Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992


Spring 1990

An Advocate Looks At

Ozark Mountain Country

by Peter Herschend



With the rare insight given to one having perfect hindsight, I have taken a retrospective look at what I believe has really made a difference in the life, culture, and economy of Ozark Mountain Country during this century.

There are, I believe, five significant things which have helped separate Ozark Mountain Country from other equally beautiful, if less blessed, parts of the Ozarks.

First, reaching back to earlier history, one comes to the book, The Shepherd of the Hills, and its author, Harold Bell Wright. The fact that Wright came here to Taney and Stone counties--that he did not instead end up in Shannon and Ripley or in Laclede and Dallas Counties--is our region's good fortune. Had The Shepherd of the Hills not been written here, equally poignant tales might have been found by a creative writer in other parts of the Ozarks; but it was to our hills that Harold Bell Wright came, and it was about our hills that he wrote his story which would become our story.

The second step in this progression happened many years later. While Table Rock Dam had been in the planning for thirty years or more, it was finally built and closed in the late '50s. Table Rock Lake itself came into being in the winter of 1959 and the spring of 1960, and has played an immeasurable role in making Ozark Mountain Country different from much of the rest of the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks.

Lake Taneycomo certainly played an earlier role; but in terms of impact on people who are able to travel, and who travel by automobile, no single event so focused on one point in time has had the impact of Table Rock Lake.

Number three in the chain of important events is the advent of Silver Dollar City. The City started as a fledgling attraction (it operated in 1960 only as an adjacency to Marvel Cave), but has grown to be an industry with a national reputation and attracting ability.

As I searched my mind about what turned Silver Dollar City from a small local business to an enterprise of national standing, I believe the single most propelling event occurred in 1967 when one of the then top-of-the-television-rating shows, The Beverly Hillbillies, came to Silver Dollar City for five days of filming. The impact of that publicity was felt almost instantly, and continues even today because of the hundreds of re-runs of episodes of Beverly Hillbillies throughout the country.

The fourth factor that truly made a difference is one we may seldom think about. Smith Brookhart, President of Ozark Mountain Bank, deserves the credit for pointing it out. That was the mostly unheralded and unsung effect of "new" Highway 65 from Springfield to the Arkansas state line. When that highway opened in the mid '60s, all of a sudden Ozark Mountain Country became much closer to everywhere.

The travel time that the new Highway 65 cut on a trip from Springfield to Branson was not of great significance--perhaps 15 minutes. But the perception of proximity (and ease of access) that the new, straighter road gave, made all the difference in the world to people who lived in St. Louis, Kansas City, Tulsa, and beyond.

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The last point in this historical list of major factors in the development of Ozark Mountain Country is the collective impact of what is now called the music show industry. Probably no single show in and of itself would cause thousands of visitors to come to Ozark Mountain Country; but the music business, starting with a few very small shows, has built to an industry which now has more than 41,000 seats. The collective impact has been a reputation-maker for Ozark Mountain Country.

I do not know what will create the next major step in the growth of Ozark Mountain Country. I do know, from an historic perspective, that we are a region that is blessed to have had these five significant influences in our corner, giving us the ability to attract the 3.5 to 4 million visitors that we saw here in 1989.

From time to time I have been asked what I might have done differently years ago if I had had both the wisdom and the ability. My answer is always one that Ben Parnell [long-time Branson banker and civic leader] gave in wise counsel several years ago: "In the 1950s and 1960s, when our region was starting to grow rapidly, planning and zoning should have been developed, not just for the cities, but for all of Taney and Stone Counties." Growth and planning should be combined into "planned growth."

Planned growth that would cause significant parts of our Ozarks to be preserved for future generations to see and enjoy.

Planned growth, so that our highways could be built wide enough to handle traffic, and even expanded, without having to destroy businesses.

Planned growth, for intelligent development of public utilities.

Planned growth, to prevent trash from being part of the view from the highway.

Ben Parnell was right then, and I believe he is still right. The greatest single danger that our entire community faces today is not an immediate lack of visitors--people all of a sudden deciding that Ozark Mountain Country is not where they want to be and that they would,instead, rather go to the Niangua River. The greatest danger that we have in Ozark Mountain Country today is that we will bury ourselves in trash. That we will cause a significant drop in the quality of our ground water. That we will allow the water in our rivers and lakes to deteriorate to the point that they are no longer perceived by ourselves and our visitors as being clean and pure.

Planning /zoning does not guarantee good results, but it enables our generation, and generations yet to come, to have significant tools available to combat the problems. Across the broad stretches of Taney and Stone Counties for all practical purposes there are today no such tools; or, in those areas where they are in place, they lack public support and enforcement capability.

More than a few times you hear residents in the community complaining about "the tourists."

Sometimes the traffic and congestion can become quite frustrating. I submit, however, that the benefits of having tourism in a community far outweigh the drawbacks. Specific example: Skaggs Hospital. Name another county of 30,000 residents that can support an excellent hospital like Skaggs.

School districts in our region, including Springfield, have a significantly higher valuation upon which they may build their budgets than do districts that are out of the flow of tourist traffic. There are employment opportunities for young people. Throughout Ozark Mountain Country there is not a high school-age or college-age student who wishes to work in the summertime who will fail to find a job. By comparison, you can go fifty miles in any direction from the Greene-Christian-Taney-Stone County area and find almost no summer employment available to the young men and women who live in those locations.

The city of Branson was able to build an excellent city hall and administrative facility with no tax increase to its residents, and is well on its way to curbing and paving every street within its city limits. Other rural Missouri towns of 3000 population often fall far short of what this one town is able to do, no matter what the point of comparison.

As often as I am asked about the past, requests come for my thoughts about the future. My crystal ball is a little cloudy, but I see some imperatives:

We must deal with the question of proper waste management. If we do not, we will see a cessation of growth and an erosion in our visitor base.

We must deal with the question of effective planning and zoning so that the Ozarks, so special to all of us and to our visitors, is preserved for all time. This idea goes against the grain with lots of people, but I know that if we fail to plan for our collective future, we are, in fact, allowing ourselves to be driven by any wind that blows. Where we wind up will not be in our control.

What will distinguish our own four-county part of the Ozarks in the long haul will be our ability, collectively and individually, to focus on supplying the needs of the visitors who choose to give us the opportunity to serve them. We must do so with a fierce determination. It is ultimately the guests who visit Ozark Mountain Country (and who will return for other visits) with whom we must be concerned. If we fail to focus on these guests, we will lose them forever. And that is a price that our community does not have to pay.

By recognizing our absolute need for excellent guest services, we can ensure that our present generation enjoys the social, cultural, and economic benefits of a healthy and affordable place to work. Furthermore, we can know that future generations who will call Ozark Mountain Country home will have a heritage that can be enjoyed by them, and by untold millions of visitors yet to come.

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Peter Herschend is Executive Vice-President of Silver Dollar City in Taney County, Missouri. He is a founder and currently president of the Marketing Council of Ozark Mountain Country--a touristic area defined broadly by the organization as "Springfield south to Branson and the lakes, "and encompassing the four southwest Missouri counties of Greene, Christian, Taney, and Stone.
Hugo and Mary Herschend, with their children Peter and Jack, moved to the Ozarks in 1950 from Illinois, having taken a 99-year lease on Marvel Cave. Silver Dollar City opened at the cave location in 1960, attracting some 60,000 visitors. In its 1989 season, the City hosted over 1.6 million guests.


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