Silver Dollar City, an 1880s theme park located near Branson, Missouri, presents world-class festivals spring through Christmas. The 100-acre park has 12 stage venues, over 40 rides and attractions, 18 award-winning restaurants, 60 shops and 100 resident craftsmen. But it began as a hole in the ground.
The hole, first called Marble Cave because the limestone walls were thought to be marble, was one of the first attractions in what would become Branson. Eons old and hidden beneath the hills, it was described by geologists in the 1860s and explored in the 1880s by adventurers who lowered themselves on ropes 200 feet into the main chamber. One of those adventurers was a newspaper publisher who began to write about the cave's beauty and mystery.
A group of Union Civil War veterans formed a mining company to mine resources from the cave, mining tons of nitrogen-rich bat guano from the cave in the 1880s, but finding no marble. Scientific American magazine described the cave in 1885, and word of the natural wonder spread throughout the continent. Canadian mining expert William Henry Lynch read of the cave, purchased it sight unseen, traveled to the Ozarks and, with his two daughters, opened the cave to public tours in 1894.
Cave tours continued into the early 1900s, and minister/writer Harold Bell Wright was one of its visitors. In 1907, after his famous novel "The Shepherd of the Hills" was published, nationwide interest in the Ozarks began, drawing visitors who wanted to see the self-reliant and stoic hill people, the wooded valleys, the mountain "balds," and the incredible cave Wright had described.
As automobile travel took over from horse-and-buggy transportation, the creation of roads became important to attractions seeking visitors. Cave owner William Henry Lynch was dedicated to bringing the road from Branson to his cave, cutting brush and clearing what is now Missouri Highway 76. By the 1920s, the cave was a well-established attraction and tourists could get there by road or by hiking from a nearby train stop.
In 1946, Chicagoans Hugo and Mary Herschend vacationed in the Ozarks and discovered the cave now called Marvel Cave because of its awesome proportions. They loved the cave, which was run by Lynch's daughters. When the Lynch sisters decided to retire, they offered the Herschends a 99-year lease on Marvel Cave. Hugo, a Danish immigrant whose world traveling had separated him from his family in Denmark and whose sales work at times kept him away from home in Chicago, was looking for a family business where he could work together with his wife and sons. In April 1950, Hugo and Mary and their teenage sons, Jack and Pete, took over the management and tours of the cave. That summer, Marvel Cave drew 8,000 visitors.
After making improvements to make cave access easier, the Herschends brainstormed above-ground improvements, such as creating a pleasant area for people waiting to go into the cave. Hugo's vision was to have some of the native craftsmen demonstrating traditional Ozarks crafts. Then in 1954, an 80-plus year-old traveling salesman named Charlie Sullivan came to the cave, telling the Herschends he had been born in the general store of a mining town named "Marmaros" -- which was the Greek word for "marble" -- that had been at the entrance to the cave. There had been 28 residents, a hotel, a school, a pottery shop and a furniture factory, he told them, and after searching through leaves and brush, Sullivan showed them the old building foundations. The idea of recreating the 1880s mining town was born.
Following Hugo's death in 1955, Mary, Jack and Pete began building the 1880s Ozark village. Mary was committed to authenticity and preservation -- there would be no cheap storefronts. She also insisted on preserving the natural beauty of the area, particularly the trees.
In 1960, the Herschends opened the village they called Silver Dollar City, named for the promotional idea of giving visitors silver dollars as change. While little was spent on advertising, publicist Don Richardson's idea of giving silver dollars as change to park visitors led to tremendous word-of-mouth exposure. When vacationers returning home would pay for their gas and other purchases with silver dollars, people would ask where they got the coins, and the vacationers would describe the park and their Silver Dollar City adventure.
The town square had a blacksmith shop, a general store, an ice cream parlor, a doll shop, and two 1800s authentic log structures which had been relocated and restored, the McHaffie homestead and the Wilderness Church. For entertainment, a small troupe of Silver Dollar City "citizens" dressed in 1880s costumes performed street theater, presenting humorous feuds between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The staff, including Herschends, was about 17 people.
The first year, Silver Dollar City drew more than 125,000 people, four times more visitors than the number that toured Marvel Cave. "We discovered we were in the theme park business," Pete Herschend said.
In 1969, Silver Dollar City drew national attention when producer Paul Henning brought the cast and crew of the popular Beverly Hillbillies television show to the park to film five episodes.
Silver Dollar City continued to grow, adding stagecoach rides and a steam train. Ingenuity in handling challenges led to some of the park's long-standing traditions. When the steam train needed a stop to build up enough steam to make the final run up a hill to get back to the station, the rest period was turned into interactive theater. Comedic train robbers would come out of the woods to hold up the passengers while the boilers churned up the necessary steam to complete the ride.
The first craft festival held at the park in 1963 had native craftsmen demonstrating 19 crafts including woodcarving, tie hacking, shingle splitting, blacksmithing, weaving, lye soap making and candlemaking. Visitors were so interested in the demonstrations that more resident craftsmen were added, including a glass blower, a weaver, a potter and a silversmith. That year 500,000 people visited the park and Silver Dollar City became Missouri's number one tourist attraction.
The vision of the Herschends nearly five decades ago to showcase the natural beauty of the Ozarks and to bring to life the colorful history and heritage of the area led to the development of a theme park which is today an industry leader.
From natural wonder to international attraction, it all started with a hole in the ground.