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Discovering Branson, Missouri & the Ozarks

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Many of you might have heard about Branson, Missouri, but few of you have ever been there Some of you might think of Branson as a fabrication, as a sort of Las Vegas without gambling..Or a place where former Las Vegas headliners go to perform in their final years. We sent contributing writer David DeVoss to the area, and then around the Ozarks, on a mission to discover the real Branson. And on the way, he found a very different place—unique entertainment, restaurants that serve ample portions, and some fun and quirky accommodations. Here’s his report.

Downtown Branson

When I told neighbors in Los Angeles that I was going to Branson, Missouri, their facial reactions embodied the word consternation. “Isn’t that the Christian country place?,” they responded nervously, attempting to elicit information without giving offense. “Why not just drive to Vegas?”

Like Las Vegas, Branson is a tourist town whose economy relies on entertainment venues showcasing musicians, magicians, acrobats, and dramatic productions. But that’s where the likeness ends. Halal restaurants may be in short supply, but there is no shortage of hospitality for visitors of all faiths and their families.

Despite its official population of 11,000, Branson has hundreds of attractions that range from balloon rides, cable cars, and zip lines to museums, country parks, and dinner theatres. If you missed the Treasures of the Titanic exhibition that toured the country a decade ago you’ll be able to see some 400 Titanic artifacts, as well as a scale model of the ocean liner staffed by actors in period dress. Visitors are given the name of a passenger when they enter the ship, and prior to leaving you can check to see if your passenger survived the 1912 journey.

Legends is a musical review where look-alike vocalists channel Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, and other entertainers. My favorite is Presleys’ Country Jubilee, a musical comedy stage show where Presley family millennials give contemporary relevance to a Grand Ole Opry-style production.

The first thing you’ll notice about Branson is the friendliness and absence of profanity. Entertainers here don’t retreat to a backstage Green Room during intermission. They hang out with the audience and will remain after the show to discuss music, swap family stories, and pose for selfies. Show tickets are reasonably priced and reservations are not essential during the spring and autumn months, but reserving seats in the summer is always a good idea.

Dick's 5&10

Branson has two streets worth exploring by foot. They first is the city’s Main Street that leads to Branson’s Landing, a mixed-use commercial and residential area fronting Lake Taneycomo. There you’ll find Dick’s 5 and 10, a vintage drug store that anchors a block full of antique, quilting, and jewelry shops. The other walking street is Branson Landing Boulevard, a pedestrian promenade anchored by the Bass Pro Shop. A creation of Springfield, Missouri native Johnny Morris, Bass Pro sells everything from fishing lures and bass boats to barbeque sauce and hunting rifles. Morris is a beloved benefactor in the Ozarks, so be warned: strangers can be forgiven for taking the Lord’s name in vain, but don’t disparage Johnny Morris unless you have just cause.

One of Morris’ gifts to the region is Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a 10,000-acre park 26 miles southwest of Branson that contains trout streams, waterfalls, a wedding chapel, and a wildlife sanctuary with buffalo and Longhorn steers.

If you have parks close to home, however, I’d skip Dogwood Canyon and spend the day—a full day—at Silver Dollar City, an Ozark Mountains crafts park 14 miles from downtown Branson. Silver Dollar City has a limestone cave, six roller coasters, a steam train, several carousels, a white water plunge, and rafting experience plus numerous rides for small children. But the park’s major attractions are 100 artisans who produce, sell, and take orders for a variety of handmade artifacts.

Copper Kettle Candy Shop @ Silver Dollar City

Silver Dollar City was conceived to be an early 20th century Ozark mountain town. There’s a blacksmith, glass blower, a wood carver who makes carousel ponies, a metallurgist who makes fine cutlery and Bowie knives, and three delightful women who produce candy from 19th century recipes. There are also a number of theatrical venues that pulse with the sounds of fiddles, banjos, and guitars. The Boatworks Theater is home to a country group called Sons of the Silver Dollar and when they ask audiences to join them in singing Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American,” they do.

Getting to Branson

Branson has its own airport, but it is woefully small and served only by two airlines: AirTran and Sun Country. A more efficient and economical way to get there is to fly into Springfield, a mid-sized town less than an hour North of Branson.

There’s plenty to see in Springfield. The second battle of the Civil War was fought at Wilson’s Creek. Numerous historical sites sit astride a road circling the battlefield. A convenient mobile app allows visitors to hear a full account of each location. Fantastic Caverns is worth a tram ride through on a sweltering summer day. Its vaulted chambers have hosted both Prohibition speakeasies and Christian worship services.

For me, shopping on a vacation means wasting time browsing and carrying home extra weight. But if you like antiques, old books, and funky memorabilia, visit the Relics Antique Mall, a gigantic warehouse where locals sell items on consignment. It’s like rummaging through an attic the size of a Walmart. Yes, there’s a lot of stuff you might find at a yard sale, but I did find a poster from the 1956 World Series.

If you like baseball, check out the Springfield Cardinals baseball stadium, a beautiful place to watch St. Louis’ minor league affiliate. People wearing KC Royals blue also are welcome. Before leaving for Branson, make time to stroll around Springfield’s town square. Back in 1865 it was the site of America’s first quick draw gunfight when Wild Bill Hickok shot a poor misfortunate who took Hickok’s watch in payment of a gambling debt. This was no face-to-face shootout of the sort portrayed on TV westerns. Hickok was 75 yards away when he dropped the man whose only offense was refusing to sell back to Hickok the watch he had legally won.

