Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Branson Backstory

by Pa Rock

A couple of days ago I wrote I wrote a review of the book, Bald Knobbers:  Vigilantes of the Ozarks Frontier, by Mary Hartman and Elmo Ingenthron.  I want to expand on that a bit and give some sense to the ultimate impact that the 19th century lawlessness in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas had on the development of Branson, today one of the nation's top tourist draws.

The Bald Knobbers (two words) originated in Taney County, Missouri, in the 1880's, and Taney County is now home to the modern country music city of Branson.  One of the very first music groups to organize a show on the strip in Branson was the Baldknobbers (one word) who  opened their doors to the public in 1959.  That show is still going strong with many of the performers being children and grandchildren of the ones who started the show.  Other than the name, there are no similarities between the original vigilantes and today's musical entertainers.

One of the most widely sold and read books in the history of American literature is Harold Bell Wright's Shepherd of the Hills.  That book, the story of a rugged mountain family in Taney County who befriends an artist from Chicago, features bald knobber activity.  Today the Matthew's cabin, which was the focal point of the novel, remains near Branson where it is open for public viewing - for a fee of course.   The community also hosts an outdoor evening production of a play based on The Shepherd of the Hills during the summer months.

The book, Bald Knobbers, by Hartman and Ingenthron, begins with a general history of lawlessness and vigilantism in America and then leads into the rise of criminal culture that evolved in the midwestern United States during and after the Civil War.  They talked about one notorious outlaw (bushwhacker) in particular - a dastardly thief, murderer, and gang leader by the name of Alf Bolin.  Bolin and his gang of cutthroat fiends refused to join either side during the Civil War, and instead spent their time preying on the defenseless wives and children left to manage the family farms while their men were off at war.

Alf Bolin was eventually killed in 1863 in a ruse set up by some Union soldiers.  His death occurred in Taney County, and his body was initially taken to Forsyth where his head was cut off.  Bolin's head was taken to Ozark, Missouri, where it was placed on a stake and became a brief tourist attraction.  Today those visiting Branson's premier tourist attraction, Silver Dollar City, have a chance to encounter Alf (now "Alfie") Bolin as he and his fictional brother, Ralphie, rob the train six or eight times daily.

(And a big shout out to one of my old college roommates, Mike Rhodes, who rode with the Bolin gang at Silver Dollar City back in the 1960's!)

Taney County, Missouri has a rich and colorful past, though much of it is rooted in tragedy.   But the people in and around Branson don't hide from their unique history. They accept it, profit from it, and move forward.

The outlaws are still riding in Taney County!

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