Owners of the business have said they are closing because of rising insurance and production costs, declining guests and costs associated with the new federal health care law.
“It is with a very heavy heart that we make this difficult announcement,” Gary and Pat Snadon, owners of the park, said in a statement. “We have had an incredible run.”
Started in 1960, the Shepherd of the Hills play was one of the early attractions on which Branson was built. At its peak during the 1970s and 1980s, it drew more than 2,000 guests each night, and most shows were sold out, the company said in its statement.
The outdoor drama is based on the book of the same name, published in 1907 and written by Harold Bell Wright. His visit to the Branson area became the basis for the novel, which is said to have become the first book in the United States to sell more than 1 million copies.
Re-enactments of the story began as early as the 1920s, but it wasn’t until Aug. 6, 1960, that the Old Mill Theatre began regular performances.
Gary Snadon, who played the role of Wash Gibbs in the drama for three seasons, bought the theater and homestead in 1985.
The Shepherd of the Hills Homestead will be preserved and maintained as a historical landmark, the company said, and tours of Old Matt’s Cabin, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, will still be available during the summer months.
Inspiration Tower and the Vigilante Extreme ZipRider will be open year-round. During November and December, the Trail of Lights Drive-Thru and the Christmas on the Trail Chuckwagon Dinner Show will still operate normally.
STORY LIVES ON
That novel, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” changed the area that Wright had immortalized.
“People began coming here because they wanted to see what Harold Bell Wright had written about,” Lynn Berry of the Branson/Lakes Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “That book is what helped make Branson what it is today.”
The book opened the gates for a whole new source of income — known as tourism — for the Ozarks. By 1909, many travelers disembarking from trains at Branson or Reeds Spring asked to see “Old Matt’s Cabin.”
In the novel, a mysterious stranger — Dan Howitt — has taken an old trail deep into the Ozarks to escape civilization. The author himself had traveled into the mountains seeking to regain his health and rid himself of despondence. The ailing minister found strength and inspiration.
As the story goes, Howitt shows up at the simple home of Old Matt Matthews, his wife Mollie and son, Young Matt. Howitt’s face is marked by deep grief and disappointment. No one knows the painful secret he hides or the disastrous past for which he is trying to atone.
The sad city man is befriended by the Matthews family. He stays to tend a flock of sheep, thus becoming “the shepherd of the hills.”
But all is not a pastoral fantasyland in Wright’s book. There’s the evil Wash Gibbs, leader of the villainous Baldknobber gang. Started as a group of men trying to protect their own, the Baldknobbers evolved into vigilantes spreading terror throughout the region in the 1800s.
There’s also the beautiful and independent Sammy Lane, who has promised to marry Ollie Stewart but now finds herself drawn to Young Matt. Sammy is supposed to be a lucky girl because Ollie is now living in the big city and stands to inherit his father’s fortune. That means Sammy will have a life much easier than other hill girls, but it also may mean giving up the man she has come to love for a man she discovers she doesn’t really know.
PLACE WHERE WRIGHT LIVED
The amphitheater for the evening production is built on the actual setting where Wright lived as he wrote his epic of triumph, tragedy and love. The book is brought to life with more than 80 actors, 40 horses, a flock of sheep, guns and rifles, a burning log cabin and a vintage 1908 DeWitt automobile.
Ninety-nine percent of our cast is local with many of the people in the show related to real characters on which the book was based.”
On a set the size of a football field, visitors see knockdown drag-out fights, a blazing fire, surprising shootout, mirthful hoedown (where audience members are invited to participate) and mystery, love and drama galore.