Shepherd of the Hills attraction built on history

30 Jul

Daisy Franklin brings her family to Branson every summer. She has for more than 40 years and there’s one place the 64-year-old grandmother from Batesville, Miss., said they always visit when in the Ozarks: Shepherd of the Hills.
“It’s what I come to Branson for,” she said. “I like the country around here and this place hasn’t changed like so many other places in Branson. It’s still for families.”
Franklin said she loves the peaceful grounds, shady picnic areas, spectacular vistas and many attractions the Shepherd of the Hills offers.

Sammy and Young Matt from the outdoor drama Shepherd of the Hills.

“We’ve pretty much done it all here,” she said. “The tours and the play and the music show. We do it all every time. When you think of it, this is all true history. It’s real. It’s built on something that you know has happened. I just like it up here.”
Katie Titus, 35, feels much the same way about the park she remembered from her childhood.  She and her husband from Parsons, Kan., love the history of the area and wanted to share it with their young daughter.
“There’s so much to see,” she said. “We are into historical aspects and took the time to look around. The tour was real informative and the guide really did a good job. I read (Shepherd of the Hills) at home and just wanted to follow up on it and get some of the history — and our daughter wanted to ride the horses.”
Best-seller
The book, Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright, was first published in 1907 and quickly became “one of the first million-selling books by an American author,” according to the attraction’s Web site, www.oldmatt.com.
The story details the lives of mountain people and their daily struggles taming the rugged Ozark hills, battling baldknobber vigilantes and raising their pioneer families.
Wright, a Kansas minister, migrated to the area — now known as Shepherd of the Hills historic homestead and Inspiration Point, 5586 W. Highway 76 — in search of weather more suitable to his ailing health. Wright befriended a local family, John and Anna Ross, and soon settled down and recorded their lives. Wright so enjoyed the family’s company and the area’s natural beauty he returned to Inspiration Point seven consecutive summers.
Wright’s book is credited by many as transforming the Ozarks into a national tourist destination.

Workers building the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama's set in 1959.

Shepherd of the Hills today offers tours of the family’s homestead, an outdoor drama based on the Wright’s tale, a western music show featuring the legendary Sons of the Pioneers and Inspiration Tower, and a 230-foot-high observation tower, which provides a 360-degree view of the Ozarks from the highest point in Southwest Missouri.
‘Tough as boot leather’
“There are an awful lot of folks who still think that Shepherd of the Hills is Branson,” Keith Thurman, a 43-year veteran of the operation, said. “People today try to learn more about the history of the area by reading the book. It’s full of comedy and it’s exciting and full of action. It has a deep spiritual lesson and is as good today as 100 years ago.”
Thurman, who directs the outdoor production of Wright’s book, said it is a tribute to the Ozarks and its people.
“Ozark pioneers were as tough as boot leather,” he said. “The whole dumb, hillbilly thing is ridiculous. These people had to be smart and resilient and inventive to survive here.”
The drama, in which Thurman has played several roles during his four decades at the attraction, has a long history, too. Thurman said the drama first played in 1926 as a two-act play, and re-enacted the story of the book.
Thurman, whose family has called the Ozarks home for seven generations, attributes the park’s longtime success to the appeal of Wright’s story and charm of Ozark residents.
Music, ride
In addition to the outdoor drama, historical appeal and Inspiration Tower, Shepherd of the Hills offers a special treat for fans of western music.
“The Sons of the Pioneers show fits us great,” Thurman said. “Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers debuted in 1934 and just celebrated their 75th anniversary. There have been many various members, but they are still the longest running performing musical groups in history. They have been together for 76 years now.”
Thrill seekers now have a reason to stop at Shepherd of the Hills.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Old Mill Theatre, the new Vigilante ZipRider — one of only 11 in the world — allows adventurous visitors to launch from a open-air platform on Inspiration Tower 170 feet above the ground and fly over the tree tops onto a landing platform half mile away.

Watch video of Vigilante ZipRider in action

“It’s been a big shot in the arm for Branson,” Thurman said. “It’s for everybody. The ZipRider is the closest thing you will ever experience to flying with wings like an eagle or a hawk. It’s a rush.”
The ride, Thurman said, lasts less than a minute.
“It will be the longest 55 seconds of your life,” he said.

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