Southern Cultures 8.2 (2002) 97-105
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Back to Branson
Normalcy and Nostalgia in the Ozarks
In 1920 Warren Harding won the presidency after an early campaign speech advocating, among other things, a nostalgic and undefined return to "normalcy," a reference to the McKinley administration of 1900 that Harding felt looked like his America. The intervening twenty years of the Progressive Era, with its massive non-Anglo-Saxon immigration from southern and eastern Europe, wasn't, in Harding's view, normal. The recent immigrants did not look like Harding's America, and not incidentally his administration featured severe immigration restriction and extensive deportation of radical aliens—Harding's return to normalcy.
Warren Harding's era of normalcy didn't last long; the trend in twentieth-century America has been one of steadily increasing diversity. Yet on a trip through the Ozarks I inadvertently found Harding's 1920s America in Branson, Missouri. Contemporary Branson neither discourages ethnic tourists nor advertises its Anglo-Saxon homogeneity. A merger of Nashville's Opryland and Disneyland's Main Street, it simply reflects the rural, white middle-aged Protestant visitors whose passion is traditional country music.
Branson does, however, harbor some ironic contradictions that make it an unlikely mecca for an old America. A hustling, bustling modern commercial town that resembles Las Vegas more than any other city, Branson is snugly nestled between two lakes in the heart of the scenic Ozarks, just north of the Arkansas line. Although it now bills itself as "the Country Music Show Capital of the World," Branson's early growth had nothing to do with country music. Its modern tourism dates from the opening of Table Rock Dam and the Silver Dollar City amusement park in the late 1950s. Before then, novelist Harold Bell Wright, who came to the area to regain his health, popularized the town in his 1907 novel The Shepherd of the Hills. Many of his readers eventually visited the actual hill country around Branson, and a 1941 film adaptation of the novel, starring John Wayne, made the area even more famous. In 1959 the Shepherd of the Hills theater opened as a tourist attraction to go with the recently opened Silver Dollar City park.
By 1958 three lakes, Taneycomo, Bull Shoals, and Table Rock, were already attracting fishermen and boaters. Nearby Marvel Cave had drawn tourists throughout the century, and Silver Dollar City, originally a recreated late-nineteenth-century mountain village, was conceived to complement it. Rides, live country-music shows, and craft shops followed. In 1959 the Mabe family formed a group called the Baldknobbers, who performed in Branson for the slowly growing tourist population. Their on-site success was marginal, but they soon found [End Page 98] added employment as musicians for Shepherd of the Hills and Silver Dollar City. In the early 1960s, the Mabes and the Presley family built theaters on state highway 76 in between Branson and the amusement park. Traffic improved steadily, but business never boomed for the Presleys and Baldknobbers during the 1960s.
The real draw in the sixties was not country music but the Silver Dollar City amusement park, which had been named for its early practice of giving customers change in silver dollars. Word about the park was getting around. National television highlighted its craft shops, and in the mid-1970s the wildly popular television series The Beverly Hillbillies filmed a few shows there. This was the first direct national linking of the Branson area to an older, white rural America. The increasing crowds brought more country music theaters in the 1980s to entertain [End Page 99] visitors at night. A simple cycle was set in motion. More tourist traffic brought more theaters, which brought more tourists, which brought new theaters. Highway 76 became a traffic nightmare. Recently, Branson has concentrated on building new side routes around the 76 strip, and the result has been an explosion of new theaters, motels, restaurants, and retail malls.
Contemporary Branson draws from a national pool of musical talent and has begun to challenge Nashville as...