Mountain Village 1890 has attracted visitors to its historic buildings since 1960.
BULL SHOALS, ARK. – For nearly 60 years, a collection of historic Ozarks buildings has formed a town that no one calls home — and it all began because of a cave.
No, it’s not Silver Dollar City, but the Branson attraction and Mountain Village 1890 had remarkably similar starts.
Located around 80 miles apart, both began in May 1960. Both featured historic Ozarks buildings. Both nearly had the same name: Until Silver Dollar City’s publicist suggested the memorable moniker, the theme park’s owners planned to call the Branson attraction Ozark Mountain Village.
And, of course, both began because of a cave.
In the case of Mountain Village 1890, it was Bull Shoals Caverns that attorney Roy Danuser, the cave’s owner, wanted to promote. He decided his attraction needed a place where visitors could seek shelter, and presumably entertain themselves, while waiting to tour the cave.
He enlisted friends and artists Rosemary and George Fisher as village founders. Together, months were spent scouring the region “by airplane as well as auto, searching for abandoned churches, schools, country stores, dwellings and such that could be bought and moved to Bull Shoals,” noted the Springfield Daily News in August 1972.
After buying and relocating around 10 structures to create the town, Mountain Village opened to visitors in May 1960. Danuser chose 1890 as the time period to highlight because it was “a happy time,” he said in one newspaper account. It’s also a year that its buildings — and some of its potential visitors at that time — had lived through, marking a pivotal period in an Ozarks past.
“Those people were on the threshold of the automobile age,” Danuser told a Sunday News and Leader reporter in 1960. “Before the youngsters of that day were grown, the (Ford) Model T would be created. The advent of the automobile unlocked the isolation of the hill folks forever. Today we are on the threshold of the space age. We have no way of knowing what sort of future will open to us.”
Mountain Village’s church came from 125 miles away.
It’s clear Danuser chose love over money when it came to the village. Expense and effort were lavished in bringing together the buildings. His law practice helped support the operation in the beginning.
“This is a way of life … a segment of American history,” he said back in 1960. “Maybe, in a way, I’m just trying to pay respectful tribute to those hardy, resourceful and gentle people.”
The 1904 depot — the town’s only building built after 1890 — was found at Pyatt, Ark., abandoned by the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. The 10,010-pound structure was so heavy that it had to be moved in two sections. The small, white country church was built in 1888, and was originally surrounded by a 132-year-old rail fence.
One home dates all the way back to 1830 and was constructed of logs hand-hewn by slaves. It was so remote that Danuser’s workmen had to create a road to reach it, and took it apart log by log for transport. Another little cabin, occupied by a slave, was lifted with a crane.
It’s believed that Uncle Willie’s Cabin was built and lived in by a slave.
Danuser was hellbent on having a school bell. When he heard that the bell at the school in Fifty Six, Ark., was being replaced, he drove the 60 miles to see if he could procure the old one.
“It had been given to an elderly woman in the community, and she had turned down several offers for it,” reported the News and Leader. “When Danuser visited her, she explained her plight. She wanted enough money out of the bell for a hearing aid — $20. He gladly paid it.”
Danuser was so intent on being historically correct that he wouldn’t concede to using modern-day paint. “He had a national paint manufacturer go through its records and provide him with the mixture that was used on buildings in the 1890s,” noted the News and Leader.
The park opened to the public on May 27, 1960. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, Chester H. Lauck (of “Lum and Abner” radio fame), Winthrop Rockefeller (who was elected Arkansas governor in 1966) and folksinger Jimmie Driftwood were mentioned in previews as notables in attendance.
Driftwood made and found special connections with the town. “As James E. Morris, he had taught school at Fifty Six and immediately recognized the old bell,” printed the News and Leader, which also noted that the famed musician wrote a song entitled “Mountain Village 1890” in support of the project.
Not long after it opened, the town started telling stories through more than just buildings. For years, it operated as a real living history museum: Animals helped make the scene complete, and actors were hired to dress in period costumes and greet visitors, teaching of the old ways and old days.
Earthquakes in the early 1800s have resulted in clean-broken stalactites from Bull Shoals Caverns. An example is shown at center.
