Mining for family memories in Missouri’s ‘Hillbilly Vegas’

In the Ozarks’ entertainment capital, a writer searches for her mother’s roots amid the mountains, mini golf, and country music.

Photograph by Jon Arnold Images, Alamy Stock Photo
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Lake Taneycomo, one of several man-made lakes in and around Branson, Missouri, is popular with boaters, birders, and swimmers.

Photograph by Jon Arnold Images, Alamy Stock Photo

The cab ride from the Springfield, Missouri, airport to Branson takes about an hour. It glides past rocky outcroppings, loping mountains, and a parade of roadside distractions: a 214-foot-tall cross emblazed with blue teardrops, riotously colorful signs hawking ziplines and arcades, and—on a particularly flashy billboard—an ad for Dolly Parton’s Stampede. A ticket apparently nets you dinner with a side spectacle of horseback riders leaping through fiery hoops or waving American flags.

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The author’s mother, Carol Rea, as a child in Branson in the late 1930s.

Last spring, I was on the way to the small city in the Ozark Mountains that some people call the “Hillbilly Vegas.” But I wasn’t lured by its country music shows or the roller coasters at its old-timey amusement park, Silver Dollar City. I’d come looking for traces of my late mother, Carol Rea. She was born and raised in Branson, amid the cut-glass lakes and emerald-green hills; a place she’d jokingly call “the holler—with lots of church, square dancing, and goats.” Back then, in the 1940s and 1950s, her family struggled. Mom recalled one Christmas where she received nothing but a tube of toothpaste in her stocking.

But when she left Branson in the late 1950s, my mom shrugged off this corner of Missouri’s pervasive religiosity and mountain customs. She went to college in Kansas City and London, then on to grad school and marriage to my professor father in Chicago. Finally, in San Antonio, Texas, she settled into motherhood, teaching Shakespeare to high-school seniors, and a citified life. There were season tickets to the symphony, trips to Europe, and lots of Vietnamese takeout. The Carol I knew in the 1970s and 1980s belonged to the Unitarian Church and put little stock in twangy melodies. She’d grimace if I tried to tune the car radio to Randy Travis or Reba McEntire. “Oh, I had enough of that growing up, sweetie,” she’d say.

If Mom had been in the cab with me last March, I’m pretty sure she would’ve been rolling her eyes at the billboards advertising a farm-themed mini golf course and a musical revue with Elvis and Taylor Swift impersonators.

Back by the lakes

“Your mother always had a bigger agenda. She wanted to see the world, and didn’t think Branson could hold her,” said my mother’s best friend, Veronica. I’d sad-dialed her after my cab deposited me at Branson’s decidedly fancy Chateau on the Lake hotel. Decked out in dark wood and clubby upholstery, the place felt like old Boston, not the Grand Ole Opry.

When my younger sister Sarah and I were kids, Branson mostly existed as a mythical, agrarian place—a word scribbled on the back of black-and-white snapshots of seven-year-old Carol feeding a pig or of our grandfather in overalls, leaning on a beat-up vintage truck. Such rough, rural roots seemed the antithesis of our pearl-wearing, PBS-loving mother, whose only nods to her Ozarks origins were occasionally cooking biscuits and gravy or using the word “catawampus” instead of crooked. (“Jennifer Nell, why is your hair part so catawampus?”)

Yes, there were family car trips to Missouri nearly every summer—the drive from south Texas long, the back seat sibling squabbles intense. Mom would take us back to see our cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, long since relocated to the suburbs of Springfield. On humid, June bug-filled days and mosquito-y nights, my sister and I formed a kid gang with our first cousins, wading in creeks, playing endless games of hide-and-go-seek, and eating peach cobbler or green beans cooked in bacon.

But Mom didn’t cart us to Branson. And the country-fried, countrified town Carol hatched from seemed as foreign and cornpone to me as an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard or Gunsmoke. How had my sophisticated mother emerged from a place that, as the 1980s rolled into the 1990s, became famous for its mountain-music jamborees, mini golf courses, and southern-cooking buffets?

