The city of Branson has come a long way since Reuben Branson first opened the area’s only post office and general store in 1882. A trip to this special city just isn’t complete unless you take the time to learn about and visit Branson’s “firsts” that are the roots of what is now one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.
Branson was formally incorporated as a city in 1912, but the story really began in 1896 when minister and writer Harold Bell Wright traveled to the Ozark hills in hopes of regaining his health. Taking shelter from the flooded White River at the home of John an Anna Ross near Mutton Hollow, Wright ended up staying with them for the entirety of the summer. During his stay in the Ozark mountains, he wrote of his experiences and the lives of the settlers there through the novel “The Shepherd of the Hills” which was published in 1907. The publication of his book resulted in the piqued curiosity of people all over the country, who ended up traveling to the Ozarks in order to experience firsthand what Wright had recorded in his novel. Tourism to “Old Matt’s Cabin” and the homestead increased and eventually it was developed into an attraction for visitors, featuring outdoor performances at the Old Mill Theatre beginning in the summer of 1960. Today, the Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama and Homestead Tours draw thousands of visitors to the place that Wright first described in his novel.
According to the official website, what began as “an accessory to a hole in the ground” in 1894, has been transformed into one of the top theme parks in the world. Branson’s first theme park started as nothing more than a pleasant area for visitors waiting for a tour of Marvel Cave. The Herschend family gained ownership of the cave and came up with the idea of recreating an 1800’s mining town as they made above-ground improvements to the land surrounding the cave and showcased the traditional crafts and natural beauty of the Ozarks. In 1960, they opened Silver Dollar City which was “named for the promotional idea of giving visitors silver dollars as change.” Word-of-mouth lead to the growth and expansion of Silver Dollar City and by 1998, more than two million visitors had made their way to the theme park. Today, it covers more than 100 acres with rollercoasters, festivals, musical productions, a Culinary & Craft School, traditional craftsmen of the Ozarks and so much more.
Branson’s first theatre was built by Jim Owen, who was mayor of Branson for 12 years. Also the owner of a successful Ozark float fishing operation, he built the Historic Owen Theatre on Commercial Street in Historic Downtown Branson because he wanted to provide additional entertainment for the fishermen and others he took out on the White River for lavish float trips. The theatre, built in 1935, was also known as the Hillbilly Theater and became a place for locals, celebrities and visitors to gather after their trips down the river. Today the theatre is “Branson’s House of Comedy,” hosting nine different shows and two attractions including A Neil Diamond Tribute, Improvmania and Southern Gospel.
This show first began in 1959 when the Mabe brothers took on the name of an old Ozarks vigilante group, “the baldknobbers,” and began entertaining visitors with music and comedy in their lakefront, downtown Branson location. As The Baldknobbers grew in popularity, they also grew in size and in 1968 they built the Baldknobbers Theatre on 76 Country Boulevard. Currently, they are the longest running show in Branson and are credited with setting the standard for all that Branson has to offer. The show has evolved throughout the past 55 years, and second and third generations of the Mabe family still continue to provide visitors with wholesome family entertainment that perfectly represents the Ozarks.
The Presleys first began performing in the underground caves of the Missouri hills. When audiences from all over the country began to outgrow the caverns, they moved to a stretch of asphalt right outside of town (which would one day become the Branson Strip) and built Branson’s first live music theater in 1967. Today the strip is packed with theaters featuring various performing artists, music and comedy but Presleys’ Country Jubilee can claim the title of the very first one, and even after four generations, they continue to entertain visitors with gospel, country and comedy that people of all ages can enjoy.