Of course, there were also the caverns that started it all. The limestone underworld has long welcomed visitors for up-close-and-personal tours, which show off its variety of formations and novelties. It even includes boxwork, which according to cave guide Dillon Payton is found in very few caves in the United States.
An underground river still flows through the cave, which is said to have been mined by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War for clay to make gunpowder. The cave was also briefly searched during the Cold War for uranium.
The Diamond Chapel Room, 150 feet below the surface, is so named because of quartz crystals decorating an edge near a natural waterfall.
Weddings have taken place within its walls — which at times are said to tell the future. Across the way, there’s a wall filled with sparkling coins tossed by sentimental tourists.
“It was said that if you threw a coin up there, and it got stuck on the first try, you’d get married in six months,” says Payton.
It’s not encouraged today, but in years past, visitors often tossed coins at a wall in the cave to predict how quickly they’d marry.
As towns do, Mountain Village changed with time. It remained in the Danuser family until around 1984, when it was sold. Since then, the landmark has changed hands several times. No longer is the town populated by citizen actors — it got too expensive — and animals don’t call it home, either, because liability insurance was too costly.
The attraction was purchased by its present owner, Gerald Oates, in 2006. A resident of Florida, Oates decided to buy it in a “temporary moment of insanity,” as he puts it with a laugh. He was on vacation in the Ozarks with his son when he came to visit for the first time.
His ticket ultimately bought him a town.
“I really liked the caverns, number one, and I really liked the historic setting with the houses that were there,” he says. He bought the attraction, but in light of his location, turns over daily management to Jim Jensen, who has been part of the attraction at various times since the late 1990s.
Peeking at the town
Today, the tree-filled town is complete with a church, cabins, homes, bank, general store and more.
The buildings are mostly the same as on opening day back in 1960, but the school house met its demise in a blaze in 2004. An ember from nearby burning leaves was likely to blame for its disappearance in a cloud of smoke.
The town’s school burned to the ground in 2004.
The village operates primarily via word of mouth — but the management puts special emphasis on making trips for visiting schoolchildren especially memorable. After all, Jensen says, many of their adult visitors reminisce about visiting as kids on field trips.
“We know these kids will remember it, so we give them a really good experience,” he says, noting ways he works to make tours relevant to today’s youngsters. For instance, the general store.
“So I say, ‘Kids, don’t think that Walmart started it all,'” says Jensen, noting another example he gives is the blacksmith’s shop.
“Today, we have mechanics to take care of cars,” he tells kids. “Well, back then they needed someone to help take care of the horses.”
The buildings teach lessons that Jenson stresses are few and far between these days.
“(Parents) come back to me and say, ‘My kids have never showed so much interest and asked so many questions about how people lived back then,” says Jensen.
However, those lessons aren’t learned unless people visit. These days, numbers could be better, says owner Oates. On top of dwindling attendance, there are maintenance costs.
“When you’ve got houses 125 to 175 years old, it’s upkeep all the time,” Oates says.
Oates says the buildings, despite their age, aren’t eligible for grant funding since they’re not in their original locations. But repairs happen as funds are available, including on a recent Saturday when workmen repaired a roof on one of the homes.
It’s all part of keeping the town open for visitors to see and learn from.
“You’re not going to get these experiences 20 years from now,” says Jensen, emphasizing Mountain Village’s novelty. However, he quickly amends his statement.
“Well, hopefully we’ll still be here,” he says.
Want to visit?
Mountain Village 1890 is open seasonally. For more information, connect via their website or Facebook page, or call (870) 445-7177. Visiting the village is $5 for adults, $3 for children ages 6 to 11, and under 6 are free. Touring Bull Shoals Caverns is priced separately. For that attraction, adults are $15, children ages 6 to 11 are $8 and under 6 are free.
“The buildings came from all around,” Ernie Deane, Springfield Daily News, Aug. 31, 1972
“Fire destroys 1889 schoolhouse,” Linda Masters, Baxter Bulletin, Dec 6, 2004
“Mountain Village 1890, caverns are sold; to re-open next April,” Joseph A. Huddleston, Baxter Bulletin, no date
“Village with a past,” Perry E. Smith, Sunday News and Leader, Sept. 4, 1960