Mom died in 1999, and never saw Branson’s commercial explosion firsthand. I wasn’t sure if I’d find traces of her there anymore. But as I gazed from the hotel balcony at the gray-blue expanse of Table Rock Lake, framed by purple-blooming redbud trees, I remembered her story of learning to swim in a nearby creek. Her older brother, my late Uncle Dwayne, pitched her into the water sometime in the early 1940s, telling her to sink or swim. She swam.

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An aerial view captures present-day Branson, Missouri on Lake Taneycomo.

A fraught family history

The Branson my mother and uncle grew up in during the 1940s and 1950s looked nothing like the razzmatazzy small city I’d passed through en route to the hotel, with its neon-lit theaters, outsize Ferris Wheel, and go-kart tracks resembling shrunken roller coasters. My mother spoke of pigs and goats in the yard, drinking water from an indoor cistern where salamanders lurked, and dealing with my mercurial, handsome grandfather, Bert.

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The author’s mother, Carol Rea (bottom left), is pictured with her father, mother, and brother Dwayne in the early 1940s in Branson.

Bert’s difficult-to-treat bipolar disorder branded him a town eccentric. Over breakfast my first morning with a few Branson old timers who recalled my family, I heard one story about him washing his feet in a park fountain downtown and another about him speeding around in a rickety, rackety truck, terrifying pedestrians.

He’d kept that truck after he and my grandmother moved closer to Springfield. I recall helping him when I was a child as he whitewashed its wooden camper. Bert then covered it with poems and quotes scrawled in black permanent marker. One read, “I’m a hap-hap-happy hillbilly”—and despite his illness, Grandpa was usually just that. (My Aunt Sharon, Dwayne’s widow, whom I visited later that weekend, recounted Bert stealing one of her dresses and wearing it to parade around town.)

Mom’s teenage diary entries—signed “Lovingly, Longingly, Carol”—describe “Daddy’s spells” and arguments between her father and brother that sometimes got violent. Bert did stints in an asylum and received shock treatments. While my mother told us about a relatively contented childhood, there wasn’t much stability. When the opportunity came to attend School of the Ozarks, a Presbyterian boarding high school a few miles east of Branson, she and her brother both leapt.

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The rocky, river-filled southern American region known as the Ozarks stretches across Arkansas (shown), Missouri, portions of Oklahoma, and the southeastern corner of Kansas.

Hard work and hootenannies

After breakfast, I visited what my mother referred to in shorthand as “S of O.” In her day, the campus was a lifeline for rural farm kids who might not otherwise attend high school. Now it’s a four-year Christian university renamed the College of the Ozarks. Its principles haven’t changed much: students go to chapel regularly and don’t pay tuition, instead doing a work-study combo, taking part-time jobs in the dining hall (like my mother did), on-site dairy, or a kitchen turning out fruitcakes and jellies you can buy on site. The school’s combination of structure, coursework, and camaraderie worked wonders on book-loving Carol, turning her into a popular, brainy star.

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The author’s mother Carol sits outside her dorm at the School of the Ozarks in the 1950s.

I wandered the school grounds, dropping into the bakery to sample sticky-sweet cake, eyeballing a cow near the dairy, and matching up old photos with landmarks. I found Foster Hall, the girl’s dorm where Mom lived (and sometimes snuck out of to meet boys), and recognized a riverview lookout from a snapshot, too. At the college’s museum of Ozarks culture, I passed displays of quilts and farm implements, and then—surprise!—found Uncle Dwayne’s familiar wide grin in an exhibit on square dancing. He was there in a group photo of the Promenaders, a professional do-si-do-ing ensemble that toured the country and regularly appeared on local television in the 1950s.

