Category Archives: History

Branson’s “zig-zag” streets testify to the time Branson “disappeared”

The Zig-Zag streets of Branson testify to the time Branson “disappeared.”

San Francisco’s “Lombard Street,” is famous for being steep and crooked, but has little to do with the early history of San Francisco. On the other hand, Branson’s “College Street,” with its unique “zig-zag” streets, while not as famous, has a lot to do with the early history of Branson.

“Most of the millions who visit Branson each year will never see this unique historic feature. It’s a great way to spend some time between enjoying Branson’s great live shows and attractions and experience Branson history,” said Preston Garrison, Director of Operations for the Branson Tourism Center. “Interestingly, many drive within two blocks of the zig-zag streets on their way to Branson Landing and Historic Downtown Branson,” he added.

As you drive east on Highway 76, Main Street, you will notice a McDonalds to the north (left). McDonalds is at the intersection of Sixth and Main Streets.

Turn right, onto “Sixth Street” and drive south two blocks, passing “Pacific Street” to the apparent end of Sixth Street at its intersection with College Street. It’s only when one “Zigs,” by turning left onto College Street and then, about a quarter of a block down College, “Zags” back onto Sixth Street by turning right, that the “zig-zag” alignment of Sixth Street becomes apparent. If the Sixth street turn is missed basically the same thing can be done by turning onto Fourth or Third Streets.

Some might ask the question, “Why didn’t the people who planned Branson simply have the streets go straight through?” The answer is because the city of Branson, as it was originally incorporated on April 1, 1912, was a combination of two different plats with different roads, alignments, and block lengths.

In about 1882, Ruben S. Branson opened a general store near the mouth of Roark Creek and the White River. He named the post office in his store “Branson,” and even though he moved away, the name stuck, well, kind of.

In the early 1900s, as the railroad started into the “Branson area,” there were competing interests trying to get land and plat towns. The first town platted was “Lucia” on October 2, 1903 with the town of “Branson” platted soon after on October 26, 1903. In general, College Street was the dividing line between the Lucia and Branson town plats, It was the northern edge for Lucia and the southern edge for Branson.

According to most historical accounts, Charles Fulbright and his “Branson Town Company” acquired both town sites by the end of 1903. So, although the two plats became “Branson” in 1903 their roads remained as they were, and are to this very day.

Branson “disappeared” for a short time. The official records of the U.S. Post Office indicate that the name of the “Branson” Post Office was changed from “Branson” to “Lucia” in 1902 and changed back to “Branson’ again in 1904.

Branson’s zig-zag streets might not be at the top of the list of things most visitors plan to experience while in Branson. However, they can certainly provide a pleasant five or ten-minute side trip while on the way to or from Historic Downtown Branson or Branson Landing and testify to the time in history when Branson, if only for a short while,  “disappeared.”

They provide an excellent lead into the various historic things to see in “Historic Downtown Branson.” These would include, the site where the Mabe family started Branson’s first show, the “Baldknobbers,” the grave of Ruben S. Branson for whom Branson is named, the oldest free standing building in Branson, and, of course, “Dick’s 5 & 10.”



The one thing that makes Presleys’ Country Jubilee so special

Steve, Scott, Gregg, and John Presley performing  "Midnight Special".

Steve, Scott, Gregg, and John Presley performing “Midnight Special”.

When the Presleys opened the first theatre, on what is now the famed Branson Strip, in 1967, they had no idea of the iconic status they would achieve or the millions of people they would entertain and whose lives they would influence. What they did have was a dream and, most important of all, the “togetherness” to achieve, sustain, and evolve that dream while keeping it relevant to the changing times and audiences they have been entertaining over the last five decades.

