Three Centuries of Branson, MO History, Tourism and Entertainment
A lot has changed in Branson from the days when tomato canning was the town's biggest industry, but the resilience of the Branson locals — and their determination to continue to progress — has remained the same. The Live Music Capital of the World loves nostalgia, though, so take a moment to step back to the days of yesteryear to see how this charming Ozarks town became the fifth most popular U.S. family destination.
The Beginning of Branson, MO
In 1882, an Ozarks settler named Reuben Branson opened a general store and post office near a riverboat stop along the White River. Within a couple of years, many settlers were drawn to the area with a promise of free land, 160 acre homestead lots and lush mountain terrain with river lowlands. By the latter part of the 1880s, a one-room school was constructed and opened on what is now West Highway 76. In 1894, Marvel Cave was purchased by William Henry Lynch just outside of the city. The popularity of this geographic wonder would grow throughout the first half of the century so that by 1960, the Silver Dollar City theme park was a reality.
Branson & the First Half of the 20th Century
At the turn of the century, Branson had become a notable destination for travelers seeking fishing and outdoor recreation along the shores of the lakes and rivers, and by 1904 a new bank, hotel and livery stable had opened. Harold Bell Wright published The Shepherd of the Hills in 1907, based on his experiences camping out over eight summers on a Branson area farm. This novel, which sold millions of copies, would forever change Branson as visitors began showing up with hopes of seeing the sights that Wright wrote about in the novel. An outdoor theater production of the novel would later blossom at the side of the homestead.
In 1912, the City of Branson was incorporated with 1,200 citizens. That same year, the Powersite Dam at Ozark Beach was constructed, and Lake Taneycomo was created. At this time, the early Branson developers realized the potential for this tiny Ozarks town to become an enchanting resort town. A commercial ice plant, soft drink bottling plant, candy factory and ice cream factory all were built and opened. Three hotels handled the vacationers and visitors as the town worked on a beautification effort to keep the area looking orderly.
Branson weathered the storm of the Great Depression fairly well with Lake Taneycomo serving as an inexpensive vacation destination for families in nearby cities, and the town promoted street festivals, parades and other events to draw visitors. In 1949, artist Steve Miller and local businessman Joe Todd had an idea to create a lighted Adoration Scene on a bluff overlooking downtown Branson. This 28-foot tall creation drew several thousand visitors its first year and continued to grow tremendously each holiday season. By 1953, a huge holiday celebration featuring parades, competitions and the lighting of the Adoration Scene took place. That tradition continues today and typically draws as many as 30,000 visitors to Branson for the holiday parade and Adoration lighting ceremony.
Development of Branson, Missouri in the 50's
Construction on Table Rock Dam began in the mid-1950s, and by 1959 the town of Branson was free from floods and had a popular new — and enormous — recreational lake. The lake — along with the new Silver Dollar City theme park, outdoor theater at Shepherd of the Hills farm and community events — drew increasing numbers of visitors to Branson. In 1959, the Baldknobbers Hillbilly Jamboree Show opened as the first live show in Branson. The following year, the Shepherd of the Hills opened its Old Mill Theater, Silver Dollar City officially opened as a theme park, and the Presley Family began performing a music show at Talking Rocks Cavern near Branson. Around this same time, Missouri Pacific rail service to Branson was canceled, causing major traffic congestion on Highway 65 between Springfield and Branson. A new highway was blasted through the limestone that ran directly between the two cities, cutting the route down to just 40 miles. By the late 1960s, the Presley family and the Baldknobbers show had moved to theaters on Highway 76, and were followed by the Plummer Family Show in 1968.
Branson Entertainment Takes Shape
During the 1970s, the city continued to thrive as West Highway 76 featured five live shows and scattered retail establishments along the now-famous Branson Strip. Roadways were re-routed during this decade to ease congestion in the area so that by the dawn of the 1980s, three new theaters were completed, including the Starlite Theater. This would be the mark of a decade that saw explosive expansion in Branson. Large-scale theaters were built, more businesses began to pop up along the strip. In 1987, Box Car Willie became the first celebrity to open his own theater. Before the end of the decade, the popular Factory Merchants Outlet Mall would open, the first Ozark Mountain Christmas celebration would take place and the Inspiration Tower at Shepherd of the Hills would open.
In 1991, Branson received national attention from the likes of Time Magazine, People, The Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and 60 Minutes. By that time, the town had 22 theaters featuring names like Mel Tillis, Mickey Gilley, Ray Stevens, Moe Bandy, Buck Trent and Shoji Tabuchi. In the next two years, other big names like the Osmonds, Andy Williams, Tony Orlando, Bobby Vinton, Wayne Newton and Jim Stafford would arrive in town. By the middle of the decade, Dolly Parton's Stampede and the Showboat Branson Belle began serving hot dinners and hot shows, and in 1997, Shepherd of the Hills celebrated its 5,000th show to become America's most performed outdoor drama.
Today, the attitude of Branson's 4,484 residents remains much the same as her earliest settlers — welcome all guests and visitors with hospitality and family-friendly environment they can't find anywhere else. The city has grown to encompass 11 square miles and has an assessed property value of $65,524,700! Most impressive, though, is the fact that year after year, nearly five million visitors continue to flock to this charming Ozarks town to live out the dreams that her first settlers had more than a century ago.