Flipping through a box of ephemera at an antique mall, I spotted the word “Baldknobbers” in big red letters — who wouldn’t pull that up for a closer inspection?!
In my hands I now held a souvenir book for The Baldknobbers Hillbilly Jamboree Show, “a tradition in Ozark Mountain Country”– the 25th Anniversary Edition.
That was a bit disappointing… I mean with a name like “The Baldknobbers” I had expected something far more pervy. But it turns out that The Baldknobbers Jamboree attraction was Branson’s first country music and comedy show — and are largely credited for the “music scene” (tourist trap) that Branson now is. Apparently the group started back in 1959 when brothers Bill, Jim, Lyle and Bob Mabe began entertaining visitors in downtown Branson on the Taneycomo lakefront. (One can only imagine that this consisted of odd performances and very little money put into hats?)
I could remain disappointed that there’s not enough smut-factor, that the group still exists — that I don’t have something incredibly exotic and rare. But my souvenir program dates to 1984 (which is older than some of you reading here) and it has 11 Baldknobber autographs, including from founders who have passed away. And, it has photos of the “Baldknobber Wheels”, aka old touring buses used by the group — so awesome, I must have that first one!
(Truthfully, it’s those images which made me pay the $5 & rush home to show my Mom — one lady who enjoys kitschy vehicles and “baldknobbers” as much as I do.)
While that’s cool & all, the interesting thing is the very thing which drew me to the old souvenir booklet: the name Baldknobber.
It turns out that the Mabe brothers took the name from an Old Ozarks vigilante group the Bald Knobbers, who called themselves that because they held their meetings on a treeless hilltop or “bald knob”. Those original Bald Knobbers have a long & complicated history, beginning as, according to Wikipedia, “a group of non-racially motivated vigilantes in the southern part of the state of Missouri.”
Non-racially motivated? I cannot look at the Bald Knobbers’ traditional hoods with horns — on dark fabric with light markings for facial features, no less (Gerry Darnell says they wore horned black pillowcases with the eye and nose holes rimmed in orange) — and not see anything other than the horror of blackface. I’m wondering who can?
But apparently the group was borne of the post-Civil War lawless southwest, a vigilante response to murder and other crime that, horrible enough prior to and during the war, went unheeded & grew after the Civil War as fugitives sought refuge in the remote and inaccessible Ozarks region.
The purpose of the old Bald Knobbers was to “correct the lawlessness”, but eventually they became not only increasingly violent, but using their power for greedy and selfish purposes, including killing Anti-Bald Knobbers and those who spoke negatively about the Bald Knobbers — finally becoming home grown terrorists.
While the Bald Knobbers may not have originally been racially motivated, some argue that the group did not dissolve in 1889, but merely went underground after the lynching of John Wesley Bright in 1892 and then members &/or believers became associated/perverted/twisted into the KKK family clan.
All of this certainly takes a funny phrase and makes it anything but funny.
The “full circle” moment for this collector was discovering that I’ve had my hands on this story of the original vigilante Bald Knobbers for quite some time. In some box or other (which I can’t really dig in right now, due to the flood situation here in Fargo), I’ve got at least one copy of Harold Bell Wright’s Shepherd of the Hills, which I’m told covers the Bald Knobbers and this period of United States history:
In 1907, Harold Bell Wright published the novel Shepherd of the Hills which tells about the Ozark area and its’ settlers such as the Ross family. Mr. Wright was afflicted with tuberculosis (consumption) and stayed with the Ross’ while he waited for the White River to recede enough to be crossed. Mr. Wright was a young man seeking his health. He stopped among the hill folks and found peace. He explored Marvel Cave and was amazed with its beauty. He visited each summer for seven years collecting notes about real life events of the people of the area. He stayed in a tent near the Shepherd of The Hills homestead. The experience moved him to set a story-part fact, part legend, part dream. The novel gained popularity quickly and attracted many tourist to see the area he wrote about. The Shepherd of The Hills novel has become a widely read book and had over a dozen television productions and eight movies made from it.
This is a still from the 1919 movie based on the book:
The bottom line is that I now have two reasons to go to Branson: to see The Baldkknobbers (with my mom, so we can steal some vintage Baldknobber wheels) and to see the cabin that Harold Bell Wright stayed in. I had no reason or desire to go before.
So, to re-cap, I paid $5 for a retro souvenir booklet worth so much more: it made me laugh out loud, discover a fascinating history story — one which leads to a book I likely already own (another excuse to read!), and now have a reason to travel to Branson. I call that a good score.