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After a day of recovery in Cabot, we set out to do two important stops that were originally scheduled before our Cabot hiatus, but we ran out of time to give them the attention they deserved. The first of these two was Branson, Missouri, a spot we’ve been telling ourselves we had to get to for several years, especially to broaden our Ozarks education. Our overseer, the Escapees RV Club (see below), has a primary location there, and of course that’s where we stayed. Price was very right, but even more important, our arrival included the traditional Escapees Hug. (Actually, they now ask you if you’re a hugger or a shaker, but we’d have none of the latter!)
FYI: The Escapees RV Club is a Texas organization that provides dozens of services to RVers, especialy full-timers. Their home office in Livingston is currently our legal address, since our tenant has our Churchton address; everything except for our vehicles and licenses is registered there. Mail is forwarded on to us when and where we want it.
Branson is an Ozarkian Las Vegas, without the gambling. That description is in no way meant to be a slight; Branson is an extremely exciting, extremely busy entertainment center. Cruising the main drag, one encounters show venue after show venue, restaurant after restaurant, and lodge after lodge. Along the highways into town, outlets hawk discount tickets for all the attractions. We learned, after passing them all up, that many are come-ons for selling local real estate – you can get good prices by sitting through an hour’s presentation. Our campground provide a discount plan with no strings attached.
But we didn’t do either. We drove the drag on our own, read the piles of printed material, and decided there wasn’t much we wanted to see. There were major names all over the place, but most of them were tribute shows. Big names, including Andy Williams and Dick Clark, bring their names to auditoria, and big names perform there. But the tribute shows seem to predominate: a partial list includes Neil Diamond, ABBA, John Denver, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Air Supply and the Four Seasons. There certainly are stars to be seen, for short stays throughout the year, but timing is essential!
At the end of the strip is Table Rock Lake. It is a 43,000 acre lake with 800 miles of shoreline, and it’s created by the Table Rock Dam, a mile-plus long structure installed to control flooding and generate power. The offshoot is a pristine vacation paradise, open to every watersport and aquatic enjoyment that one could imagine. And the hotel overlooks the beach.
A huge sternwheeler, the Branson Belle, plies its waters. It is a dinner and show boat par excellence, capable of leaving the dock and creeping over the usually gentle lake without distracting from the service inside. If it’s rough, the boat sits at the dock while presenting its goodies. But on the day we subscribed to it, there was no such drawback. We surveyed it one day and booked the mid-day cruise for the next. And we went for the upper deck, a gourmet meal with selection of entrees served on a clear-view mezzanine – and we were front row. We boarded at 11 AM, made our choices from the menu, and had course after course, including great steaks, served over the next 90 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, hundreds filed in to the lower deck, sat at long tables and were served a substantial meal. At noon, without our knowledge, the Belle left the dock and began her cruise. Our emcee, David Hirschi, a talented comedian, juggler and all-around showman, warmed us up. He promised that his two identical brothers would host future parts of the show, and Dot fell for it. Meanwhile, he and the stage acts behind him launched into an additional 90 minutes of quality entertainment called Made in the U.S.A. The band, The Castaways, was distributed onstage like the Hollywood Squares.
The core act was the Showbelles a quartet of lovely women who sang and danced through multiple routines – and made a hit by choosing audience members to participate. National champion ragtime pianist Julie McClarey showed us the broad extent of her repertoire; she both tours and teaches at the university level. Country fiddler Dean Church , a world class violin virtuoso who has been a Branson favorite for many years, delighted us with his impressive talent and versatility. During breaks, we wandered out on deck to watch the passing beauty of the Lake and the hordes having fun on it, but the show always brought us back inside. We got our money’s worth – and more.
Incidentally, unlike many touring sternwheelers, the Branson is actually propelled by the giant paddlers. In fact, we watched it turn by actually having one rotate forward and the other backward.
Though we skipped the downtown attractions, we found something we consider equally fantastic: an accredited college where you can get a bachelor’s degree for free. Wouldn’t it be nice to graduate without debt? Be taught by a faculty that’s a 13:1 ratio with lots of Ph.D.’s? Eat home-grown food? Suffer instant expulsion if you are caught with smokes or drugs? College of the Ozarks, a.k.a. Hard Work U in Point Lookout, next door to Branson, is all of the above.
