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Memories from the Homestead: The story still in the telling - the Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama

Last week kicked of the 64th season of the Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama here on the historic Homestead. Seventy actors and actresses bring to the outdoor stage a performance of Harold Bell Wright's famous novel, the “Shepherd of the Hills.” As I sit here on the front porch of Old Matt's Cabin once again, let's go down the front steps and walk over here by the barn, and go down the steep hill as we walk down a portion of the trail that nobody knows how old. I'll share some details here as we go, let's take our time, I'm going slow. Oh, wait! Gotta grab my coffee!


     In my twenty-plus years of Garber and Shepherd of the Hills country research, I have discovered that "Shepherd" started as a theatrical play as early as 1912 (five years after it was published by Wright). These productions happened all over the country from coast to coast. I also have seen ads for many of these and by 1913 going forward, several performances, mostly performed by school groups were being featured in our area, even right here in Branson.


     Here at Garber, J.K. Ross (Old Matt) received a letter from author Harold Bell Wright in March 1914 announcing his move to Tucson, Arizona. A few weeks later a live theater performance of "Shepherd" took place in Aurora, a distance by train of 35 miles. Ross and his wife (Aunt Mollie) were invited to attend the event. Ross recalled that they were very entertained, and Aurora was quite excited to have the real characters in their community for a visit.


     Fast forward to 1928 for a bit. Here at the Homestead, Lizzie McDaniel, who had recently purchased the property had some exciting plans up her sleeve. Putting on theater plays had been a specialty of hers for some time, and the 54-year-old business woman was excited to announce that she would be hosting a stage version of "Shepherd" at Old Matt's Cabin. Using local folks to portray the characters, her troupe would use areas of the yard for their stage, using Old Matt's Cabin and the views into Mutton Hollow as the backdrop. 


      This allowed for a "theater in the round" presentation, and it became immensely popular among the summer visitors. These performances would continue regularly until the end of the 1945 summer season, as Lizzie's passing happened in February 1946. Her enthusiasm and energy were remarkable. She had created a list of dreams and goals for the historic Homestead, one of which was the construction of an outdoor theater down over the hill northeast of the cabin and barn. Unfortunately, her death caused her dreams to be put on hold, but they were not forgotten. 


     In 1946, Dr. Bruce Trimble and his wife Mary purchased the property from Lizzie's brother and with Lizzie's wishes revealed, they continued where she left off and in the late 1950s, construction of an outdoor theater began at the site Lizzie had personally selected. Opening in August of 1960, the outdoor theater opened, completed by Mary Trimble and son Mark. Dr. Bruce Trimble had passed three years earlier. An official production company was created, led by Shad Heller and others; the cast of 28 was primarily college age players. The Trimbles would own the Homestead for 38 years, and significant growth took place!


     Well, here we are, inside the rain shelter that's been here for years. Looking below, this is a great view of the entire set and the seating area. The original seating capacity was 435 aluminum folding chairs. As the production grew in popularity, major improvements came along and over the years the seating number increased with the huge crowds. By the mid-1980s the seating was almost 2,800, and into the 1990s, the cast numbered 90. Today's seating capacity is close to 1,500.  It's perfect; there isn't a bad seat anywhere!


     Today with the seventy performers, there is some longevity as everyone truly loves the opportunity to perform, continuing this awesome legacy. Several performers have over fifty years’ experience in the production. And quite a few have over 25 years. The performers (along with nearly 30 head of livestock) bring Wright's timeless story to life wonderfully, portraying it as if it were 1905, when Wight spent the summer working on the book manuscript. 


    In a few weeks a new production will be sharing the outdoor theater stage. On June 2, Shepherd's Wild West Murder Mystery will make its debut! This will be a true Wild West Show experience, combined with the comical high jinks of a murder mystery! A wonderful night of family fun, these performances will take place on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. The Great American Chuckwagon Dinner Show will take place at 4:30 p.m. on the same nights and will make for a great combo opportunity. Shepherd's Wild West Murder Mystery will run thru August 14. The Great American Chuckwagon Dinner Show will continue to the end of the year.


     The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama happens on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m. all the way to late October. For details on all the show productions out here, go to or call 417-334-4191.  


We would love to see you!  Happy trails, everyone! Guess what, we've got to walk back up the hill to my truck/tram unit. My first tour today is at 10 a.m., boarding in front of Lizzie's house. Let's go!

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