An award-winning story by Alice Nathan.Used with permission. Please contact her for use or reprinting.
People wonder how Branson got to be the Music Capital of the country, a town that grew into a Mecca for millions of tourists each year. There are several stories of how it all began--mostly outlandish notions by folks not from Branson. But Branson natives of the 1970's know the true story.
It all began with my Sunday afternoon drive in my new 1972 Ford Mustang convertible. The roof was down; my hair blowing in the wind; headed west of downtown on Highway 76. The sun, high in the cloudless sky, reflected beautifully off my baby blue car.
I decided I would look more sophisticated if I were smoking, so I stopped at a gas station. Behind the young man at the counter were rows upon rows of cigarettes. So many choices; so many decisions.
"I'd like some cigarettes," I told the young man.
"What brand?"My mind kicked into high gear when I realized I knew absolutely nothing about buying cigarettes. My eyes zeroed in on "Virginia Slims." Nice name, even sophisticated, so I replied, "Virginia Slims."
"Menthol or regular?"
What in the world did that mean?
"Menthol, I reckon."
"Soft-side or box?"
Do the questions ever end?! I wanted to scream that I didn't care! I just wanted to buy cigarettes! But, one cannot look cool while screaming at a young man behind the counter, so I said, "Box."
"Do you want just one or a whole carton?""Just one."I paid the young man and grabbed a free book of matches stacked beside the cash register on my way back to my
shiny blue car.
I lit my first cigarette, threw the car into gear and continued my drive on West Highway 76. I was cruising along, puffing on that cigarette, and feeling quite sophisticated and sporty. Nothing says sophistication like a lady driving a blue Ford Mustang convertible with the wind blowing through her hair and a cigarette dangling from her lips.
Yes, I was thinking mighty high of myself right then, not realizing I was about to be a supreme example of the Ozarks saying: "She thinks she's hot snot on a silver platter, but she ain't nothing but a cold booger on a paper plate."
I struck another match to light a second cigarette, when the car in front of me suddenly swerved. This distraction caused me to miss the cigarette and stick the burning match up my nose, singeing the nose hair. That's why I didn't notice the bags of shredded paper falling out the back of the truck ahead.
Without time to swerve, I hit the bags head-on. When I didn't see any in the rear view mirror, I realized they must be stuck under the car. I panicked when I saw smoke beginning to rise from under the hood. My panic turned into full-throttled terror when flames came shooting out.. That's when I lost control of my pretty blue Ford Mustang convertible.
I tightly held the steering wheel as the car veered off the side of the road and jumped a ditch, my hair blowing in the wind. Flying through the air with the greatest of ease--no-- terror, I saw before me Billy Bob Joe Jack's fireworks stand. I quickly surmised that the prudent thing to do at that moment was to jump from the car, in the same spirit as a pilot ejecting his crashing plane.
I successfully exited the burning, flying car and saw it smash into the fireworks stand. This, of course, would not end well.
The explosion of fireworks was spectacular! The loud pop-pop-popping, the sparklers sparkling, the cherry bombs booming. Then the rockets' "red glare bursting in air." If only the big one, the 24" Thunderbird Rocket hadn't taken off for what would surely be an even more spectacular sight.
About this time, Grandpa was exiting their outhouse. He had unwisely eaten a third bowl of Grandma's beans and prize- winning cornbread. His activity in the outhouse resulted in a nice pocket of methane gas that just sat there waiting for detonation.
Sure enough. That Thunderbird Rocket was headed right for the outhouse. The explosion lifted the outhouse into the air, and I watched in disbelief as the flaming outhouse--now a 7-foot-tall rocket-- soared through the air, passing over the trees and then began its inevitable downward arc. It, of course, fell through the roof of the Holy Smoke Charcoal Factory.