The following points, taken from recent interviews with Gary and Steve Presley and, with permission, from their book, “The Presley Family Story,” testify to that togetherness and why Presleys’ Country Jubilee has been, is, and will continue to not only be one of Branson’s most popular shows, but epitomize what Branson family entertainment is all about:

Mountain Music Theatre: When the Presleys originally built the first theatre on what has become the famed Branson Strip in 1967, it was built in partnership with the Drennon family and called the Mountain Music Theatre. Within three years of opening the Drennon’s had sold their interest in the theatre to the Presleys and the theatres name began its evolution to its current name Presleys’ Country Jubilee.

Ambrus Presley performing  "Over the Rainbow."

Ambrus Presley performing “Over the Rainbow.”

Miss Smith Goes On National TV: When young Ambrus Smith won Ed McMahon’s “Next Biggest Star,” on national TV at age 13 with her performance of Break It To Me Gently, she had been performing, very successfully, in a variety of Branson shows since she was eight. A few years later she started performing for Presleys’ Country Jubilee as a lead vocalist, met John Presley, and the rest is history.

High school sweethearts marry: Both Steve and Gary married their high school sweethearts; Gary to Pat Adams in April 1967 and Steve to Raeanne Miller in 1976. That tradition continued when Gary’s son Eric married his high school sweetheart Kelli Codgill in 2001.

Theatre or Boat Storage: Steve Presley said, “When we built the theatre in 1967, we built it with a flat floor and big double doors in the backside. We didn’t know how the business would do so Dad and Gary had the thought that, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work as a theatre, we can always use it for boat storage.’” Well, it has worked really well as a theatre for almost 50 years now, and as Lloyd Presley once, smilingly said to his sons, “Tell you what…we never had to store any boats in the theatre, did we boys?” In an interview on April 28, 2016, Gary Presley said that although the door is gone, the original opening and door frame is still there.

They Had to Have Real Jobs Too: When the theatre initially opened in 1967, in addition to performing in the show and working in the theatre until late at night, Gary and his mom, Bessie drove to Springfield every day to work at Royal Typewriter, Lloyd was a fishing guide, and Pat worked at Security Bank in Branson. There were some long days put in by those family members performing as well as those working everything from concessions, marketing, costuming, parking, fixing the air conditioning, and whatever else had to be done, but they did it together.

Branson Performance Record: In 1967, when they started performing in the theatre Gary Presley was 20 and Steve was 10. They have been continuously performing in the show since that time and set a new Branson record every night they perform.

Three generations of Presley comedy, Herkimer, Grandpa; Cecil, Son and Cecil Jr. Grandson

Three generations of Presley comedy, Herkimer, Grandpa; Cecil, Son and Cecil Jr. Grandson

Three generations keeps them laughing: Gary Presley, as Herkimer, has had the joy of working with his son Eric, playing Herkimer’s son Cecil in the show, for many years. In recent years that joy has been compounded as they have been joined for key spot appearances by Eric’s young son Ben, as Cecil Jr.

A Funny Moment Springs Up During Show: One of Gary’s funniest memories involves a spring that runs right under the front stage and the culvert outside where the water goes on down the hill. He said, “Dad and I used to keep our crawdads in that spring. It was so cold so they stayed good and alive. Well, one night during the show there came a huge rain, and that minnow bucket full of crawdads caught in the culvert just perfect and plugged it like a cork. It was more toward the end of the show, when I’m dressed in a nice suit, and all the water started backing up into the theatre. I was out there in that suit, waist-deep, trying to pull that crawdad bucket out of that culvert.”

Togetherness, values, and sincerity are keys to the Presleys’ success: Sure, the great entertainment that Presleys’ Country Jubilee provides is a major part of their success. However, at the end of the day it is the fact that “the audience can feel the fun that the Presley family is having onstage,’ their sincerity, and togetherness that adds to the audience’s experience and makes an evening with the Presleys so special.

Steve Presley said, “We give mom and dad all the credit for that. They raised us with good values and respect for each other, and we’ve tried to pass those same values along to our kids. We’re a family, and an audience can always tell whether you’re sincere or not.” Gary Presley adds, “From the very beginning it has been the whole family working together that built the theatre and made the show what it is today. It’s their combined efforts, contributing the very best they had, wherever and whenever it was needed, that has brought us this far on our wonderful journey together.”