At the alumni office, a kind staffer gave me a photocopy of an “Ozarka” yearbook from 1950, when Dwayne was a senior and Carol a freshman. I leafed through it over lunch in the Keeter Center, a log cabin-style hotel and restaurant staffed by students. As I chowed down on spicy fried green tomatoes and a Reuben made with pastrami cured on campus, I was zapped back in time. There was my mother, pretty but scowling in a short white dress and saddle shoes, photographed with the girl’s volleyball team. My brown-eyed uncle, deadly serious, showed up later in his basketball uniform. The student waiters at lunch looked about the age Carol and Dwayne were in the yearbook. I unexpectedly choked up as I paid the bill.

That evening, I decided I couldn’t visit Branson and not see a show. I picked The Showboat Branson Belle, which hosts music, dance, and comedy revues on a Mississippi-style paddleboat that cruises Table Rock Lake. The peppy young cast belted out patriotic songs and showtunes (“Singin’ in the Rain,” “My Heart Will Go On”) as I ate a good pecan-crusted trout followed by a slice of Gooey Butter Cake—a custardy St. Louis confection I remember a Missouri aunt serving me as a kid. A woman with a blonde bouffant sat in front of me; I spent a few minutes covinced she was Dolly Parton.

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From the top deck of the Showboat Branson Belle, a couple takes a selfie backdropped by Table Rock Lake.

Old memories, new developments

There is a lot that’s new in today’s Branson—a riverside outdoor mall with an H&M and a Mellow Mushroom, an arcade and mini golf place with a Bigfoot theme, an interactive museum devoted to the R.M.S. Titanic. But there’s old as well: Dick’s 5 & 10, a throwback dime store with heaps of hard candy and toys, and Mr. B’s Ice Cream Parlor, both around since the 1950s. I’m not sure if Carol and Dwayne frequented either, but it’s easy to imagine their saddle shoes walking across the checkered linoleum floors.

I know that my teenage mother did hang around in Marvel Cave, a series of wet, limestone caverns and a National Natural Landmark. The cave was (and still is) owned and operated by the Herschend family, who, in 1960, opened the amusement park Silver Dollar City at its entrance. Mom would tell wild stories of hanging out in the cave with the Herschend sons Pete and Jack, who were close to her age. She filled in as a guide with a gas lamp, scrambling across slippery cavern floors, dodging bats, and, for a time, dating Jack. “I remember your Mom as tall and very pretty, and so much fun,” he tells me on a phone call shortly after my visit. Now in his 80s, he’s still active at the park he helped to found.

My last morning in Branson, I passed a pleasant morning taking a few tame rides at the theme park with its Old West-meets-Gold Rush mining camp atmosphere of log cabins, a steam train, and hillbilly outlaws. Yes, there were scream-inducing modern coasters with country flair, like a Giant Barn Swing that launches into the air at 45 m.p.h. But, like Carol would be, I’m too chicken.

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The author’s mother Carol Rea is pictured in 1964, several years after she left Branson.

More to my taste: on-site workshops for traditional crafts like pottery throwing, glassblowing, and taffy-making. As this is Branson, there were multiple live shows, from Lycra-clad dancers who twirled hoops of fire to an artist who painted five-minute near masterpieces.

But I was really there for the cave, and the last tour of the day, lit by lantern. Led by a woman in pioneer dress (she’s meant to be an early explorer), the 90-minute walk wound through Marvel’s impressive, sinkhole-formed Cathedral Room with its 200-foot-high “ceiling,” then past rock formations and dozing bats. It was a strenuous, heart-pumping journey, illuminated only by the battery-powered lanterns each tour member grasped. The guide explained geology and the cave’s 19th-century discovery as we moved carefully through the dripping blackness.

At one point, there was a corny bit when the guide pretended to spot a ghost on a walkway above. It was clearly another staffer, but in the darkness, I couldn’t see much past my nose. Still, the ruse gave me goosebumps. I imagined the shadow was my young, hopeful mother, so many years ago in this exact place, a few years from hightailing it out of town.

The cave, like the world and life ahead of her, must’ve seemed infinite.

Jennifer Barger is a senior editor at National Geographic Travel. Follow her on Instagram.