Saturday night at the Shepherd of the Hills Historic Farm and Adventure Park, the show that tells the story that sparked the tourism industry in Ozark Mountain Country, “The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama,” will kick off its 60 year anniversary of shows on the property.
The outdoor drama first opened at the Old Mill Theatre at the Shepherd of the Hills Historic Farm Aug. 6, 1960.
“We are very excited to be opening the 60 year anniversary of the ‘Shepherd Of The Hills Outdoor Drama,’” owner Jeff Johnson said. “We know what it means to the community to get back open, as well as what it means to our employees. We are also grateful that our theater is an outdoor amphitheater where people can sit out under the stars in a time where sitting in closed in and confined spaces may not be ideal.
“We are very proud to be continuing the tradition and telling the story of the Ozarks.”
The story of the “Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama” began well over 100 years ago, when author Harold Bell Wright began visiting the Ozarks in 1896. He soon became acquainted with residents John and Anna Ross.
Inspired by the colorful characters and stories he experienced over the eight years spent camping on the property, Wright decided to focus on the complicated lives of the simple mountain folk to highlight his “tale of love, hate and forgiveness, and set the whole story in the Ozark Mountains during the late 1800s.”
While the book is mostly fiction, several of the events actually happened, but were changed to add elements of drama. The events in the book take place throughout the area known as the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead, as well as in Mutton Hollow, where the former Celebration City is now located.
“The Shepherd of the Hills” was an immediate hit when it was first published in 1907, selling millions of copies in several different languages. After publication, fans of the book from all over came to the Ozarks to see where the story took place, and by 1909, Branson became a destination for tourists looking for “Old Matt’s Cabin.”
Most historians agree the birth of tourism in Ozark Mountain Country can be directly traced to this work. Plus, it was around this time the first performances of the play began popping up, most notably in Springfield in 1913.
“That’s the first performance of the play I can find on record,” Johnson said. “It was at the Landers Theatre. I’ve also seen advertisements and posters, things like that, from when it was performed in 1915 and later.”
In addition to the play, Wright’s novel has also been the basis for four films since 1919, including the 1941 production starring John Wayne, as well as a TV movie.
As the popularity grew, so did the heavy volumes of visitors to “the farm.” Eventually, the Ross family relocated to Garber, leaving their homestead behind.
Following the death of both John and Anna in 1923, the homestead was purchased by the daughter of a Springfield banker named Elizabeth “Miss Lizzie” McDaniel, an avid fan of the book who even lived in Old matt’s Cabin.
It was McDaniel who first began hosting re-enactments of the book in the early 1920s.
“She would do a two-act play, right there on the lawn,” Johnson said. “Right there in front of the cabin.”
Upon her death, McDaniel willed the house to the Branson Civic League, and Dr. Bruce Trimble and his wife, Mary, purchased the remainder of the homestead. 1946 saw the opening of Old Matt’s Barn as a public gift shop, and three years later, a wooden tower was built atop Inspiration Point.
According to Johnson, a version of “The Shepherd of the Hills” began being performed on a more consistent basis, this time, “on the waterfront” in downtown. In fact, the city of Branson built a theater, and the play stayed there for several years in the 1950s.
The Trimbles began discussing plans to build a theater on the property to do their own version of the show, and even began some construction, but in 1957, Bruce Trimble died. Three years later, his widow Mary and their son, Mark, saw the completion of the Old Mill Theatre, which would be home to the “Shepherd of the Hills” play, written by Mark Trimble, Lloyd “Shad” Heller and Jim Collie.
The Old Mill Theatre opened to the public for the first time in August of 1960, the same year as Silver Dollar City.
In fact, the Mabe Brothers were cast members for the first season with Bob Mabe playing the Sheriff, Lyle playing Uncle Ike, and two of the brothers playing Baldknobbers, hinting at their future moniker. They also were the band for the square dance portion of the show.
The play was a smash, and saw thousands of visitors fill the outdoor venue for many years.
The “Outdoor Drama” uses more than 90 actors and actresses, horses, mules, sheep and donkeys, and also features shoot-outs, fights, chases and even the burning of a log cabin.
During the early 1980s, Keith Thurman, an actor who performed as “Young Matt” for several seasons, stepped up to take over the directing duties, a role he still holds today. Thurman is also considered a “resident historian” on all things Shepherd of the Hills.
In 1985, Mark Trimble phoned former cast member and Branson businessman Gary Snadon, who performed as Wash Gibbs, to tell him he decided to sell the property. Snadon and his wife, Pat, took over the next season and made immediate improvements, starting with the 230-foot Inspiration Tower. The Snadons also began the Trail of Lights, and instituted the Vigilante Extreme ZipRider. Unfortunately, Gary Snadon died in 2013, and shortly after, the outdoor drama was slated to close. Following their difficult off season, the Snadons decided to reopen the show in 2014, and managed to stay afloat for three additional seasons.
In 2017, Johnson and business partner Steve Faria purchased the 160-acre homestead, and immediately began upgrading the property.
Some of those upgrades include several new buildings, play areas, ATV trails, attractions, a ropes course, zip lines and massive overhauls to the Playhouse Theatre, which is now home to several new shows. Plus, lots of additional work has gone into the Old Mill Theatre, and soon, a new train will be open, set to carry guests all over the property. A new dining experience on the property, the Shepherds Mill Restaurant opened last year.