It’s the first of May, and for about the last two weeks I’ve had to add an extra five minutes to my drive time each morning, and an extra prayer for my patience. Must mean the tourists are back. And for those of you who believe that this is a recent phenomenon, plan on attending our exhibit on Ozarks tourism, “Greetings from the Ozarks,” which opens on May 10th.
This exhibit will cover the highlights of more than one hundred years of our biggest industry, from the intrepid adventurers who read the Shepherd of the Hills and came to experience the caves and rivers for themselves (and do a little dining and dancing on the banks of the new Lake Taneycomo as well) to the bus tours that still arrive daily in Branson for shows and shopping.
Time and space restrictions kept us from including much about our very earliest visitors, but I’d like to mention here that even the mighty Osage tribe that once owned this land only used it for summer hunting and fishing expeditions. Once the buffalo got fat, the Osage returned to their permanent homes on the prairies.
The first tourist who recorded his journey, Henry Schoolcraft, went on to be quite an explorer, but his foray here in 1818 was marked by mistakes, confusion, and a generally distrustful attitude toward the settlers in the area. His journal is fascinating, and often hilarious, reading.
That aside, we’ve done our best to include at least highlights of the past century or so, loosely divided into three sections.
During the Arcadian period, residents of America’s urban areas started to notice what they had lost, and began to flock “back to nature.” This was evident in the formation of the National Parks system, the development of remote meccas like northern New Mexico, the Wisconsin lakes, and the Smokey Mountains, and was romanticized in the popular fiction of the time. Books like Ramona, Girl of the Limberlost, and of course, Shepherd of the Hills created a national fad for vacationing in the wilderness.
The depression brought this era to a sudden halt, but prosperity, new roads, improved automobiles, and the desire to put WWII behind us brought new growth in the 1940s through the 1960s. For the Ozarks, this was the era of the big dams, lake resorts, family fun, and the beginnings of the Branson music show. This is a particularly memorable era this year, as both Silver Dollar City and Shepherd of the Hills celebrate their 50th anniversaries.
We’re still in the current era, of course, although it seems to have come in two stages. The Branson Boom, where music shows and new hotels proliferated like fleas on a coondog, hit a slight slump in the mid-nineties, but since then we’ve seen our region continue to grow as we draw more shoppers, year-around retirees, and golfers.
It’s a story of boom and bust, dreamers and con men, hopes and failures, and an ongoing attempt to find the balance between tradition and progress. We hope you like it.