Silver Dollar City arose from a spectacular, natural cavern, Marvel Cave, deep underground in the southwest Missouri Ozark Mountains – just a gas tank away from Southwestern Illinois – building the park around trees instead of over them.
“It’s a great root ball that has determined the roots of this community,” said Silver Dollar City co-founder Pete Herschend, who founded the park with his brother, Jack, and whose father, Hugo, inspired the theme park. “It makes a vast difference in our corner of the world today, who we are today and who we will be tomorrow.”
Hugo and Mary Rinker Herschend leased Marvel Cave in Shepherd of the Hills country for public tours in the 1950s. No theme park existed then.
After Danish immigrant, Hugo Herschend, a transplant with his family from the Chicago suburbs to Branson, died Nov. 14, 1955, Mary took over managing Marvel Cave and its tours. Mary, born on a farm near Table Grove, Ill., and educated at Eureka College in Illinois, announced in 1959 the construction of an Ozark Mountain village to be located at the north end of Marvel Cave’s parking lot.
The Ozark village would be a living, working village, for the purpose of entertaining tourists waiting for cave tours, she said. Silver Dollar City opened May 1, 1960, its name coined by the park’s press agent at the time. It was so named because silver dollar coins would be given to visitors as change when most people paid with paper money instead of plastic cards.
Americans of the late 1950s were enamored with Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and the Western frontier. They loved the Wild West. Thus, Silver Dollar City began with such a theme: five frontier-style buildings, two reconstructed log buildings, the Wilderness Church and the McHaffie Homestead, making up an old-time village. Also on site were a blacksmith shop, general store, ice cream parlor, doll shop and the Stage Coach Inn, all still there.
Silver Dollar City’s charm lies in its organic, family-owned essence that has changed a bit over time, but also mostly remained intact at its roots.
Silver Dollar City “citizens,” or employees, dressed in late 1800s attire, and still do, while “the Hatfields and McCoys” reinstated their legendary feud on Main Street. Ultimately, Ozark Mountain folk culture has replaced that of the Old West.
Silver Dollar City wanted for no entertainers, because it had generations of Branson-born performers who had entertained visitors long before the bright neon lights and music halls on 76 Country Boulevard, Branson’s main strip. The famous Presleys’ Country Jubilee, one of the original shows, started in a cave to cool off tourists during hot weather.
Silver Dollar City also came with its own Ozark folklore, thanks to author Harold Bell Wright’s “The Shepherd of the Hills,” reportedly based upon real individuals living in the Branson area at the turn of the century.
Ozark crafts also became an integral part of Silver Dollar City’s success. Mary Herschend, who died in 1983, was interested in the Ozark people’s crafts and thought others also would be. The City’s most important seasonal event, National Festival of Craftsmen, began in 1963 as the Missouri Festival of Ozark Craftsmen.
“People say, ‘I came there when I was a little kid. I want my kids to feel that,'” Pete Herschend said. “It’s a joy for us as a community to watch growth, to be a part of it and watch the change.”
This year, Silver Dollar City celebrates its biggest festival year to date, with new original stage productions, performing groups and festival showcases. The spring season started the year off with an Irish Celebration at its World-Fest and Bluegrass and BBQ festival.
This summer, Silver Dollar City brings families its Biggest Kids Fest Ever, presenting a nationally recognized slate of entertainment with The Magic of Peter Gossamer, a Kid Concoctions Activity Center, an interactive world of play, a “VeggieTales” live stage show produced exclusively for Silver Dollar City and an Ice Circus with skating performers from around the world.
Fall’s Southern Gospel Picnic features the top traditional and contemporary entertainers in the genre. The National Harvest Festival brings the largest gathering in America’s Heartland of demonstrating craftsmen, harvest-time foods and musical performances plus special events: A Salute to the American Cowboy and an all-new Tribute to the American Farmer.
Silver Dollar City will conclude the year with its An Old Time Christmas light show.
“Historically, in tough economic times, people from within a 300 mile radius will still travel to Branson, but they’re looking for real value when they get here – without forfeiting quality,” said Jerry Henry, research director for Silver Dollar City. He noted the park has added new “kid’s meal deals” and merchandise/food discounts to its ticket packages.