Springfield is not known for fine dining, but that doesn’t mean it lacks good eats. Just around the corner from the gunfight plaza is the Hurts Donut Company, a seemingly modest business that literally is packed with customers buying donuts topped with Oreo cookies, s’mores, or chocolate-encrusted with Fruit Loops. Prices are amazingly cheap; a dozen glazed costs $8. Diabetics Beware!

If you survive Hurts Donuts or, better still, avoid it entirely, you’ll have enough appetite to stop at Lambert’s Café just off Highway 65 on the road to Branson. Lambert’s is the “Home of Throwed Rolls,” an activity you can imagine but one I’ll describe later.

Lambert's Restaurant

Lambert’s is a local restaurant that does not take reservations. No tour buses here. You hand in your name and wait outside on the porch along with folks from Ozark, Sparta, and Poplar Bluff. You’ll want to come hungry because the portions are huge. I passed on the “rooster cut” and ordered the hen-sized chicken fried steak and was surprised to see it was the size of a catcher’s mitt.

Cynics will call Lambert’s a temple devoted to gluttony, which it is. (Every year Lambert’s serves 111,000 lbs. of beef  (equal to the weight of 221 steers), 212,000 lbs. of chicken, 61,200 lbs. of okra, nearly 2,000,000 pats of butter and enough throwed rolls to stretch 178 miles if placed side by side.) But the food is excellent. Side dishes here are augmented by complimentary “pass arounds” that consist of fried potatoes, macaroni, okra, and black-eyed peas, all continuously served by young waiters ready to be summoned by a royal flick of the wrist or arched eyebrow. Then there are the rolls: massive pillows of bread that look like an Ozark Yorkshire Pudding. Except this hot dough comes at you like a steaming softball ready to be slathered in sorghum molasses.

Side Trip to Arkansas

There’s a lot to do in Branson, but after four or five days you’ll probably want to see more of the Ozarks. You should, since northwest Arkansas has an artistic mountain town on the National Register of Historic Places, a haunted hotel built in 1886, an ethereal woodland chapel rated fourth on the list of the 20th Century’s most beautiful buildings by the American Institute of Architects, and an art museum rivaling those in New York, California, and Washington, D.C.

Eureka Springs

One hour southwest of Branson is the Ozark mountain town Eureka Springs (population 2,000). Although there are people living there who commute to Branson for work, Eureka Springs is mostly home to artists whose galleries line the limestone streets and sidewalks. Want to meet sculptors of steel, scrimshanders, decoupers, teleprinters, and potters? Eureka Springs is the place. There are a lot of artsy towns in America and too many of them are boring and overpriced. Eureka Springs’ personality constantly evolves because of the number of people passing through to attend book festivals, cooking classes, and theatrical events, or to purchase locally produced artworks from the town’s 25 galleries.

Just beyond Eureka Springs on Highway 62 to Bentonville you’ll find Thorncrown Chapel, an airy wood-beamed structure with 425 windows containing 6,000 square feet of glass. Completed in 1980, the chapel won design of the year and design of the decade awards from the American Institute of Architects, and today is considered the fourth most beautiful building of the last century. Recessed lights play off the surrounding glass walls so crosses appear to hover amid the surrounding forest. Thorncrown is second only to Las Vegas in the number of weddings performed annually.

Bentonville (population 40,000) is not where you’d expect to find Crystal Bridges, one of the country’s finest American art museums. Sam Walton’s daughter Alice thought Ozark children should be exposed to fine art. She used her share of the Walton Family Foundation to purchase iconic masterworks ranging from Charles Willison Peale’s 1781 portrait of George Washington and Norman Rockwell’s 1943 Rosie the Riveter to modern paintings by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The museum doesn’t open until 11 a.m. so that school children (more than 75,000 have visited since the museum opened in 2011) will have the first two hours of each day to study the paintings of the era that inspired their creation.

It’s possible to visit Eureka Springs and all the other attractions described above in a single day, but returning to Branson will mean driving at night. Bentonville has a modern hotel called the 21c Museum Hotel, which is as sophisticated as any boutique property you might find in New York or San Francisco. But I recommend returning to Eureka Springs to experience the 1886 Crescent Hotel, a National Trust for Historic Preservation accommodation that President Grover Cleveland would have loved.

Located in the Eureka Springs’ Historic District—home to more than 100 restored Victorian shops, restaurants, and galleries—this Victorian hotel is surrounded by hundreds of Victorian cottages, ample green space, and hidden trails. The Crescent has retained its 19th-century character with 14-foot ceilings in the Crystal Ballroom, an elegant and hand-painted lobby, period furnishings in guest rooms, and large verandas that allow you to enjoy the fresh mountain air.

CrescentHotelGhostDetector

The Crescent’s antique elevator groans, its upper floors creak, and late at night whiffs of perfume from unseen sources float around the corridors. Ask for a ghost tour if you’re staying at the hotel, but try to avoid ESP Weekend (Eureka Springs Paranormal), when ghost busters waving meters calibrated to detect a spectral presence come to Eureka Springs.

For more articles by David DeVoss, check out:

Text and Images by David DeVoss for PeterGreenberg.com. David DeVoss is Editor & Senior Correspondent of the East-West News Service

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