The Shepherd of the Hills: The Ozark Narrative that Transformed Branson

“…it all happened in the Ozark Mountains, many miles from what we of the city call civilization.” –Harold Bell Wright (1907:1)

 News came out today that a longtime Ozark tradition is taking a final bow.  The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theater in Branson, MO announced it will close on October 19, 2013.  For 54 years, Harold Bell Wright’s epic story The Shepherd of the Hills was performed there.

Harold Bell Wright, author of The Shepherd of the Hills

Harold Bell Wright, author of The Shepherd of the Hills

I wrote an awful lot about the Shepherd narrative (including a close reading of the book, play and later movie versions) in my dissertation–Van Winkle’s Mill: Mountain Modernity, Cultural Memory and Historical Archeology in the Arkansas Ozarks (Brandon 2004:90-109).  Why did I write about this book in a dissertation about archeology? I was attempting to talk about the way that existing historical narratives about the Ozarks (and hillbillies in general) frame how we look at the past…and how archeology can either play into these established narratives, or be used as a platform to confront them.  In this vein, The Shepherd of the Hills is an important, foundational narrative that established what I call the “Arcadian” version of the hillbilly trope–a largely positive viewing of the Ozarks as a place that is idyllic, in harmony with nature and closer to God than its urban, industrial counterparts.

One of the most celebrated writers to articulate the Arcadian myth of the Ozarks was Harold Bell Wright.  The 1907 publication of his The Shepherd of the Hills was a turning point for the Ozarks—popularizing the actual White River Hills as a destination and spawning a tourism industry that is still profitable today.

Other researchers have pointed out that by critical standards The Shepherd of the Hills “could hardly be judged good literature (Morrow and Myers-Phinney 1999:31).  It was, however, wildly successful.  By early 1918 Shepherd had sold two million copies.  It now claims to be the fourth most widely read book in publishing history, has been translated into seven different languages, and has produced four Hollywood films—including John Wayne’s first Technicolor film. (Chudleigh 2003; Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theater 2004).

Shepherd was more than a bestseller; it was an interesting example of the synergy between popular culture, cultural memory and regional identity.  The book’s theme quickly became the master narrative for the Arcadian version of the Ozarks.  In turn, that narrative was the blueprint the region used to transform itself into a commercial imitation of the image the book presented (Morrow and Myers-Phinney 1999:31)—complete with the replacement of real inhabitants with the fictional characters that were based on them.

Within three years of its publication, tourists started coming to the White River Hills to explore the book’s setting and to identify the actual people the characters were said to be modeled on (Morrow and Myers-Phinney 1999:31-32).  Tourism slowly became a major force in Taney County with the impoundment of Lake Taneycomo in 1913 and the arrival of “tourist friendly” amenities such as the Sammy Lane Boat Line and The Shepherd of the Hills Taxi Company.  In 1910, Mr. and Mrs. J. K. Ross, the supposed models for Old Matt and Aunt Molly, sold their cabin on Inspiration Point and a restaurant promptly opened.  By 1926 it was called Twin Falls Inn and was complete with a restaurant, gift shop and filling station (Morrow and Myers-Phinney 1999:34).  Lizzy McDaniel, the “feisty lady” from a Springfield banking family who owned and operated the Twin Falls Inn, also began occasional dramatic reenactments of The Shepherd at the cabin (Morrow and Myers-Phinney 1999:34; Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theatre 2004).

In the 1950s, wOld Matts cabin1hat was by then known as “Old Matt’s Cabin” (as opposed to Ross’ Cabin) was purchased by Dr. and Mrs. Bruce Trimble and they began a nightly play based on the novel.  Known as The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theatre, it became a popular Branson attraction where the nightly drama was performed just down the hill from the original cabin (Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theatre 2004).  The “Inspiration Tower” was built in 1989 (on the 100th anniversary of Harold Bell Wright’s first visit to the area) and in 1996, the play was performed for the 5,000th time, making it the longest-running outdoor drama in recorded history (Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theatre 2004).  Now Wright’s Arcadia, if it ever existed, has been “completely engulfed by the glitz of Silver Dollar City and the garish music palaces” of Branson’s strip (Morrow and Myers-Phinney 1999:36).  The entire region of the White River Hills in Stone and Taney County, Missouri, is now officially known geographically as Shepherd of the Hills Country (Rafferty 2001:3-4).

So I, in some weird conflicted way, am mourning the passing of The Shepherd of the Hills play from the Branson scene…not because it was great art…but because of the important role it played in creating Branson…a role that seems lost to most of the throngs of tourists who visit Branson every year.

References & Further Reading

Brandon, Jamie C.
2004  Van Winkle’s Mill: Mountain Modernity, Cultural Memory and Historical Archeology in the Arkansas Ozarks.  Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin.

Chudleigh, Gerry
2003  Harold Bell Wright. http://www.hbw.addr.com/index.htm.  Site created 01/09/00, site accessed 05/16/2003.

Morrow, Lynn and Linda Myers-Phinney
1999  Shepard of the Hills Country: Tourism Transforms the Ozarks, 1880s-1930s.  University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Myers-Phinney, Linda
1990  Arcadia in the Ozarks: The Beginnings of Tourism in Missouri’s White River Country.  Ozarks Watch 5(3):6-11

Rafferty, Milton D.
2001  The Ozarks: Land and Life.  University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theater
2004  The Shepherd of the Hills. http://www.theshepherdofthehills.com/.  Site created: 2004, Site accessed: 06/21/2004.

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Categories: history, post, spotlight

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