Six neat things about Branson tourism history you might not know

Jack, Mary and Peter Herschend  near the time Silver Dollar City opened. *

Jack, Mary and Peter Herschend near the time Silver Dollar City opened. *

The little town of Branson, Missouri, nestled in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, is an international tourist destination visited annually by millions. Branson visitors can experience almost 100 spectacular live shows offering a staggering variety of entertainment from Branson’s Clay Cooper’s Country Express to SIX; dozens of exciting attractions such as Ride the Ducks and Silver Dollar City, Branson’s award winning 1880’s styled theme park; world class shopping and so much more, but it wasn’t always so.

Let’s take a look at six things that happened to Branson Tourism along the way, starting in the beginning and coming forward:

1. Branson’s First Tourism Attraction – In 1884, when most people just saw a cave filled with bat dung when they looked at “Marble Cave,” William Lynch sensed tourism potential, bought the Cave, “sight unseen,” moved, along with his daughters Miriam and Genevieve, from Chicago to Branson and opened it up for tours. After his death and with a change in name to ‘Marvel Cave’ the daughters continued to operate the attraction until 1950, when Hugo and Mary Herschend leased the cave and the surrounding land from them, and along with their two teenage sons, Peter and Jack, took over the operation and management of the Cave. The Herschend family has been operating the Cave ever since and to this day, it is the oldest and longest continuous running attraction in Branson but that’s not all; it’s all of that, but to use the words of Zig Ziglar, “and then some.” (See Item #5 below.)

2. Harold Bell Wright’s novel “Shepherd of the Hills” – National attention was drawn to the area when Harold Bell Wright’s novel, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” about the love, life, adventures and folklore of the people living in the Ozarks was published in 1907. Thousands from all over the country came to see the area where the Shepherd walked and the “people” described in the story. The novel is credited with the start of Branson’s tourism industry. Ever since 1959 tit has been brought to life near the very spot where Harold Bell Wright wrote it as “more than 90 actors and actresses, and a cast of animals that includes, horses, donkeys, mules, and sheep present this epic tale in an amphitheater under nature’s roof of stars!” in the Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama.


The “Owen Theatre.”

3. Owen Theatre – The “Owen Theatre,” subsequently renamed the “Owen’s Theatre,” was built in 1936 by Jim Owen, a local float trip operator on the White River, to provide entertainment for the fishermen when they weren’t fishing. Originally called the “Hillbilly Theatre” and, although first a movie theatre, it is considered Branson’s first “theatre,” movie or otherwise and was a harbinger of things to come. Located in historic downtown it is still operating as a theatre and its distinctive architecture and beautiful interior stone walls make it one of the most unique buildings in Branson.

4. The Baldknobbers – In 1959 the Mabe family started performing the Baldknobbers Jamboree which is credited as being Branson’s first show, the “show that started it all.” Interestingly, they did not perform in Branson’s first theatre, the “Owen Theatre,” but in a small rented space in a civic building located right behind it however, it’s kind of neat how 30 plus years after Branson’s “first theater” was built that its “first show” started in its shadow.

5. Silver Dollar City – Opening in 1960, the 1880s styled Silver Dollar City is not only Branson’s biggest paid attraction, but its most popular however, it did not start out to be a stand-alone attraction. It came from an idea of having an area where people could be entertained while waiting to go through the “Marvel Cave.” (See Item #1 above.) The concept developed into an 1880s themed village that was built by Mary, Jack and Peter Herschend, named “Silver Dollar City,” after the Silver Dollars that were given as change to promote the attraction, and opened in 1960. The first year, when it drew four times more visitors than “Marvel Cave,” Peter Herschend said, “We discovered we were in the theme park business,” and the rest is history.

