The story really began, well…with a story. In 1907 The Shepherd of the Hills book was published. It was written by a Christian minister named Harold Bell Wright who had wandered into the Ozark hills headed for better weather for his ailing health. When a flooded White River stopped his progress, he came upon a modest homestead owned by John and Anna Ross. He became so enamored with the people that he met that he began compiling notes for a book. Frustrated with battling illness, Wright discovered if he couldn’t minister from the pulpit, he could still reach people through his writing. Upon its release, The Shepherd of the Hills was an instant success and the first book in US history to sell over 1 million copies. Based on actual events, readers began flocking into the Ozark hills to see the places that Wright so eloquently described. John and Anna Ross had become Old Matt and Aunt Mollie is Wright’s story, and Old Matt’s Cabin became an instant tourist attraction. So much so that John and Anna moved from their home to live the remainder of their days in nearby Garber, Missouri.
After their death a feisty young woman named Elizabeth McDaniel purchased the homestead. A wealthy bankers daughter from Springfield, Missouri, “Miss Lizzie”, as she was known, loved the book. She lived in Old Matt’s Cabin for a time before having her home moved from Springfield to an area of the homestead not far from the cabin (today Miss Lizzie’s home houses the ticket office). Recognizing the public’s love of the story and interest in the history, she staged the first reenactments of The Shepherd of the Hills on the lawn of Old Matt’s Cabin in the early 1920’s. Miss Lizzie never had children, and upon her death she willed the entire homestead to the Branson Civic League and the historic homestead fell into disrepair, but the book continued to gain fans. Harold Bell Wright produced a silent film of the story in the 1920’s and in 1941 the tale of the Shepherd made it to Hollywood….The Shepherd of the Hills movie stared John Wayne in his first Technicolor film. The Hollywood version had very little to do with Wright’s original masterpiece and it’s much anticipated release was met with hostility from those who loved the story. John Wayne, having not read the original book before the movie, sent an apology letter to Wright’s fans for the way the movie portrayed the characters.
Back at home, Dr. Bruce and Mary Trimble, who were also big fans of the book, purchased the homestead. In 1946 they opened Old Matt’s Barn to the public as a gift shop and in 1949 constructed a wooden tower on Inspiration Point. Dr. Trimble dreamed of an amphitheatre carved into the wooded hillside near Old Matt’s grist mill, but sadly he died in 1957 before his dreams could become reality. The Trimbles son, Mark, had left the area, was in the Air Force and had obtained a degree in meteorology and engineering. After his father’s death Mark returned to the Branson, originally intending to “clean up and sell the homestead”. However fate had other plans, and soon it was Mark who was making big plans for the future.
He joined forces with Lloyd Heller and Jim Collie to design and build the theatre and write the script. On August 6, 1960 the Old Mill Theatre welcomed its first guests. Mark, his mother Mary and wife Lea were off on a new adventure.
Things were not smooth sailing in the beginning. It wasn’t long before Paramount Pictures, who had purchased the stage and screen rights, sent a telegram demanding that production stop immediately. After a battle in which Dr. Clark, president at School of the Ozarks got involved on the Trimbles behalf it was determined that the show could, in fact, go on.
However the original threesome were at odds. Jim Collie left the production and Hal Meadows was brought in as director. In 1966 Shad Heller left to begin the Corn Cobb Theatre on highway 76. It was that year that Mark says he knew he either had to “go all the way in or get out”. Fortunately, all the way in was his choice. That year they ran an aggressive television ad campaign and the theatre made a quantum leap in attendance.
Also in 1966 the Branson High School football coach was looking for a summer job, and was hired to play the roll of the villainous Wash Gibbs. Gary Snadon played the role for 3 seasons during his off-time from coaching and teaching. After the Pirates enjoyed an undefeated football season, Gary knew it was the time to pursue other development opportunities in Branson. Through the years Gary and his wife Pat built and developed several properties, including Ride the Ducks, Roark Vacation Resort, the Ray Stevens Theatre, the Wayne Newton Theatre, the Polynesian Princess and several motels. When Mark Trimble called in 1985 to say he had decided to sell the historic homestead, the Snadon family jumped at the opportunity.
Over the next 30 years The Shepherd of the Hills has truly been a family run operation. Gary and Pat stayed very involved in the daily operations, Pat’s passion was in developing and designing the popular Trail of Lights, extending the season into Christmastime. Both of their daughters, Shawna and Sharena, worked at the park along with their husbands. Shawna and her husband Doug moved to Texas to work with Navigators Ministries, but Sharena and her husband Shane remained at the homestead. In May of 2013 the family faced devastating news…Gary was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The news left the family reeling. While Gary battled his cancer, the deck seemed stacked against the family facing rising costs and declining attendance. In October of 2013, the family made the painful announcement that the curtain was coming down on the theatre for the final time. Instantly the community, and then the nation, rallied around the historic park. There was an outpouring of love and support from neighbors and fans across the country, including articles in USA Today and a front page story in the Wall Street Journal. Sadly, Gary passed away a week after the final performance.
The winter was a sad and dark time for everyone in the Shepherd family. As spring approached, it was Shane who took pencil to paper and started working on a way to save the show. With a limited schedule and some other changes – and a huge leap of faith – it was announced that the show would return for its 55th season in 2014.
Through the years many changes and additions have been made to the historic homestead, but the simplicity and integrity of Wright’s timeless story remains the same. The actors and actresses now rely on a state-of-the-art sound system to clearly carry their lines rather than just “projection”, and the fight scene may be a little more choreographed than the all-out brawl some of the earlier performances were witness to, but there’s no doubt that The Shepherd of the Hills has found a way to transcend generations and is a vital part of the American tradition. After all, this much-loved attraction has already stood the test of time.