Almost everyone coming to Branson either knows or quickly finds out, that the “Baldknobbers” was Branson’s first show, “the show that started it all.” Yet long before there was a Baldknobbers Jamboree or the city of Branson was incorporated on April 1, 1912, the “Bald Knobbers” had already become infused into the history and legend of the Ozarks and the area that has become one of the most popular family tourist destinations in America, Branson, Missouri.
As often happens, something good ended up going horribly wrong. In 1883 a group of men, led by Nathaniel Kinney formed a group to protect Taney County citizens against the actions of the “outlaws” who had come into the area. They got their name, “Bald Knobbers” because they met on the bald area on top of one of the areas mountains and were known for the distinctive masks they wore. They accomplished their initial objective and as a result, gained a lot of, what these days we call “political power”. Unfortunately, along with that power, they became a law unto themselves even to the point where Kinney shot one of the “anti-Bald Knobber” leaders in “cold blood” and it was deemed “self-defense.”
Their vigilante tactics lost them public support and the original Taney County Bald Knobbers were dissolved under the supervision of the Missouri Governor’s office. Ironically, even though the Bald Knobbers he started had been disbanded, Kinney himself was assassinated by an assassin hired by an “anti Bald Knobber” group and his assassin was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
All this might have been a little noted spot in history, but for Harold Bell Wright’s landmark novel “Shepherd of the Hills” which was published in 1907 and featured the Bald Knobbers as the villains. It could be said that book and the tourists it brought to the Branson area to see the areas mentioned in the book were the initial “sparks” of tourism for the Branson area that over the years, has evolved into the Branson of today, with all it has to offer.
In 1959, Harold Bell Wright’s novel was brought to life in an inspirational and spectacular fashion in the Shepherd of Hills Outdoor Drama, conducted on the very land where Wright wrote his novel. This action filled, inspirational drama has a cast of almost 100; is performed on an outdoor stage that is almost the size of a football field; has galloping horses, a buckboard, and the “Bald Knobbers” actually burning a cabin every night and will complete its 55th season with its Oct. 25, 2014 performance.
In 1960, the Mabe family decided to start a show to provide evening entertainment for the tourists who were coming to the Branson area as a result of a new theme park that had just opened, Silver Dollar City, and the completion of Table Rock Dam with its resulting 43,000 plus square acre Table Rock Lake. Bob Mabe, one of the original members of the group said that he came up with the name “Baldknobbers” and that it “was chosen from the book.” Anecdotally, he said, “I wished afterwards that I had said the “Mabe Brothers” instead because of the four of us brothers [Bill, Bob, Jim and Lyle].”
The Baldknobbers Jamboree has been continuously entertaining audiences ever since and is acknowledged as Branson’s first show, but before there was a “Shepherd of the Hills,” novel, a “Branson” or a “Baldknobbers Jamboree” there was the “Bald Knobbers.”