Harold Bell Wright, an ailing minister-author who traveled to the Ozarks for his health discovered much more than he sought in the hill country. As he regained his strength in the healthful, peaceful atmosphere, he began writing a manuscript which would become the fourth most widely-read book in publishing history. It would also spark a nationwide interest and bring the first wave of tourism into the Missouri Ozarks.
Wright was born in 1872 in Rome, NY. He traveled extensively in his early career as a minister and a writer. At one point, he pastored a church in Pittsburg, KS. He lived there when he discovered that he had tuberculosis.
Concern for his health was complicated by despondency over a flagging career as a minister and writer. A cure for both problems seemed to be offered in the milder climate of the Ozark Mountains.
In the spring of 1896, he traveled as far into the Ozark hills as the rails took him. The end of the line was Marionville, MO where he set off on horseback into the rugged hills. Turning back from a flood swollen White River, he sheltered at the homestead of John and Anna Ross on a ridge near Mutton Hollow.
He intended only to spend the night, but Wright stayed for the summer. He returned to the Ross homestead each summer for eight years as he slowly regained his health.
He was a witness of a drought in 1902, as the homesteaders were pushed to the edge of starvation when their crops were scorched, the streams dried and the game disappeared. The settlers' desperation led to a series of events which would form the nucleus of Wright's most famous book, The Shepherd of the Hills.
In 1904, Wright began recording his impressions of the settlers and the events which shaped their lives at his campsite in a corn field on the Ross homestead. The completed novel lay unpublished until 1907, when one of Wright's friends insisted on backing its publication in 1907.
The Shepherd of the Hills marked a spectacular turning point in Wright's literary career. The book's success was almost immediate. Millions of copies were sold in several languages, and four movies versions were filmed. Wright's 40-year career as a writer resulted in 19 books, many scripts for stage plays, and a number of magazine articles before his death in 1944.
The legend Harold Bell Wright began in a novel continues to live in a nationally popular attraction, the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead and Outdoor Theatre.
Several events altered the Roark Valley area in the few years between the penning of The Shepherd of the Hills and its publication.
The area became more accessible to travelers and the models for its characters continued their lives. In 1905, J.K. and Anna Ross (Old Matt and Aunt Mollie in Wright's novel) moved from their homestead to another place on Roark Creek.
The Missouri-Pacific Railroad completed the track of the White River Line through the Roark Valley in 1906, opening the area to tourism.
The published novel came to the Branson area in 1908 and was distributed from the Garber post office, where J.K.Ross had become postmaster.
By 1909, most travelers disembarking from trains at Branson or Reeds Spring asked to see "Old Matt's Cabin", as the Ross homestead was called in the book. The cabin had been vacated a couple of years earlier, and tourists began taking bits of it until Ross found renters to occupy it. However, the old mill in Mutton Hollow was soon stripped of its siding and most of its equipment.
Tourism grew rapidly with the popularity of The Shepherd of the Hills and other business drew on its popularity to further expand the tourism trade. The Sammy Lane Resort, named after the young heroine in Wright's book, was built on the Branson lakefront. Lake Taneycomo had become a traveler's route through the area when the Sammy Lane Boat Line was launched. The line's boats bore the names of characters from the novel.
By about 1920 the book's influence in bringing travelers into the region had slowed however, Pearl "Sparky" Spurlock is credited with keeping the legend alive for a numbers of years with her taxi service from Branson over the rugged Dewey Bald Road to the former Ross homestead.
Lizzie McDaniel, the daughter of a Springfield banker, bought the homestead after the deaths of J.K. and Anna in about l 923. She hunted for furnishings and memorabilia connected to the Ross family and Wright. She lived in the restored cabin, keeping the living room open as a museum. Later she moved to another house and the entire cabin was opened to the public. The corn field which served as Wright's campsite on his visits was named Inspiration Point and was leased to the state as a park.
Dr. Bruce and Mary Trimble, with their son Mark, acquired the homestead alter Lizzie McDaniel's death. They purchased all but Inspiration Point, the cabin and barn in 1946, and leased the cabin and barn. The two leased buildings were purchased by them in the 1970's.
An intended retirement project grew into one of the nation's most important historical attractions, under the ownership of the Trimble family. The Shepherd of the Hills Farm and Old Mill Theatre became a multi-faceted operation.
Dr. Bruce Trimble was a professor at the University of Kansas when the family purchased the homestead from Lizzie McDaniel's estate. Developing and promoting the homestead soon became a new career for him and his wife Mary. The McDaniel home was converted into a second museum and a gift shop was opened in the barn. A new structure was built as a restaurant called "Aunt Mollie's Cupboard".
After Dr. Trimble's death in l 957, Mary continued developing the attraction with the help of their son, Mark. He is credited with creating an outdoor amphitheatre on the homestead. A stage version of The Shepherd of the Hills was being performed by college students in the Branson area, but the amphitheatre gave the drama a permanent home on the site where much of the action actually occurred.
Performances began at the Old Mill Theatre in the summer of 1960. The novelty of the outdoor performances and the authentic flavor of the production made it a major attraction in the Ozarks, the state and the country over the years. Its original handful of cast members has grown to nearly 100 players, most of them native Ozarkians.
The country atmosphere is enhanced by natural effects of the summer season. Heat lightning flashes over Roark Valley in the distance, and tree frogs and crickets hum all around the outdoor theatre.
Between Mother Nature and the Trimbles, the outdoor historical drama became the leading such production in the nation
Mary Trimble died in 1981 and Mark and his wife Lea continued the tradition until 1985 when they sold the attraction to Branson businessman Gary Snadon.
Snadon's interest in "The Shepherd of the Hills" stemmed from the theatre's earliest years when he was cast as a leading player in the drama. He performed as the character Wash Gibbs, leader of the notorious Bald Knobber gang.
The attraction is renamed the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead and Outdoor Theatre to emphasize its historical significance as the site of a legend created by Harold Bell Wright.
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