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This year, Silver Dollar City celebrates its 50th anniversary. KSMU’s Missy Shelton sat down with Pete Herschend to talk about the history that led to the creation of an amusement park that’s nationally known.
It would be a short story if someone simply set out to create an amusement park in the Branson area. But it’s not quite that simple or short. Before anyone had conceived of Silver Dollar City, Hugo and Mary Herschend set out on a trip to the Missouri Ozarks in 1947 from their home in Winnetka, Illinois, a town north of Chicago. Pete Herschend and his brother Jack were teenagers at the time their parents headed south.
Herschend says, “They were hunting the old Ozarks. Lake of the Ozarks at that time, even in ’47 was fairly well developed, though nothing like it is today. Somebody said, ‘Come down to Rockaway Beach.’ And they did, and thereby begins the tale.”
The Herschends fell in love with Southwest Missouri. During their trip, they met Miriam and Genevieve Lynch. These sisters owned and operated an attraction called Marvel Cave. Pete Herschend remembers these women.
Herschend says, “Neither of them had ever been married. Both were brilliantly educated. They were quite a pair of ladies. I knew them. They ran Marvel Cave. It wasn’t much of a business, if the biggest year they’d ever had was probably a couple of thousand visitors going through the cave. Dad made arrangements to lease Marvel Cave and the above-ground section of land that went with it from Miriam and Genevieve. They were 73 and 75, respectively so they were looking to get out of business.”
Pete Herschend says his family knew very little about the business of running a cave. His father saw it as a retirement business. The family moved to the Ozarks and in 1954, Pete and his family met a man named Charlie Sullivan.
Herschend says, “He was from the Warrensberg area. He was a traveling salesman. I Can’t tell you what he was selling. Charlie talked to us about the old town that used to be right there where Silver Dollar City is now. It was called Marmaros. And it was a mining town, not mining for minerals but mining bat guano out of Marvel Cave, back way before the turn of the century. The little village had fallen down, burned down, torn down, didn’t exist anymore. You can’t find a foundation stone for it today. We’ve looked. At that moment, we didn’t have anything to do with that gem except be fascinated by it.”
Besides that gem, there was an idea that came from Pete Herchend’s father about why people might want to come to Southwest Missouri—for the same reason he and his wife came in 1947—to see what life is like in the Ozarks.
Herschend says, “Hugo Herschend, dad, was an extremely creative dad, great imagination. He died in 1955 and unfortunately, never was able to see his dreams turn into hard boards, buildings and visitors. Dad said though, and I remember this rather clearly, he said, ‘I think that visitors to the Ozarks would like to see the men and women of the hills.’ He called them hillbillies but not in the pejorative sense, not a put down because he knew these men and women were absolutely self-sustaining.”
A few years after Hugo died, Russell Pearson appears on the scene.
Herschend says, “In 1959, that summer, a gentleman named Russell Pearson came into our lives. Russell was a total stranger. He was from Oklahoma City. He was a designer of buildings but that wasn’t his profession. He was an entertainer. He came from the carnival, the circus background. He had just finished designing in Oklahoma City one of the nation’s first true theme parks, Frontier City. It still is there. He came and knocked on our door and said, ‘What you ought to do is build a little Ozark Mountain village over there.’ He didn’t title it that but he meant build a village over there, the other side of the parking lot. We said, ‘What in the world?’ He said, ‘Give people something to do before they go into the cave or after they come out.’ That made sense.”
Russell Pearson built a physical model of the village buildings that he imagined. It seemed to bring together the dream of Hugo Herschend to present Ozarks life and a kind of revival of the mining town that once stood on the site. The Herschends took out a loan and began construction. Many of those original buildings still stand today at Silver Dollar City. Pete Herschend says the number of visitors jumped by 40,000 from 1959 to 1960, giving an indication of just how successful that village might be in the years ahead.
Herschend says, “We moved out of tours and into entertainment. It had a great effect on Marvel Cave but today, we remain in the entertainment business and two million visitors a year later, we’ll hopefully stay there for a long time.”
As for the history behind the name Silver Dollar City, Herschend says a local writer named Don Richardson came up with the idea of calling it Silver Dollar City and using silver dollars to promote it. After all, Herschend says there was no advertising budget to speak of in those days. The park gave visitors change in silver dollars in 1960 and 1961, hoping to generate publicity by word of mouth. By 1962, the demand for the coins was so great that employees had to lug around heavy baskets of silver dollars, something that quickly became impractical.