6. The Branson Strip – In 1967 the Presley family built a theatre immediately west of the Branson city limits on State Highway 76 where they began performing Presleys’ Country Jubilee and, with some of the original cast members still performing, have been continuously performing it ever since. Although hard to envision today, it was the first show on what is today, the famed “Branson Strip,” running from the intersection of Fall Creek Road and Highway 76 to the intersection of the Shepherd of the Hills Expressway and Highway 76. It is “home” to the bulk of Branson’s shows and attractions and is traversed annually by millions of Branson visitors.

*Photo courtesy of Silver Dollar City


How Devil’s Den Became A Marble Marvel On Its Way To Becoming Branson’s Silver Dollar City

Looking back toward the top of the Marvel Cave.

Looking back toward the top of the Marvel Cave while descending into the cave.*

The tourist destination of Branson, Missouri has been evolving for over 115 years into the wonderful place that enables millions to be entertained, have fun and create special family memories that will last a lifetime. Today Branson visitors have a marvelous choice of attractions, live shows and activities, all surrounded by pristine lakes and the beauty of the Ozark Mountains, that is unrivaled anywhere. Yet, it wasn’t always that way and started its evolution from the place the Osage Indians called “Devil’s Den.”

Osage legend has it that the name came about when a young bear hunter and a bear fought on the edge of a great hole and fell into it one evening. When they came back the next day all they saw was blackness and a hole that seemed to have no bottom, hence legend says, the name “Devil’s Den.” Legend also speaks of early Spanish explorers exploring the cave, but the first recorded record of the caves exploration was in 1869 as the result of an expedition lead by Henry T. Blow, of St. Louis, who was involved with lead mining.

At that time, as it had been since the days of the Osage and before, the cave’s access was through a big sink hole through which those exploring the cave were lowered. Although they did not find lead, they thought they had seen “marble” in the ceiling of the cave and named it “Marble Cave.” A “bat guano” mining operation developed along with the very small town of “Marmaros” near the mouth of the cave, but the mining operation had ceased and the town had burned down when William Lynch, along with his two young daughters, Genevieve and Miriam, purchased it and began operating it as an Ozark tourist attraction in 1894.

Lynch, ran the cave with his daughters until his death in 1927. The name of the cave was changed to “Marvel Cave” shortly after his death and his two daughters operated the attraction until leasing it to the “Herschend family,” Hugo, Mary and their two teenage sons, Jack and Peter, in the mid 1950’s. The Herschend family has operated it continually since.

“After signing a 99 year lease, the Herschends made many improvements to the cave, but wanted something for people to do up on the surface while they were waiting to tour the cave. Hugo’s vision was to have Ozark craftsmen demonstrating their crafts. That vision, along with some insight about Marmaros were the seeds which were planted and nourished by the Herschend family and blossomed into an 1880s themed town named “Silver Dollar City,” located at the entrance to the cave, which opened May 1, 1960.” The rest is history.

Tours of Marvel Cave, a National Natural Landmark and Branson’s oldest continuously operated attraction, are still conducted daily and are actually included in the price of admission to Silver Dollar City. The 60 minute walking tours depart every half hour and are guided by trained cave guides who take visitors over 500 feet below the surface into the “wet limestone cave” via a combination of stairs, trail and ramps. Once at the bottom, cave visitors get a half mile ride back to the surface via a unique “cable train” installed in 1957.

For additional information on Silver Dollar City, Marvel Cave, or other Branson shows and attractions or Branson lodging please feel free to contact the Branson Tourism Center by either calling their toll free number 1-800-785-1550 or through their website


* Pictures courtesy of Silver Dollar City

Before “Branson” or the “Baldknobbers” there was the “Bald Knobbers”


Scene from the "Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama" with the  Bald Knobbers burning cabin. Notice the outline of their distinctive masks.

Scene from the “Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama” with the Bald Knobbers burning a cabin. Notice the outline of their distinctive masks.

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.

Original  Baldknobbers case Bill-Mabe-Bob-Mabe-Delbert-Howard,-left-to-right-back-and-front-left-Jim-Mabe-Lyle-Mabe-Chick-Allen.