Founded by Presbyterian pastor James Forsythe in 1907 as a high school, the School of the Ozarks, it was financed in large part by two of the founders of Nabisco and enrolled 180 students. It grew steadily until the 1950’s, when, under the leadership of presidents Robert M. Good (1921-52) and M. Graham Clark (1952-75), the institution exploded, expanding its campus, its offerings and its credibility. It became a junior college in 1956 and the four year COFO in 1965.
COFO’s core values are Christianity and patriotism. They have more applicants than openings within their 1500 enrollment; student admission is based on a combination of factors such as financial need, academic prowess, quality of character and proven work ethic. Here’s the reason for the work ethic requirement: by working 15 hours a week and one 40 hour week a semester, you earn full tuition. By working 40 hour weeks during the summer, you earn a full year’s room and board. And there are certainly plenty of work assignments to go around. The campus includes a farm and a dairy. The Jelly and Fruitcake Building puts out goods for sale; the fruitcakes leave the ovens at the rate of 100/day, and they stop production in October just to make time for packaging and Christmas shipping. The Keeter Lodge is a gem; it’s a hotel and restaurant that serves the public. We had lunch there and couldn’t have done better; the service, quality and delivery were impeccable. Every employee is a student, supervised by faculty, earning degrees in food preparation, restaurant or hotel management – and earning their way at the same time.
I almost forgot! The reason we went there in the first place was to visit the on-campus Ralph D. Foster Museum. Foster was a broadcast pioneer whose lifelong ambition was to replace Nashville with Springfield, Missouri as the center of country. John Morris, president of Bass Pro Shops, proclaimed him the Ernest Hemingway of the Ozarks. While “replace” never occurred, his impact on the industry is legend in the Ozarks and beyond. Among his most significant feats was the production of the Ozark Jubilee, which debuted on ABC-TV on January 22, 1955, became the first network television series featuring national country music stars, and ran for almost six years. His long-time support of the College and financial donations allowing a major expansion of the Museum led to it being named for him in 1969.
The Museum is a potpourri of Ozark history and culture. When you first enter and round the corner, you come upon the original Beverly Hillbillies Car, a 1921 Oldsmobile refashioned by legendary California customizer Chuck Barris. There’s an exhibit of furnishings, a recreation exhibit supplied by Bass Pro Shops, a presentation of ladies’ slips, a room of millinery, and Thomas Hart Benton originals. There’s a tribute display to Rose O’Neill (1874-1944), illustrator and sculptor whose most famous creation was the Kewpie Doll. She was the inspiration for the song Rose of Washington Square, but the movie of the same name was another Rose’s life story. She built a mansion, Bonniebrook, on property her father bought near Springfield, MO and lived there for the latter part of her life. There’s a tribute to the 100th birthday of the Girl Scouits. And catch the orininal erector set at the end of Row 2.
As might be expected, music plays a major role in the Museum. Si Siman was another prime mover in the history of Ozark music. He was a music producer who discovered Chet Atkins, Porter Waggoner and Brenda Lee — among others. He worked for Ralph Foster and, in addition to becoming a mogul on his own, he later partnered with him on profitable ventures. There’s a wide spread exhibit of Siman memorabilia, including classic instruments like the Hammered Dulcimer and the less-classic Gary Ellison’s ragtime piano (side-by-side below).
Andy Williams came to Branson in 1991 and was convinced to build the Andy Williams Moon River Theater, the first non-country performance venue on the strip. The theatre, which has won architectural awards, features huge masses of craggy Ozark rock. One of his two homes is also in Branson; he performs his annual Christmas show there. His late 2011 diagnosis and treatment for cancer, which he confirmed from the stage, has caused some curtailment.
Ralph himself was an avid sportsman who collected Native American and Western artifacts and firearms for many years. His floor is fascinating, but the fact that he had every firearm that was ever made (yes, that’s a slight exaggeration) caused my eyes to blur.
As expected, religion is a part of the core curriculum at COFO, and frequent chapel attendance is mandatory, recorded on each student’s electronic ID card. There are detractors, some of whom say the students are too “formulated” (the actual description was much harsher). There was an expose in the last decade that questioned the credentials of some of the faculty. Every student we talked to, however, was enthusiastic and grateful for the opportunity to go to college at all, much less debt free.
If you have more interest in COFO, don’t count on their website alone. It does two things: offers to send you free DVD’s describing every phase of it, and asking you for money. Send for stuff, and shop around on Google.
We wouldn’t say Branson was a disappointment. The Branson Belle cruise, dinner and show were top flight, and COFO was an experience we love to talk about. But the core of the town is geared to an audience somewhat different from us. It was a stop well made; an experience we’re glad to have had — and share.