Strip Search

Looking for Ozark culture amid the neon, glitter and traffic of Highway 76 in Branson

The Shepherd of the Hills, actually published in 1907, is one of the great literary phenomena of all time. The second novel by Harold Bell Wright, it is purported to be the fourth most widely read book in publishing history. The Shepherd of the Hills tells the story of a cultured man who comes to the Ozarks to reckon with his past. He befriends many of the hill people and becomes a kind of guru of manners, teaching people to not say "ain't" so much and to turn against their violent instincts. A theatrical version of the novel has been performed since 1959 at the Shepherd of the Hills Theater, an open-air amphitheater with a stage the size of a football field, big enough for real horses to gallop across the stage.

Wright's appreciation of the beauty of the Ozarks attracted, among others, "celebrities and nouveau riche," says Godsey. When tourism came to the Ozarks in the 1920s, the saying was, according to Godsey, "A tourist was worth a bale of cotton and a hell of a lot easier to pick."

The picking, and fleecing, included float trips on john boats along the James, White and Buffalo rivers. The thought of those days sends Godsey into one of his many stories:

Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.
Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.
Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.
David Burt
Branson offers its own version of Mount Rushmore at the Hollywood Wax Museum.

"A nouveau riche Texan came, decked out in boots, hat and spurs. The weather turned misty, cold, and the old boy got a case of diarrhea — they had been drinking pretty good. He went into the bushes and ran out, claiming he was snakebit. Sure enough, there were marks on his butt, but cooler heads figured that, like a pig, he'd be able to absorb it. Then he went to the bushes again, and the same thing happened. Folks got suspicious and, on investigation, found out he was squatting on his spurs.

"Took the wind out of that Texan."

The next big change in the local economy, as Godsey tells it, came with the construction of Table Rock Dam in 1959. Godsey says the signs of prosperity could be measured by the fact that "most of the men wore Stetson hats and boots and there was fresh linoleum on the outhouse seats."

The timeline leading to the current Branson boom begins here. The Shepherd of the Hills Theater begins its ongoing one-show run. Silver Dollar City, with its rides and authentic craftspeople, began at this time, too. It wasn't until 1983 that Roy Clark became the first big-name draw with his own theater. Boxcar Willie followed in '87, Shoji in '89. But most people point to a segment of 60 Minutes in 1991 as the catalyst for Branson's spectacular decade of growth. Morley Safer may hate modern art, but he loved Branson. Soon after, the "classy" shows, like Williams' and Newton's, came in, offering a more diverse entertainment package.

Tourism is the model of the trickle-down economy, for Branson present and past. According to Godsey, in the 1940s Taney County had an average annual income of no more than $360. "It's always been an economically depressed area — and it still is." (The average annual income in Taney County today is only $11,198.) He compares Branson to Vegas, both oases in the desert, but the desert surrounding Branson is rural poverty: "Still a lot of cabins without indoor plumbing."

Any drive along the winding roads away from Branson exposes the Ozarks that haven't been air-brushed or infrastructured — shacks built with salvaged scraps of metal and wood, holding together in defiance of physical laws; cabins surrounded by small car lots of stripped automobile chassis. These stand out as emblems of a way of life that is made into the Uncle Tom hillbilly (on the strip, a man in overalls and floppy hat waves to passing motorists to encourage them to visit that particular restaurant), and just as easily romanticized into the stubborn yet noble mountain folk. The truth is harder to know. An Ozark saying Godsey likes to use puts it in the local idiom: "They's two things a feller never hears in the Ozarks — the truth an' meat a-fryin'."

Godsey begins to lapse into another yarn but loses the thread of the story. He apologizes for having "CRS — can't remember shit." After a brief pause to gather himself, he starts in on some of the lore of one of the Ozarks' more notorious characters, folks like "Popcorn" Pete — itinerant preacher, sheriff and owner of a hamburger joint in nearby Hollister. Pete once hid in the hills for two weeks, believing he'd killed another preacher by smacking him over the head with a Bible during an argument about Scripture. Ma Barker hid out in these parts; the Pendergast mob had a summer cottage along Lake Taneycomo; Pretty Boy Floyd occasionally came down.

Once the city "put an ad in the KC Star for town marshal," says Godsey. "A fellow came down and applied for the job. The city manager said, "Strap on this gun and walk up to the feed mill; you'll know what's going on.' Two hours later the fellow came back, returned the gun and went back to KC."

Don Sharp comes over to join in the conversation. Sharp and his wife have run a travel and ticketing service for 15 years — "a lifetime, in Branson," he says. "In the last two years, 50 have come and gone." Sharp wears a bright multicolored shirt and lights cigarette after cigarette, smoking five in about half-an-hour. Before becoming a businessman, he was a drummer for both the Tommy Dorsey and Lawrence Welk bands. He and Godsey banter about some of the local entertainers. The recently departed Boxcar Willie "was a sweetheart of a guy," in Godsey's estimation. Sharp says that the inclusion of Bobby Vinton in the Branson mix was part of the "need to get away from dead people's music. Just six years ago Vinton came in, and now he packs the place."

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