Original Baldknobbers cast –  Bill-Mabe-Bob-Mabe-Delbert-Howard,-left-to-right-back-and-front-left-Jim-Mabe-Lyle-Mabe-Chick-Allen.

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.”


Five Interesting facts about how Branson got its name

The gravestone of Ruben Bransonis readily visible driving by the NW corner of Oklahoma and Commercial Steets in historic downtown Branson.

The gravestone of Ruben S. Branson is readily visible driving by the NW corner of Oklahoma and Commercial Streets in historic downtown Branson.

“Branson” is known, and justly so, as a top tourist destination because of all it has to offer in terms of beautiful scenery, pristine lakes, exciting shows, attractions, shopping and so much more. In fact, so much so that it made the top 25 List of U.S. Destinations in “TripAdvisors® 6th Annual Traveler’s Choice Destination Awards: along with cities such as New York, Orlando, and New Orleans.”

With “Branson” being as popular as it is, we thought it would be interesting to share some information about the history of how it got its name and the difference between the “city of Branson” and “Branson:”

1. Ruben S. Branson was not the founder of “Branson:” In about 1882, Ruben S. Branson opened a general store near the mouth of Roark Creek and the White River to service those in the area that were already here. He had a post office in the store. Anyone want to take a guess at the official name of that post office?

2. Branson is named after its first “Post Office:” Not surprisingly Ruben S. Branson named the post office in his store, “Branson” and even though he moved away, the name stuck, well, kind of.

3. “Branson” almost became “Lucia:” In the early 1900s, as the railroad came into the “Branson area,” there were competing interests trying to get land and plat towns. The first town platted was “Lucia” on October 2, 1903 with the town of “Branson” platted soon after on October 26, 1903. Charles Fulbright and his “Branson Town Company” acquired both town sites by the end of 1903, but the official records of the U.S. Post Office indicate that the name of the “Branson” Post Office was changed from “Branson” to “Lucia” in 1902. It was changed back to “Branson” in 1904.

4. Branson was incorporated as a city on April 1: No April Fool’s joke, Branson was incorporated April 1, 1912.

5. “Branson” and “the city of Branson” are two different entities: Many people have been coming to “Branson” for decades to go to Silver Dollar City, Table Rock Lake and other areas. To this day, Silver Dollar City and the vast majority of Table Rock Lake are outside of the city limits of Branson. In fact, when the Presleys built the first theatre on what is now known as the “Branson Strip” and started performing their iconic show, Presleys’ Country Jubilee in 1967, it was outside of the city limits of Branson. As tourism expanded, along with the need for services, the city of Branson annexed the surrounding areas which now includes the entire theatre district, the famed “Branson Strip” and the majority of Branson’s attractions.

Did you know this about Branson’s Lake Taneycomo?


One of Lake Taneycomo's scenic vistas.

One of Lake Taneycomo’s scenic vistas.

Branson has two main lakes, Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo. Of the two, Table Rock Lake is the most well-known because its 43,000 plus surface acres of fishing and aquatic fun has been one of the finest bass fisheries in the nation and a draw for Branson tourists since the lake first filled up in 1959. Yet, although both are impoundments of the White River, Lake Taneycomo is the oldest, filled in 1913; had its very character changed as the result of the completion of Table Rock Dam and the formation of Table Rock Lake and is the featured “crown jewel” of Branson Landing. Here are a few facts about Lake Taneycomo that you might find interesting:

1. Lake Taneycomo’s Relationship to Branson Landing: It makes up the eastern boarder of the city of Branson and is a featured integral part of Branson Landing with a 1.5 mile board walk running the entire length of The Landing.

 2. Branson Landing: The largest development in Branson’s history, Branson Landing opened on May 25, 2006. It is a 95-acre, $435 million public/private multiuse project that spans 1.5 miles of waterfront on Lake Taneycomo, and is conveniently located adjacent to historic downtown Branson. It’s combination of luxury condos and over 120 retail stores and restaurants including “eclectic shops, national retailers, fine dining, intimate cafes and nightspots,” Main Street Lake Cruises, two “floating restaurants and the spectacular free Branson Landing Fountains makes it one of the most popular attractions in Branson.

