HERSCHEND, HUGO - Stone County, Missouri | HUGO HERSCHEND - Missouri Gravestone Photos


Twin Pines Cemetery
Stone County,

1899 - 1983
1899 - 1955
Marriage Date:
18 Nov 1940
Marriage Location:
Cook County, IL

The woman behind Silver Dollar City
Tom Carlson,
For the News-Leader 8:20 a.m. CST December 9, 2014

The history of Silver Dollar City can't be told without telling the story of Mary Herschend.

Like Moses in the Bible, who didn't want the job God had in mind for him, the last thing Mary wanted back in 1949 was to move to the Ozarks and become an entrepreneur. She would have preferred to live out her life in a nice Chicago suburb as a mother and the second wife of Hugo Herschend.

But, like the biblical hero, she accepted the task life presented her, even though it was not her choice.

Today, more than 60 years after Mary came to the Ozarks, the imprint of her efforts is evident in the nation's largest family-owned theme park corporation, which employs 11,000 people in 10 states and includes such diverse attractions as theme parks, aquariums and the Harlem Globetrotters.

Dream becomes job

Mary's story begins during the Depression in Chicago, where she and her good friend Gudrun Herschend worked together as librarians. They lived a half-block from each other. Both women were married and had young sons. Mary and her husband, Edwin Waggoner, had their son Jack in 1932, and Gudrun and Hugo Herschend had Pete two years later.

Shortly after Pete was born, Gudrun was diagnosed with cancer, and Mary started taking care of her friend's child. Before she died in 1937, Gudrun asked Mary to continue to look after Pete. Meanwhile, Mary's marriage was deteriorating and the couple divorced. In 1940, she married Hugo, and they moved into Mary's house in Wilmette, a Chicago suburb.

Hugo Herschend was bigger than life. Born in Denmark in 1899, he left when he was 19 years old to explore the world. His adventures included working as an oilfield roustabout in the Yukon and hunting diamonds in the Amazon. Hugo's travels ended in Chicago, where he studied at the LaSalle School of Engineering and married Gudrun. He eventually took a job as a district manager for the Electrolux vacuum cleaning company.

But Hugo never lost his love of travel and his desire to do something imaginative.

In 1946, he and Mary vacationed in Branson, where they enjoyed taking pictures of wildflowers and visiting Ozark craftsmen. They kept coming back each spring, and during one of those trips they got to know Miriam and Genevieve Lynch, sisters who had operated the Marvel Cave tourist attraction for about 50 years.

The sisters were ready to slow down, and Hugo envisioned an interesting retirement devoted to promoting and operating the cave. So in 1950 he entered into a 99-year-lease of the cave.

For its first five years, the cave lost money. Hugo had to keep his day job with Electrolux while Mary and the boys traveled to Branson in the summer and operated the cave. She and the boys stayed near the Lynches' home at the Sammy Lane resort in a cabin without hot water or an indoor toilet. She was 600 miles away from her husband and the house she loved outside Chicago. Hugo's dream turned out to be Mary's job. But it was worth it for Mary if it was what her husband wanted to do with his life.

"When we left home, Mom would cry for the first two hours in the car," Jack remembered. "I was fully aware of lots of nights of her crying herself to sleep."

In 1954, Hugo moved to Branson to live there full time. He had some big plans for promoting the gigantic cave, whose Cathedral Room is one of the largest in the United States. Money was tight, so he began promoting events that generated free publicity. He convinced Marlin Perkins, whose TV show Zoo Parade eventually morphed into Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, to erect Marlin Perkins' Zoo outside the cave. When Perkins promoted his zoo, the Cave also benefited.

The year was eventful. After a long lobbying effort, a Branson group led by banker Ben Parnell and supported by Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington convinced Congress to appropriate the money to build Table Rock Dam. As the lake filled up, it offered fantastic fishing, Jack recalls. Marvel Cave became a popular alternative for the non-fishermen. Things were coming together nicely, and Hugo had new ideas to lure more visitors to their attraction.

"Hugo envisioned not a town so much as a collection of crafters," Jack remembered. He and Mary loved to travel down gravel roads and visit a weaver, basket maker, or blacksmith. They would go to the ends of the Earth where tourists could not find them. He wanted to bring the craftsmen to a place where they could sell their wares and demonstrate how they made things."

The future was finally looking brighter for Mary. Her husband was now living in Branson and business was picking up. Then Hugo suffered his first heart attack. A year later, in November 1955, he had a second and fatal heart attack.

