“Mighty oaks from little acorns grow” could describe one of the nation’s best theme parks, Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. And its roots were underground.
It started with a cave. First discovered by Osage Indians, the cave was described by geologists in the 1869s. Later, adventurers came, using ropes to lower themselves into the cavern, and reports began to circulate about the beauties of this natural wonder.
The site of mining exploration, the cave was purchased by a mining mogul who opened it to public tours in 1894. In the mid-1900s, it was leased to Hugo and Mary Herschend, Chicagoans who visited and loved the cave. In the first year of their operations, 8,000 people visited Marvel Cave.
To give visitors a place to wait for cave tours, the family created a small village, which they called Silver Dollar City. Representing an 1880 settlement, the combination village and cave drew 125,000 visitors that first year.
Since 1960, 79 million guests have visited Silver Dollar City. Each year it gets bigger and better with new buildings, entertainment and rides. Representatives here are quick to say, “This is not an amusement park” – an appellation which doesn’t come close to describing the depth and quality of experiences available here.
This is good — I’m not an amusement park fan. This is a park for people who don’t like those parks. It certainly accommodates folks who are looking for great thrill rides, but it also attracts visitors who are truly interested in the culture and history of the area.
I visited a couple of months ago and here are some of the things I enjoyed.
- The ambiance – the 1880s theme has been carefully presented. The landscaping is outstanding. Walkways are wide with plenty of shade – Ozark summers can really sizzle.
- The craftspeople – true artists can be seen creating both traditional Ozark items and more contemporary adaptations. I watched a potter throwing pots, a glassmaker blowing glass, a wood-craftsman making furniture, candy-makers pulling taffy and making fudge, a blacksmith, a leather craftsman and many more. I’m not a shopper but the goods produced here are superb and well-priced. I’ve shopped for wedding gifts at Silver Dollar City. A 2010 Congressional Proclamation recognized Silver Dollar City as “The Home of American Craftsmanship.”
- The food – even the lowly hot dog is treated with respect here. The baked goods are first-rate. The cinnamon rolls are fantastic – they make 180,000 rolls a year. My favorite spot is the Culinary and Crafts School. The building was built by Silver Dollar City craftspeople and carries items made on property. The big attraction is the culinary part where daily demonstrations give visitors a chance to watch preparation – and sample seasonal favorites.
- The Festivals – I was there for the Bluegrass and BBQ Festival – highlighting two things I enjoy a lot. Among other festivals this year are: Moonlight Madness with extended hours, street dances and fireworks; the Southern Gospel Picnic; National Crafts and Cowboy Festival; Country Music Weekend; and year-end-capper An Old Time Christmas with 6.5 million lights, a parade, and special theatrical presentations.
- The rides – okay, I didn’t personally enjoy the rides, but I did enjoy watching other people enjoying the rides. The premier ride is Time Traveler, the world’s tallest, steepest and fastest spinning roller coaster. The individual cars spin as the coaster negotiates loops and curves. Straight out of the gate, the cars drop 10-stories straight down. It was heart-stopping just to watch it. I loved the costumes and accessories in the gift shop at the ride – lots of cool steam-punk items.
And then there’s the cave. Visitors oooh and aaah over the magnificent entry room, the stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone. It’s designated a National Natural Landmark. There are lots of steps up and down on the cave tour which takes about an hour. I would have voted “yes” for the cave tour, but my knees votes “no way!
I haven’t begun to cover all that is offered at Silver Dollar City. The quality and variety of the experiences make it worth the price -- $68 for an adult admission, $58 for kids 4 to 11. Check the web site for discounts and special offers: www.silverdollarcity.com.
Here’s the recipe for Sausage Chili and Cornbread Waffles that Senior Craftsman Ali Smith prepared for our cooking demonstration:
Sausage Chili for Waffles
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. ground cumin
½ cup flour
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 cup finely chopped red, yellow and /or orange bell peppers
½ tsp. ground oregano
1 lb. sausage, browned and crumbled
¾ cup finely chopped onion
1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 tbs. chopped chipotle in adobo sauce (optional)
1 5.5 oz. can V8 juice if needed to thin
2 tsp. chili powder
Heat vegetable oil in a heavy saucepan on medium heat. Add flour and cook, stirring until mixture turns the color of peanut butter. Add chopped vegetables and cook, stirring, about 3 minutes. Stir in crushed tomatoes, spices and sausage. Reduce heat and simmer a few more minutes until thickened. Use V8 to thin if needed. Ladle over cornbread waffles.
Top with grated cheddar cheese, chopped fresh tomato, shredded lettuce and chopped red onion if desired.
1 ½ cup yellow self-rising corn meal mix (Martha White or Aunt Jemima)
½ cup sour cream
1 cup cream-style corn
2 eggs, beaten
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. salt
Preheat waffle iron to high.
Combine all ingredients. Mix until combined. When waffle maker is ready, scoop batter into waffle maker and spread evenly. Don’t over-fill. Close waffle maker and allow to cook until browned and crisp. (All waffle maker times differ.) Remove with a fork and keep warn in the oven until ready to serve.
Elaine Warner is an Edmond travel writer.