3. Branson Landing Fountains: Located in the heart of Branson Landing on the shoreline of Lake Taneycomo, the fountains are the centerpiece of a $7.5 million spectacular water attraction featuring the first-ever merging of water, fire, light and music with water fountains shooting 120-foot geysers into the air and “fire cannons,” all choreographed to lights and music.

4. Lake Taneycomo Formation & Powersite Dam: “Lake Taneycomo” was formed in 1913with the completion of the 1200 foot long 70 foot tall “Powersite Dam,” across the White River at a cost of $3.2 Million. Prior to that time the “White River” ran unimpeded from its point of origin, in the Boston Mountains, 734 miles to the Mississippi River.

5. Lake Taneycomo’s Name: Its name “Taney” “Co” “MO” comes from the fact that it’s located in “Taney County, Missouri.”

6. Lake Taneycomo Info: Lake Taneycomo is 23 miles long running from White River Mile Marker 506.1 to 528.8 at the foot of Table Rock Dam. It has over 52 miles of shore line and covers over 2050 surface acres.

7. Originally a Warm Water Lake: When originally formed Lake Taneycomo was a “warm water” lake which was ideal for bass and crappie fishing and other aquatic activities like swimming and waterskiing. The quite little town of Rockaway Beach, located on one of the widest portions of the Lake, soon became one of the premier vacation destinations in the Ozarks, much more so than Branson at that time, but all of that dramatically changed with the completion of the Table Rock Dam and the formation of Table Rock Lake in 1959

8. Impact of Table Rock’s Electrical Generation on Lake Taneycomo: Primarily constructed as part of the flood control system on the White River and for the generation of hydroelectric power, it is the day to day generation of electricity through Table Rock Dam’s four 50 megawatt generators that impacts Lake Taneycomo the most. The water that is used to generate the electricity is drawn from Table Rock Lake at a depth of about 140 feet which, without sunlight penetration, has a constant temperature of about 45 degrees F year round. This results in an average temperature of about 48 degree Ftemperature near Table Rock Dam and changed a warm water lake into a cold water lake virtually overnight.

9. Lake Taneycomo’s “River Lake” Characteristics: “Lake Taneycomo” is an artificial “lake” in terms of being “a large body of impounded water surrounded by land except for the waters flowing into and out of it.” However, it still retains many of the characteristics of its “White River” heritage such as its extremely narrow shore line and current. Although perhaps not apparent in the deeper water lower half of the lake, its current, depth and average 48 degree temperature are controlled day to day by hydroelectric discharges through the dam making it, “for all practical purposes, a deep, cold, fast-running river… dependent on the number of turbines generating and the volume of discharge from each.”

10. Bass to Trout: The Missouri Department of Conservation, anticipating that the colder temperatures of Lake Taneycomo caused by the generation of hydroelectric power would decimate the warm water species of fish such as bass and crappie in the main lake, built the Shepherd of the Hills Trout Hatchery at the foot of, and in conjunction with the building of, Table Rock Dam. This decision, and the introduction of a small fresh water shrimp food supply, has made Lake Taneycomo one of the finest trout fisheries in the nation. Currently about 700,000 thousand Rainbow and 10,000 Brown Trout per year are stocked into the Lake.


Clams “button” up a “pearl” of Branson History

“La Riviere Blanche,” as the White River, was called by the early French traders, has been a source of water, transportation, recreation, and livelihoods from the days the first inhabitants set foot in the White River Valley. Cruising on Lake Taneycomo today, with its depth controlled by two dams, it’s hard to picture a White River that, most of the time was so low that the appearance of even a shallow draft steam boat, with about the same draft as Main Street Lake Cruises’ Lake Queen‘s four feet, was a rare occurrence or, although relatively infrequently, was flooded its banks with water so high and swift that it destroyed virtually everything in its path. However, that was the White River of Ozark and Branson history until the Power Site Dam formed Lake Taneycomo in 1913 and Table Rock Dam was completed in 1959.

