The largest city in southern Missouri, Springfield (pop. 168,122) doesn’t feel nearly as big as it is, though it does sprawl for many miles in all directions. Despite the ongoing growth and development, most notably the green and pleasant Jordan Valley Park surrounding the attractive downtown baseball stadium and sports complex, Springfield has preserved much of its old Route 66 frontage, along St. Louis Street east of downtown, as well as the grandly named Chestnut Expressway west of downtown. The 20-mph (32 km/h) speed l imit on downtown streets—along with tons of free parking—enables Route 66 pilgrims to pay homage to the town’s Arabesque landmark Shrine Mosque theater (601 E. Saint Louis St., 417/869-9164), which still hosts occasional concerts.
Springfield is also celebrated as the place where “Wild Bill” Hickok killed fellow gambler “Little Dave” Tutt, apparently because Tutt wore the watch he’d won from Hickok playing cards. A plaque in the central square, just west of the Shrine Mosque, tells one of many variations on the tale.
Springfield has at least one fine old Route 66 motel: the Route 66 Rail Haven (203 S. Glenstone Ave., 417/866-1963 or 800/780 7234, $75 and up), on the corner of old Route 66 and US-65. Open since 1938, it has been fully modernized and now is a Best Western affiliate with a railroad theme. A mile (1.6 km) away on old Route 66 is one of the earliest and most stylish models of the Steak ’n Shake burger chain (1158 St. Louis St., 417/866-6109, 24 hours daily). This is one of the last ones where carhops still bring your food to your car (during daylight hours).
A middle-American mecca, mixing equal parts Las Vegas glitz and Myrtle Beach summer fun, Branson is a century-old Ozark resort town that hit the big time in the 1980s through clever promotion and cunning repackaging of country-and-western music and God-fearing recreation. There are well over 50 major performance venues in Branson, and looking down the list of luminaries who have played here—the Osmond Brothers, Tony Orlando, and Jim “I Don’t Like Spiders and Snakes” Stafford—you’d think that anyone who had a hit record or a TV show, or can still sing and smile at the same time, can have their own showcase theater. To cater to the estimated 7.2 million annual visitors, the range of shows keeps expanding, at times including such exotic offerings as Acrobats of China or The Beatles-themed Liverpool Legends.
What originally put Branson on the tourist map was not music but a book: The Shepherd of the Hills, by Harold Bell Wright. Set in and around Branson and published in 1907, it was a huge best-seller, adapted in the 1930s into an outdoor stage play, with performances continuing into the 21st century.
The Ozark Mountains around Branson are lovely to explore; just about any road south, east, or west will take you through beautifully scenic mountain landscapes. And if scenery is not enough, one of the most popular spots in Branson is Silver Dollar City (800/475-9370 or 417/336 7100, daily, around $72), 9 mi (14.5 km) west of Branson via Hwy-76, a turn-of-the-20th-century theme park devoted to Ozark arts, crafts, and music—and roller coasters.