The men who founded the town of Branson in 1903 were planning an industrial center in the Ozarks that would generate trainload after trainload of logs, lumber, and manufactured products for the outside world, thereby generating steady income for area residents. Today, as country music theaters, motels, and restaurants mushroom across the surrounding hills, an industrial boom has indeed come to Branson, but it is based on drawing tourists to the town’s entertainment industry, not exporting the area’s resources.
When incorporated, on April 1, 1912, Branson had 1,200 residents. Shortly there after, the idea of Branson as a resort town began to take root, spawning a commercial ice plant, a soft drink bottling plant, a candy factory, and an ice cream factory near the waterfront. The town’s three hotels – the Commercial, Branson, and Malone (the latter renamed the White River Hotel in 1937) – were catering to vacationers, and neighboring factories and businesses were encouraged to stack their logs, lumber, and bricks so that they looked more tidy.
Hobart McQuarter, who had a boat factory and a bulk gasoline business on Branson’s waterfront in conjunction with his passenger service up and down the lake, built Branson’s first vacation cabins – the Sammy Lane Resort – just upstream from the Main Street bridge. The cabins stood on stilts and were anchored with cables to keep floods from washing them away.
The women of Branson, many of whom were employed or helped operate family businesses, organized a Civic League in 1914 and begun what would be a decades long effort to beautify the streets, establish parks, and make life better in their community. They paid off the debt on the old community building and in 1936 supplied the land where a new community building was built. They planned community celebrations and activities and provided the town a well-equipped municipal bathing beach and picnic ground on lake Taneycomo.
By the 1930’s Lake Taneycomo had become an inexpensive vacation spot easily accessible to distant or nearby cities by car and train. Visitors drawn by street fairs, parades community picnics, and boat races, as well as by the scenic lake and hills, helped the town’s businesses survive through the Depression and bank failures.
After World War II, many artists, craftsmen, and retirees came to the area, along with returning servicemen and war industry workers. One of those returning workers was artist Steve Miller. In the late summer of 1949, he and businessman Joe Todd dreamed up the idea of putting a huge lighted Adoration Scene on the Mount Branson bluff, across Lake Taneycomo from downtown Branson. With help from local carpenters, the creche scene’s figures, up to 28 feet tall, were in place for lighting on the first Sunday of that December, in front of thousands of awe-struck visitors.
In 1953, with more people coming for the lighting each year, the sponsoring Chamber of Commerce took a leaf from Branson’s long history of Santa Claus parades, pet parades, and costume competitions, and added an Adoration Parade to the lighting ceremonies. The parade and ceremony, kept free of commercialism, today draws crowds as large as 30,000 people.
Preparations for the construction of Table Rock Dam began the year after the first Adoration Parade, and continued through most of the 1950’s. When the dam was completed in 1959 and water rose to its expected average level, Branson’s citizens were relieved that floods no longer threatened their waterfront. Tourists came in growing numbers to enjoy the big new lake, the Herschends’ 1890’s Silver Dollar City theme park, and the Trimbles’ new outdoor theater at the Shepherd of the Hills Farm. Resorts near Branson and on downstream were encouraging their guests to fish and visit the area’s new attractions. Lake Taneycomo was too cold for swimming now that it was fed by the deep cold waters of Table Rock Lake. Branson’s merchants welcomed the increasing number of tourists.
In 1960, just as tourism began to increase rapidly in the area, the Missouri Pacific canceled all passenger service on its White River Line. With so many visitors arriving by automobile, traffic on winding U.S. 65 to Springfield often slowed to a crawl. To shorten and straighten the 75 mile route down to 40 miles, dynamite crews and earth moving equipment blasted a road through the limestone hills between Springfield and Branson.
A four-lane bypass was completed in the mid 1970’s. The bypass rerouted U.S. 65 away from Branson’s congested downtown business district and provided interchanges at Highway 76 and at Highway 248, and a new bridge across lake Taneycomo. At that time, businesses were just beginning to develop along 76 west of Branson with only a few scattered shops and five music shows. A decade later, eleven more music shows and many restaurants, motels and tourist attractions had extended the built up area three miles further west. The number of music shows, which started with the Baldknobbers in 1957 and increased to sixteen in the 1980’s, now exceeds fifty; and with the addition of the Ozark Mountain Christmas Celebration, the tourist season has increased to nine months.
In the first half of this century, Branson’s citizens worked very hard to turn their town into a prosperous industrial town and still attract sightseers and vacationers. Today those aims are one, and Branson residents and their mayor, city council, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Branson Betterment Association face many new challenges as they go about the business of welcoming and entertaining more than a hundred thousand visitors each day in their small town in the Ozarks.
NOTE: The previous excerpts are printed with permission from the book “In The Heart of Ozark Mountain Country”.