The Holy Smoke Charcoal Factory covered 2 1/2 acres and held over 7,000,000 bags of briquettes. The building was gone by the time the Branson volunteer fire department arrived thirty minutes later. The fire chief decided that the best course of action was inaction at this point. Just let the briquettes burn themselves out.
You've heard the saying, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade." So, the city leaders decided to turn that 2 1/2 acres into a gigantic barbeque grill for the entire community to enjoy.
Now, Sam Summers lived about five miles out in the country, and his neighbor, Floyd, had a pig farm. Floyd didn't keep his fences up, so those pigs had been getting out and rooting up Sam's yard off and on for about a week. Sam complained to the county prosecutor, but learned his only legal course was to hold the pigs on his property until the dispute could be settled in court; however, Sam would be legally responsible for each pig while awaiting his day in court.
Sam came up with a more practical and quicker solution: the next time Floyd's pigs got out, Sam would shoot them.
Sure enough, the pigs got out and scattered about Sam's yard. Sam grabbed his gun and commenced firing. Those pigs were smart--as pigs are--so they began running home. But, Sam shot faster than those critters could run. Most fell dead on the spot, but one managed to crawl back onto Floyd's property, bleeding like a "stuck pig," and then collapsed dead.
When Floyd got home and saw his dead pig, it didn't take him long to figure out what happened, so Floyd called the sheriff.
Sheriff Holland drove out to Sam's place and told him he needed to somehow settle this dispute with his neighbor. The sheriff managed to convince Floyd to be satisfied with Sam paying $20 for each dead pig. Sam was also satisfied with this--it was, after all, better than jail.
Another problem presented itself at this moment--Floyd did not want all those dead pigs. So, upon hearing about this incident, the town leaders requested the pigs be promptly delivered to the former site of the Holy Smoke Charcoal Factory so they could hold the first big BBQ event for the community.
Well, word traveled fast, and practically the entire town came with dishes like potato salad, pie, cake, lemonade, and beer. The roasted pigs were stretched out with apples in their mouths and cherries for eyes. It was all a sight to behold!
The event was considered a huge success and a proper christening for Branson's new community center. The new site was named the "Holy Smoke Park."
Mayor Collins organized the transformation of their new park. Underbrush was cleared around the 2 1/2 acres; flower beds were planted; picnic tables and benches were brought in; and they even built a gazebo for special events like weddings. And with optimism and great forethought, the council brought in Porta-Potties so folks wouldn't have to hide behind trees to do their "business."
The Fourth of July was rapidly approaching, and naturally the festivities would be held at the new park.
Again, a huge cook-out was planned, this time with every local meat to be barbequed. They had deer, goat, squirrel, and, of course, possum, the local delicacy.
A parade led by Mayor Collins circled around the park, complete with floats, the high school marching band, horses, and kids riding their decorated bicycles. Prizes were awarded, and a king and queen were crowned.
As the sun set, the day ended with a huge fireworks show, thanks to Billy Bob Joe Jack. This time the "rockets red glare bursting in air" was a beautiful site to behold!
The Holy Smoke Park was popular that summer with families having picnics, reunions, and Shirley Mae and her beau, Randy, exchanging vows in the decorated gazebo.
A BBQ Sauce contest was held on Labor Day to officially end the summer festivities. Delbert Dingerbottom won hands-down with his "Holy Smoke! That's Hot! BBQ Sauce."
After about five years of community fun-filled festivities at the Holy Smoke Park, the briquettes finally began to stop smoldering. Branson thought it was losing its prize 2 1/2-acre- park, but they were just about to find out what Billy Bob Joe Jack had been up to.
(Let me clarify for you outsiders: Billy Bob Joe Jack is one person, not four. If you don't know someone's name in the Ozarks, Billy Bob Joe Jack will probably cover it. Said quickly it sounds like one word.)
You see, Billy Bob Joe Jack had a habit of drinking too much too often. This was no great cause for alarm; after all, many folks in the Ozarks did the same thing. But not everyone had Billy Bob Joe Jack's wild imagination.
