Panoramic views are a benefit of driving the Glade Top Trail.
AVA – Every year, hills of trees seem to dress for the season. Their leaves wave with the breeze and smile with the sun, light dancing on each unique one. And on quiet mornings — silent save the wisp of wind — their blazing shades of green, gold, red and yellow seem to sparkle when the light hits just right.
They’re such a sight to see that nearly 60 years ago, Ava decided to capitalize on their grandeur by beginning its Flaming Fall Revue. Launched in 1961, the event featured a drive through the colorful foliage — and helped put Ava front-of-mind for tourists.
“They were selling the views and the beauty of the Ozarks,” says Judy Shields, executive director of the Ava Chamber of Commerce, who notes that the revue has become a tradition for the generations.
“People will come up in the morning, bring chairs and stay all day,” she says of a gathering spot along the trail. “Some people use it as an opportunity to have a little reunion.”
One must remember, of course, that the drive is beautiful and accessible all times of year. So if coming out during the revue isn’t an option, there are 364 other opportunities to see the trail in all its glory.
Ideas for the revue date back to 1960 when tourism was on the community’s collective mind. The Lake Ozark area was drawing crowds, the Branson boom was beginning, and locals believed Ava surely had something to offer.
With such thoughts in mind, the town’s tourism committee worked with Tom Ayers, director of the Ozarks Playground Association (OPA) to see what options he might suggest.
His initial idea wasn’t quite what they had in mind: A full-page, color ad in the association’s upcoming publication with a $1,100 price tag.
Records about the event’s early years say the proposition “shocked” the committee, and with good reason. According to an online inflation calculator, that figure would come in at more than $9,000 in 2017 — a very high amount for the very rural Ozarks community.
After grappling on how to pay for the ad — and failing to come up with a solution — the OPA representative had an idea. In fact, “he said he would tell us how to make the money for the ad and have more tourists in Ava than we have ever seen before,” wrote J.G. Heinlein, the committee chairman, in a retrospective piece about the event.
The idea: Host a barbecue for tourists, and promote the Glade Top Trail, a gravel road created in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The road, which cuts through the Mark Twain National Forest and borders the Hercules Glades Wilderness Area, was — and is — one of the most scenic in Missouri.
Even though the idea seemed a bit far-fetched to some, locals decided to give it a go. “We began work to build pits and order chickens, food (and) supplies,” wrote Heinlein. “We also began to realize we would need a lot of help.”
The need for people was tied to the event’s magnitude. Today, the event is a one-day affair, but back then, it was around a week long and required guides to give tours of the trail “so that no one got lost in the forest,” as one newspaper put it.
It need for support was so great, in fact, that the event spurred collaboration between several local groups including the Chamber of Commerce, Lion’s Club, Kiwanis Club, the Ava Saddle Club, among others.
Finally, things were ready for the big event — which got a shot of publicity right before the big day. Ray Heady, outdoor editor of The Kansas City Star, wrote a story about the event, boasting of the area’s beauty and uniqueness:
“There are a hundred roads you can drive through the hill country that will lead you to beautiful scenery. In fact, nearly every flaming foliage tourist has his own individual route. It’s largely a case of boyhood memories and individual preference.
“But this year a new note has been added to the tour situation. The town of Ava, Mo., … is sponsoring a 65-mile fall tour that will take you off surfaced roads and deep into the Mark Twain National Forest where few tourists ever penetrate.
“We flatly predict that this trip will take the tourist into the greatest mass of fall color he has ever seen.”
“Ray Heady, right, outdoor editor of The Kansas City Star, snaps a photo of Bruce Elliott, Ava ranger in the Mark Twain National Forest, pointing gout a scene which stretches miles into the distance.” — Douglas County Herald, Oct. 12, 1961
Locals soon realized their success, which began even before the event started.
“By the middle of the next week we were swamped with letters and request for tickets, motel reservations and directions on how to get to Ava,” noted Heinlein. “On Saturday night our town was full of strange people and our work was cut out for us on Sunday.”
The next day, tour guides took groups of 35 to 40 cars out to the trail every 15 to 20 minutes. In total, approximately 450 cars made the trip the first day, a fact noted in a Douglas County Herald newspaper article.
“We are tickled to death with the results of the first day,” told Bob Bowles, former editor of the Herald, to a Springfield Daily News reporter on the day after the event’s kickoff. “Everyone seemed to have a good time and to enjoy the drive.”
“There were 77 automobiles in this guided group taking in the Flaming Fall Revue Glade Top Trail tour on Sunday, Oct. 15.” — Douglas County Herald, Oct. 26 1961
In the end, newspaper and retrospective accounts note that between 5,000 and 6,000 people came to tour that year.
Its success was measured in more than just attendance. It was also a win for fundraising and tourism — and the OPA representative. “The financial success made it possible to buy the ad in the Ozarks Playground Association publication,” wrote Heinlein.
A photo spread in 1962 helped promote the second annual Flaming Fall Revue. (Courtesy of the Sunday News and Leader)
Considering the event’s success, it wasn’t a difficult decision to bring it back time and again. The nearly six decades since, however, have seen some change.
When the revue began, Ozarks fall festivities were far and few between (although, coincidentally, in down-the-road Gainesville the Hootin’ an Hollarin’ Days festival also began in 1961).
Within a few years, however, the scene was drastically different. Soon, the revue had to compete with the likes of Seymour’s Apple Festival (started in 1973), Apple Butter Makin’ Days in Mount Vernon (launched in 1967), Fair Grove Heritage Reunion (since 1978) and Mansfield’s Wilder Days (started in 1973).
Today, the revue is a one-day affair, and its attendees aren’t as numerous as they were in the past. However, chamber director Shields says that she says she believes its original organizers would be pleased with its lasting impact, and the notoriety it has brought for the beauty around Ava.
“I think they would (appreciate) the magnitude of where it’s really gone,” she says.
Even when trees haven’t changed color, views along the Glade Top Trail are still spectacular.
Want to go?
The 2017 Flaming Fall Revue is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 15 from 10:3o a.m. to 3 p.m.
The event’s lineup includes vendors with hand-crafted items, a turkey calling contest, pumpkin painting, dessert auction, live music and a church service.
Dinner is also available: Pulled pork, as well as and ham and beans, are available with sides for $6 and $4 respectively. Hot dog plates are for sale, too, and are only $3 each.
Then, of course, there’s the drive. Markers along the trail, labeled with QR codes, allow visitors to learn more about what they’re seeing. There’s even an app designed with kids in mind, making the experience suitable for many members of the family.
For more information, click here to connect with the Ava Chamber on Facebook.
“1500 turn out for Ava tours,” Springfield Daily News, Oct. 17, 1961
“Fall’s red and gold light up the Ozarks,” Ray Heady, The Kansas City Star, Oct. 8, 1961
“Glade Top Trail,” J.G. Heinlein, no date
“The Glade Top Trail Tour,” no author or date
“Hundreds expected for Glade Top Trail tours which start Sunday,” Douglas County Herald, Oct. 12, 1961
“Over 5,000 tour Glade Top Trail,” Douglas County Herald, Oct. 26, 1961
“Touring Glade Top Trail,” Lucile Morris Upton, Sunday News and Leader, Oct. 14, 1962