From the trapping done by the early trappers to the electricity generated at various dams since 1913 and the tourism industry supported by lakes like Table Rock, Bull Shoals and Lake Taneycomo today, the White River has played a central part in daily lives and economic opportunities available to those living in the Branson area. One of the lessor known was from “clam digging,” which, from a White River perspective, has an entirely different meaning than “clam digging” does along ocean coast lines.

The White River was home to over two dozen different type of mussels, which are referred to alternately as “clams” in different history books. The early Indian inhabitants of the White River region used the mussels for food, implements and what would today be called “jewelry.” However, even though mussels, like the “oyster” make pearls it was not until 1897, when Dr. J. H. Myers found a “14 grain, fine luster, pinkish colored pearl” that the pearl and related industries got their start along the White River. The news of his discovery spread quickly and there was a virtual “pearl rush” to the mussel bars along the White River in search of pearls.

The value of a pearl then was determined about the same way it is today based on shape, size, color and other characteristics. Although records show that prices as high as $1,100.00 were paid for some pearls, prices above $2.00 per pearl was the exception not the rule with many selling for a dollar or less. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but when the prevailing wage in the region at that time was about $.50 cents a day the “pearl hunter” did pretty well.

In 1900, soon after the pearling industry started, it was discovered that there was a market for the thick mussel shells. Button plants, in Kansas, Iowa and elsewhere were making “Pearl Buttons” from the shells, but there was a very high ratio of shells to finished buttons estimated by some to be 40 tons of shells to get one ton of buttons. To overcome this challenge “button blank” plants to be set up at various places along the White River where the raw shells were processed into various sized “button blanks” by “punching” them out of the shell.

These blanks were purchased by shell buyers when they came down the White River by flat boat, twice a year for consolidation and shipment to the button factories where they were processed into the finished button. With the coming of the railroad to Branson in 1906 the button blanks were transported overland to Branson and shipped by rail to button plants including Muscatine, which was, at the time known as “The Pearl Button Capital of the World” and the “Iola Button Factory,” which went out of business during the “great depression.”

When the supply of mussels started to dry up and newer and easier to work with materials came along toward the end of the 1930’s there was no more demand for the shells and the “clam digger” went the way of the railroad “Hacker” before them. One thing remained constant however, “La Riviere Blanche” rolled on and, with the completion of the Table Rock Dam and formation of Table Rock Lake in 1959, helped grow and nurture the tourism industry which is the current economic foundation of Branson today.

3 “Hidden” Historical Gems in downtown Branson

The gravestone of Ruben Branson, the man Branson is named after is readily visible without having to go into the cemetery.

“We are fortunate to have a vibrant downtown historic district,” said Tammy Johnson, the Director of Operations for the Branson Tourism Center, who has lived or worked in Branson since childhood. “It’s alive and thriving with galleries, shows, attractions, festivals, restaurants, great specialty shopping, ‘Dick’s 5 and 10’ and history; all set in a unique, quaint, comfortable and laid back atmosphere presenting ‘small town America’ at its best.”

Historic downtown Branson has a number of historic spots. Three of them, covering key aspects in Branson’s history timeline, are located within a leisurely ten minute walk of each other and are virtually “hidden” right out in the open with no indication of their historical significance.

It is suggested that you park your car in the free lot behind “Dicks 5 and 10” located at the corner of Atlantic and Commercial Streets. As you exit the lot onto Commercial Street turn left, north, and walk one block to the Branson Cemetery located on the northwest corner of the intersection of Oklahoma and Commercial Streets.