He loved watching Monster Truck on TV, and he began to envy the power those men had driving Monster Trucks. He could just see himself sitting atop all that power and running those huge tires over junk cars, smashing them to smithereens.
During a particularly bad binge one night, Billy Bob Joe Jack was inspired. He picked out the best old pickup in his front yard, slapped on four of the biggest tires he could find, and drove that make-shift Monster Truck to the Holy Smoke Park. That 2 1/2 acres were the perfect arena in his eyes. For two hours, he drove that truck over more than 50 junk cars that only he could see in his drunken stupor.
A few days later Billy Bob Joe Jack came up with an improved scheme. He scouted around, made a bunch of phone calls, and finally found some truly huge tires that would turn his pickup into the biggest, baddest Monster Truck in all the world. He drove to Tim's Tire Shop and made a deal with Tim to buy four tires.
The next weekend in the middle of the night, Billy Bob Joe Jack drove his new and improved Monster Truck onto "his" private arena. Sure enough, he was the star and champion of his imaginary Monster Truck contest, in spite of his tires smoking a bit. He won first place: an imaginary 6-foot-tall bronze trophy. It would look so pretty sitting in his trailer house; indeed, it was the first time he had ever won anything, and no one could have been prouder.
Sheriff Holland got a late-night complaint call about noise at the park, so he drove out there to investigate. There was Billy Bob Joe Jack driving the silliest looking pickup around and around in circles on the briquettes.
As the sheriff approached, he noticed something shiny on the ground. He picked up a stone of some sort that just seemed to shine so bright and pretty. Sticking it in his pocket, he arrested Billy Bob Joe Jack for driving while intoxicated--not his first offence.
The next day Sheriff Holland pulled that shiny stone out of his pants pocket and looked at it very closely.
"I wonder if there might be more of these at that park," he said to himself, so he drove out there to look. Sure enough, as he walked over the 2 1/2 acres, he found hundreds, maybe even thousands of stones reflecting the sunlight in every direction. He gathered up a whole handful and headed to the high school to show them to the chemistry teacher, Mr. Gooch.
"Where did you say you found these?" asked Mr. Gooch as he slowly turned a stone over and over, eying it very closely.
"Out at the Holy Smoke Park," said the sheriff."You say there's more of these out there? Just how many more?"
"Well, it looked like the whole park was sparkling with them."
After intense inspection and consulting a couple of textbooks, Mr. Gooch proclaimed: "I do believe these are diamonds."
"What do you mean? Diamonds?"
"That's exactly what I am saying. These are diamonds. I'm sure of it."
"But how could that be? I found them amongst those smoldering briquettes."
"That explains it!"Mr. Gooch told the sheriff that under intense pressure coal turns into diamonds. "This is a scientific fact," he said.
Well, Sheriff Holland ran to the mayor's office and told Mayor Collins that the town owned a diamond field.
Talk about "word traveling fast!
"The town leaders quickly implemented a plan to excavate all the diamonds from their Holy Smoke Park. They also made plans how to use this newfound wealth to benefit and improve Branson.
They began building streets on hillsides stretching along Highway 76. They bulldozed off the top of two hills and moved the dirt into the valley between them. Now they had a long, flat piece of land that could serve as a runway for a new airport.
Construction was everywhere--new hotels, restaurants, recreation, music theatres. It didn't take long for big-name stars to flock in. Names like Dolly Parton. Andy Williams. The Osmond Brothers. The Lawrence Welk Band. George Lindsey. Jim Strafford. Mickey Gilley. Loretta Lynn. Conway Twitty. Oak Ridge Boys. And many, many more.
Yes, sir. That's how Branson became the Music Capital of the country--a Mecca for millions of tourists each year. And it was all because a girl took a Sunday afternoon drive in her pretty blue Ford Mustang convertible.
Oh, I almost forgot...I never smoked the second cigarette. NEVER!