Harold Bell Wright was one of America’s bestselling authors in the early 20th century. His most famous novel brought tourism to the Missouri Ozarks.
Branson, Missouri, and the surrounding Missouri Ozarks, have been popular vacation destinations for the past 100 years. Prior to that, the area was virtually untouched by people who lived outside the region. One man, and his bestselling novel, changed all of that.
Harold Bell Wright in the Ozarks
Harold Bell Wright started out as a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor and a writer. While he was with a church in Pittsburg, Kansas, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He decided to go to a milder climate for his health, so in 1896, he took the train into southeastern Missouri as far as it would go then rode on horseback, through the Ozarks, until he reach the flooded White River. Unable to cross the river, he had to find shelter. He spent the night at the homestead of John and Anna Ross, located just outside of present-day Branson, Missouri.
Instead of staying one night, he stayed all summer. While resting and regaining his strength, he enjoyed fishing and the beauty of the surrounding area. He set up a tent on the second highest peak in Missouri, located on the Ross homestead, and wrote down his thoughts about the people and the land. This peak became known as Inspiration Point. Wright returned to this spot every summer for the next eight years, not only as a writer, but he had gotten to know the people and was a part of their lives.
Events That Shaped Wright’s Novel
During one of the summers, Wright witnessed a series of events that formed the basis for his book, The Shepherd of the Hills. It was 1902 and the settlers were facing a terrible drought. The crops died, the streams dried up, wildlife was disappearing, and the settlers were battling starvation.
Wright wrote down his impressions of the people and what they were enduring, and created a fictional story about love and hardships in the Ozarks. John and Anna Ross became the characters Old Matt and Aunt Molly, and their son Charles inspired the fictional character of Young Matt. Young Matt fell in love with a girl named Sammy Lane, but she was engaged to someone else. The home of John and Anna Ross became known as Old Matt’s Cabin.
The fictional characters in the story were threatened by the Baldknobber gang who wanted control of the area. In real life, vigilante justice or lawlessness was no stranger to the Ozarks. The region had seen its share of groups like the Baldknobbers during the 19th century. The slicker wars were a Hatfield and McCoy style of feud and outlaws hid in the caves throughout the area.
Publication Leads to Missouri Tourism
Wright’s book, The Shepherd of the Hills, was published in 1907. The story is told through the eyes of a stranger named Dad Howitt. In the opening paragraphs, Wright includes these lines that describe the location:
“In the hills of life there are two trails. One lies along the higher sunlit fields…, and one leads to the lower ground… In the story, it all happened in the Ozark Mountains, many miles from what we of the city call civilization.”
The book rapidly became a bestseller and one of the first books by an American writer to sell over a million copies. It was translated into seven languages and made into four movies – one starred John Wayne as the shepherd. Within two years after publication, travelers were coming regularly to see the locations mentioned in the book. John and Anna Ross’ homestead has been a museum since the 1920s. Statues of the main characters stand on Inspiration Point, Wright’s favorite spot.
The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama
The story of The Shepherd of the Hills continues to be told as an outdoor drama. The first performance was in 1960 in an amphitheatre on the Ross homestead. Those performances have been going on for fifty years, from May to the end of October, at The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Theatre. Guided tours transport visitors several times a day to the places described in the book.
Harold Bell Wright went on to write other books. He wrote nineteen books throughout his life as well as scripts and magazine articles. Several of his books reached top bestseller status. He will always be best remembered for his second book, The Shepherd of the Hills. He said it best in one of the book’s opening lines: “The story, so very old, is still in the telling.”
- Wright, Harold Bell, The Shepherd of the Hills, 1907