In 1882, Ruben S. Branson opened a general store near the mouth of Roark Creek and the White River, started a post office and named it “Branson.” The name of the post office was changed “Lucia” in 1902, changed back to “Branson” again in 1904 and became the name of the city of Branson when it was incorporated on April 1, 1912. The grave site of Ruben S. Branson may be conveniently viewed from the outside of the cemetery.

The bank building that survived the 1912 Branson Fire.

A two block walk south on Commercial Street, back past the parking lot, will take you to the northwest corner of the intersection of Main and Commercial Streets where you will be standing in front of “Patricia’s Victorian House.” In August of 1912, a few months after the City of Branson was incorporated, a fire engulfed the entire downtown business district destroying virtually the whole downtown area. One of the few buildings that survived, and the only one on Commercial Street, was the “bank” which is now “Patricia’s Victorian House.”

Continue one block further south to the intersection of Pacific and Commercial, turn right, west, and go about a half block until you arrive at the parking lot with the city restrooms. That is the spot where Branson’s live entertainment industry started in 1960 when the Mabe Brothers, along with Chick Allan on the “jaw bone,” started performing the Baldknobbers Jamboree show in a room of the “Old Community Building” that also housed Branson City Hall.

Bob Mabe, one of the original Baldknobbers said, “We’d have our wives go out and stand on the corner with signs advertising the show.” He said that they had to have about a dozen people before they did a show and probably averaged about 30 with their largest crowd around 80.

As you turn around and head east back to Commercial Street you will notice a pawn shop on the southeast corner of the intersection of Pacific and Commercial streets. Back in 1912 it was the spot where the “Commercial Hotel” was located. The 1912 fire that destroyed the downtown business district started in that hotel when, according to lore, a maid let a fire in a wooden stove get out of control.

Wait, I know that’s four not three. Couldn’t help myself, but one thing is for sure, if you visit these spots and know their historical significance you have experienced a bit of Branson history and heritage that the vast majority of the millions of people who come to Branson each year don’t even know exists.

Anyone for a unique and fun way to experience Branson history?

One of the beautiful and unique views from inside Marvel Cave.

BRANSON, Mo., December 29, 2013 – “Branson is steeped in the history and heritage of the Ozarks,” said Tammy Johnson, the Director of Operations for the Branson Tourism Center. “In fact, Branson’s now famous tourism industry got its first major push from a book based on that very thing when Harold Bell Wright published the novel ‘The Shepherd of the Hills’ in 1907.”

Even before that however, Branson’s oldest attraction, “Marble Cave,” operated by the Lynch family, had been providing tourists with an opportunity to go deep beneath the Ozark Mountains on cave tours since about 1894. The cave is now called “Marvel Cave,” is a National Natural Landmark and offers “free”offers, but interestingly, each year hundreds of thousands rush right past its entrance seemingly without noticing or, if they do, without a second thought.

There’s a pretty good reason for that however, because the cave is actually located just inside the main entrance to Silver Dollar City, the international award winning 1880s styled theme park that is easily Branson’s most popular attraction. From a historical perspective, Silver Dollar City is also Branson’s first and longest continuously operated attraction because it includes “Marvel Cave” which was continuously operated by the Lynch family for 50 years prior to the Herschend family leasing it in 1950. In 1960 they started “Silver Dollar City” at the entrance of the cave as a way to entertain visitors waiting for their cave tour and as some say, “The rest is history.”

A tour of Marble Cave is one of the many activities included with an admission ticket to Silver Dollar City and provides those taking the tour a unique and interesting opportunity to experience something that is a special part of Ozark Mountain history and, most certainly, something they will not see in any other theme park. Weather permitting, tours depart every 30 minutes, take about 60 minutes and include a unique exit, from far below the surface, via an inclined tram built by the Herschend family prior to the opening of Silver Dollar City.

Branson Tourism Center’s Johnson invites anyone wanting more information about “Marvel Cave” and “Silver Dollar City or tickets for any of Branson’s shows and attractions to contact the Branson Tourism Center by calling 1-800-785-1550 and talk with one of its trained Branson based Travel Planners.