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Our local history series, a Sense of Place, focuses on why things are the way they are in our community by taking a step back in time. KSMU’s Emma Wilson visited a Branson attraction to get the scoop on the novelist who made it legendary.
I am standing at the foot of Inspiration Tower which overlooks the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead near Branson. Thousands of visitors from around the country experience the drama of the Shepherd of the Hills story every year in the Pavilion Theatre just downhill from where I stand. This tower is built on the spot where Harold Bell Wright wrote Shepherd of the Hills, the first American novel to sell one million copies and the book that put this homestead, and Branson, Missouri, on the map.
Thurman: In 1896 Harold Bell Wright was passing through this area and was actually heading further south.
Keith Thurman is the director of the outdoor theatre program and the authority on all things “Shepherd of the Hills.” He says that the author was traveling on doctor’s orders in an effort to treat his Tuberculosis.
Thurman: The only real cure for that was fresh air and sunshine so he was headed further south. The White River was out of its banks. He got stuck in this area for a few days. He was introduced to the Ross family. He liked the folks so well and they agreed to let him just pitch a tent here on their property, here on what’s now known as “Inspiration Point”.
Those few days on Inspiration Point were the beginning of both Wright’s love affair with the area and the book that would make it famous.
Thurman: He fell in love with the people and the countryside and the history and the legends and the stories. He got so caught up in it that he stayed that summer and he came back for seven consecutive summers and during that time he took notes on the tales that folks was telling him.
Wright turned these notes into a storyline that follows a character called Dad Howitt, an elderly gentleman from the city who, like Harold Wright, came to know and love the people of the Ozark Mountains.
Thurman: It is a love story. It’s a mystery. It’s a drama. It is a pioneer western. It is a story between good and evil and good…good wins.
Up on Inspiration Point you don’t have to look far to see where the author found his muse in choosing the setting for his novel.
Thurman: I can’t imagine how beautiful it must have been in those days, the wildflowers and the White River and the hills and the wildlife. And the people, the people accepted him and were so kind and friendly to him and just welcomed him into their homes. It would have been so easy for anyone who stumbled into this area at the time to fall in love with the place and want to stay.
Published in 1907, the Shepherd of the Hills captivated readers from across the nation with Wright’s descriptions of the beautiful landscape and kind people.
Thurman: The railroad had just come to Branson in 1906 and the first thing the folks noticed was, mercy, people started coming in on the railroad and up the White River to see the places he had described in his novel and meet the people he had written about.
Thurman says that by the mid-1920s tens of thousands of tourists were coming through the area every summer and the book’s popularity had grown to an estimated 20 million readers. The outdoor productions of Shepherd of the Hills at the Pavilion Theatre began in 1960, the same year that Silver Dollar City was opened. Both attractions played a part in the tourist boom in southwest Missouri. These days the show runs May through December. With each performance, actors breathe life into the pages of a book conceived in these hills over 100 years ago.
For KSMU's Sense of Place, I'm Emma Wilson.