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Holy Hills of the Ozarks

Religion and Tourism in Branson, Missouri

Aaron K. Ketchell

Publication Year: 2007

Over the past century, Branson, Missouri, has attracted tens of millions of tourists. Nestled in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, it offers a rare and refreshing combination of natural beauty and family-friendly recreation—from scenic lakes and rolling hills to theme parks and variety shows. It has boasted of big name celebrities, like Wayne Newton, Andy Williams, and Petula Clark, as well as family entertainers like Mickey Gilley, the Shanghai Magic Troupe, Jim Stafford, and Yakov Smirnoff. But there is more to Branson's fame than just recreation. As Aaron K. Ketchell discovers, a popular variant of Christianity underscores all Branson's tourist attractions and fortifies every consumer success. In this lively and engaging study, Ketchell explores Branson's unique blend of religion and recreation. He explains how the city became a mecca of conservative Christianity—a place for a "spiritual vacation"—and how, through conscious effort, its residents and businesses continuously reinforce its inextricable connection with the divine. Ketchell combines the study of lived religion, popular culture, evangelicalism, and contemporary American history to present an accurate and honest account of a distinctly American phenomenon.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Lived Religions


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pp. vii-ix

Most of this project was completed while I was a graduate student or faculty member at the University of Kansas, and many individuals affiliated with that institution are due thanks. Gratitude must first be extended to Pete Shortridge. His keen eye for detail, thorough editing skills, and perceptive comments transformed this subject matter into a work that I feel is clear, concise, and informed. ...

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Introduction: “The Moral Vineyards”

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pp. xi-xxxvi

A city of less than 7,000 permanent residents, Branson, Missouri, annually attracts more than 7 million tourists, with vacationers swelling its population to 65,000 during peak season. Located in the southwestern corner of the state, it is often described as the “heart” of the Ozarks and has prospered for nearly a century as a result of a multifaceted fusion of recreation with religious...

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1. “Temples of God’s Own Building”: Harold Bell Wright and the Roots of Branson Tourism

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pp. 1-26

In 1895, Harold Bell Wright was unemployed and living in Ohio. He suffered from serious respiratory problems and was plagued by an acute eye condition that had forced him to withdraw from college preparatory school. Contemplating suicide, he instead decided to construct a canoe and float to the White Oak district of the southwestern Missouri Ozarks to recuperate among extended ...

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2. “Hills of Truth and Love”: Authenticity and the Sacred in Shepherd of the Hills Country

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pp. 27-55

Dow Tate was born in 1884 in Cotter, Arkansas, a town 75 miles southeast of what would become Branson, Missouri. As a boy he grew to be familiar with Ozark religion because his father, Van Buren, was a Baptist preacher who traversed the state line between Arkansas and Missouri serving disparate congregations. In 1913 while living in Waco, Texas, Dow embarked on a 600-mile journey ...

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3. “I Would Much Rather See a Sermon Than Hear One”: Faith at Silver Dollar City

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pp. 56-84

Since its inception in 1960, the Silver Dollar City theme park in Branson, Missouri, has offered patrons a sometimes anachronistic fusion of the Missouri frontier, preindustrial craftsmanship, and simple faith. In a 2003 interview, Peter Herschend, co-owner and vice chairman of the Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation (Silver Dollar City’s parent body), discussed the ways his attraction ...

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4. Jesus Is “the Greatest Star”: The Variety Show and Contemporary Branson Tourism

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pp. 85-128

In 1999, Wes Neal, of Branson’s Champions of Excellence Ministries, produced the Branson Stars Booklet—a forty-page tract of Christian testimony. Its contributors included area entertainers such as Roy Clark, Tony Orlando, and Trinity Broadcasting Network mainstay Dino Kartsonakis, plus local resident and nationally known marriage counselor Gary Smalley and business leaders Jack ...

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5. “Near Heaven”: The Dynamics of Sacred Space in Branson

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pp. 129-169

In The Shepherd of the Hills, Harold Bell Wright described an inextricable link between Ozarkers and their environment. Living amid “temples of God’s own building,” the hill folk possessed intimate knowledge of “how big God is” and spiritually profited from this divine presence expressed through “the language of the mountain, and tree, and sky, and flower, and brook.” In a moment of spiritual ...

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6. Hillbilly Heaven: Labor, Leisure, and the Ozark Trickster

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pp. 170-204

Pearl Spurlock, Branson, Missouri’s first tour guide, often told her guests, “God has to keep people chained up in heaven for fear they’ll come to the Ozarks and become hillbillies.” Within a place renowned for religiously oriented tourist offerings and often called “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” it might seem surprising that Spurlock would sanctify this icon. The melding of the persona of the hill-...

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7. “The Aroma of God’s Spirit”: Branding Branson’s Future

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pp. 205-231

After a guest lecture at Missouri State University in 2005, I was approached by Don Gabriel and given a document entitled “The Branson Manifesto.” Gabriel heads BransonFunTrip, a travel service company that was recently developed to attract a new cohort of vacationers to the region. He also founded the area’s Christian Business Men’s Committee, was a member of the Branson/Lakes Area ...


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pp. 233-271


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pp. 273-294


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pp. 295-300

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402437
E-ISBN-10: 1421402432
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801886607
Print-ISBN-10: 0801886600

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 26 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Lived Religions
Series Editor Byline: David D. Hall and Robert A. Orsi, Series Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794701434
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Holy Hills of the Ozarks

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Amusements -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
  • Recreation -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
  • Amusements -- Missouri -- Branson.
  • Recreation -- Missouri -- Branson.
  • Branson (Mo.) -- Religious life and customs.
  • Popular culture -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
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