a young man, scouted the White River country to the south. At the U.S. land office in Springfield they filed a homestead claim to public land in northwest Taney County. Charles and John left Mrs. Ross and a young daughter in Greene County, then went to Taney County to begin homesteading.

In the fall of 1895 the two Ross men built a single pen log house on their homesteaded land, and soon the family was reunited there.

The original pen or room was large, some 20 by 14 feet, and remarkably well-squared. Ross did not build a typical pioneer folk house, but rather used construction techniques usually employed in frame buildings--rafters cut into the top plates; joists exactly centered, and floorboards tightly fitted--building methods which bear witness to his building experience and carpentry skills. The log joints are half-dovetail and chinking was done with lime mortar and pieces of wood laid diagonally. Later the chinking was reinforced with concrete. Sawn lumber for the house came from a nearby sawmill operated by the Rosses. The continuous fieldstone footings are a remarkable feature of the house. A frame bedroom and kitchen on the west were an important later addition.

The original John Ross house. Note absence of fire-place--the house was equipped with stove and flue.

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The family first occupied their new house in the spring of 1896. In the summer of that same year, scarcely before they were settled, Kansas City minister Harold Bell Wright visited the area and made their acquaintence. He later corresponded with them, and sent them a copy of his first book, That Printer of Udell's, (published in 1903). Several years later, when Wright returned to the Ozarks to recover from poor health, he received permission to camp on a knoll in the Rosses' cornfield, a location now known as Inspiration Point. It is here that he conceived The Shepherd of the Hills novel. Charles guided and travelled with Wright throughout the countryside and the Rosses became the model for Wright's Matthews family--Old Matt, Aunt Mollie, and Young Matt.

In 1910 the Rosses moved north into Roark Valley, next to the railroad at Garber, to become hamlet merchants and operate the post office. M. R. Driver, a physical education instructor at Fairmont College, Wichita, Kansas, purchased the old house and farm from the Rosses. Driver was a promoter who made "Old Matt's" a wayside inn for tourists. He expanded the property and hired caretakers to operate it. In 1913 he added a screened dining room on the north. The Rosses were entertained at the opening, and before the season was over that year, between six and seven hundred tourists had dined at the homestead. A chimney with flanking windows was added on the east, along with stone porch pillars, as part of Driver's rustic interpretation of a summer resort.

The Rosses, both husband and wife, died in 1923. Charles was killed in a motorcycle accident in California in 1934. Pearl Spurlock, famous Branson area promoter and taxi driver for tourists during the 1920s, began a monument fund in 1924 for the unmarked graves of the Rosses. In October, 1925, poet John Neihardt gave the dedicatory speech at the unveiling of the Ross marker at Evergreen cemetery, a short distance from the homestead and cabin.

In 1926 M. R. Driver sold the 160 acre homestead to Mrs. Lizzie McDaniel (King). She remodeled all the buildings at the farm, reclaimed furniture original to the house, and converted the barn into comfortable sleeping quarters for tourists. Bertha and Marie Haberman of Haberman Art Studios, McDaniel's Springfield associates in this Shepherd of the Hills tourism venture, opened the Twin Pine Inn (including cottages, a store, and gas station) at the fork of the Dewey Bald and Compton Ridge roads, two miles west of Old Matt's Cabin.

Lizzie McDaniel made the Ross house her residence, and in 1934 dismantled her Springfield house and had it reassembled east of the Ross house. It later became a museum. Miss Lizzie leased Inspiration Point to the State of Missouri for a public roadside automobile park, and joined with other promoters in calling for improved roads and more accessibility to the area for tourists. After McDaniel died in 1946 the Civic League of Branson assumed ownership of the house. Dr. and Mrs. Bruce Trimble acquired the remainder of the estate. Dr. Trimble, a former professor at the University of Kansas City, maintained the Ross homesite, opened a coffee and novelty shop, and made Miss Lizzie's house into a museum that featured Rose O'Neill creations. He began constructing an amphitheatre on the property, but died in 1957 before it was finished. In 1960 his widow, Mrs. Mary Trimble, and son, Mark, completed the amphitheatre and began producing a dramatized version of The Shepherd of the Hills. The pageant is performed for over 250,000 guests annually, the most attended outdoor theatre performance in the United States. The property is now owned and operated by Gary Snadon.

The Ross house, now become "Old Matt's Cabin." The fireplace was intended to augment its rustic, traditional appearance. The stone steps and porch pillars draw from the traditions of eastern resort architecture.

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The J. K. Ross house, "Old Matt's Cabin," remains a Taney County treasure, well preserved and much visited.

Lynn Morrow is a Taney County public historian and consulting editor to Ozarks Watch.


Copyright -- OzarksWatch


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