Alone and in charge

Mary was in a place she never wanted to be. She would have been content to live in Wilmette with a husband with a regular job. Instead, she found herself as a widow in charge of a cave business in the Ozarks that was her husband's dream, not hers.

She was at a crossroads. With Hugo gone, Jack in the Marine Corps and Pete away at college, she could abandon Hugo's dream and move home to Illinois or she could double down on their growing business. She decided to stick with it. She sold the house in Wilmette and put the money into their fledgling enterprise.

Her sons rallied around her. Pete took a year off from the University of Missouri so he could help Mary. Jack got an early release from the Marines, and he and his wife, Sherry, moved back to take over the operation of the cave and its first large capital project — a cable train to move people out of the cave. The cave would never reach its full potential if tourists had to climb the long stairs to get out.

Mary needed $18,000 to build the train, but in those days banks made loans on collateral like cattle, not a lease on a hole in the ground. Undeterred, she approached Ben Parnell, president of the People's Bank of Branson, and asked for the loan. He decided to take the risk. They paid that initial debt and all future loans from Parnell by July 4 each summer.

"Without Ben's belief in Mom," Jack said, "the cave could have never taken off."

Mary put 24-year-old Jack in charge of building the train. When it went into operation, attendance at the cave mushroomed by 40 percent.

Mary's defining vision

The large number of tourists waiting to get into the cave presented another opportunity. Why not enlarge on Hugo's idea and build a few buildings reminiscent of the town of Marmaros (Greek for marble) that existed at the mouth of the cave in the 1880s? And then feature craftsmen of the area to make and sell their products?

Mary knew exactly what she wanted. The buildings had to be as true to the original design as possible, but they were built to a 7/8ths scale to "create charm," as Rick Todd, a 40-year SDC executive, recalls. An attraction that was inauthentic would not honor the people and the land that Mary had come to know and love. She was not going to lower her standards.

"Mary had an unbelievable vision about the park that none of us got for a long time," Rick Todd remembered. "The idea that we were going to be true to the theme and remain uniquely consistent really came from Mary."

The specifications of the Swiss-German descendent were equally demanding when it came to trees. None were to be taken out unless absolutely necessary and then only if it were replaced with two. Mary "fired" more than one employee for not following this rule, including her son Jack more than once.

Independent Board to Resolve Disputes

Mary designed a division of duties for her sons. She assigned Jack to operate the cave, and Pete to supervise the above-ground operation.

"It was like a grandfather clock," said family friend and former employee Edd Ackers, "Pete was the face of the clock, Jack was the gears and Mary was the hands that directed them both." By the time that Mary died in 1983 after a series of strokes, the brothers were working together as a team.

Jack and Pete have always been equal partners in the business, but they have not always agreed. Early on they developed a solution to resolve these impasses. They formed an independent board of directors with the authority to overrule either one of them on a business decision.

"Jack said we do not have the luxury of falling in love with our ideas," said Ken Bell, former general manager of their Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

For example, whether to serve alcohol at group picnics was an issue, remembers Todd. "We have an open-door policy and anyone can talk to anyone. So one time someone asked us why we served alcohol at picnics for groups that came into the park. That's inconsistent with who we are, the employee argued. Jack agreed and Pete did not. The board sided with Jack on that one, and from that point on, we were not allowed to serve alcohol to outside groups. They got very comfortable when they disagreed with each other to turn it over to the board and move on."

Creativity in different ways

Like his father Hugo, Pete Herschend is outgoing and creative. In the early days of Silver Dollar City, he would design skits featuring the town's sheriff and outlaws to entertain the customers. Over the years a new synergy between Pete and Jack emerged, with Pete supervising the attraction's marketing and Jack its day-to-day operations.

During the oil embargo in the 1970s, people were afraid to travel because of gas shortages. Pete purchased extra gas for the gas stations in Branson and Reeds Spring and advertised that if you came to Branson "we would make sure that you had enough gas to get home."

Similarly, it was Pete's idea to extend this tourist season first through the craft festivals and eventually through the Ozark Mountain Christmas. The longer tourist season significantly added to the bottom line for Silver Dollar City and other businesses in Branson. Another big boost was the Herschends' seven-year effort to be featured on the 1960s popular TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies. After five episodes were filmed at SDC and aired in 1967, business increased by 18 percent.

If Pete is the extrovert, Jack is the introvert. "They are dramatically different. Pete has a tremendous gift in dealing with the public and the media. Jack, on the other hand, is a more of a strategist. He is a frustrated engineer and he likes to see things being built," Todd said. Now in his 80s, Jack still tests out all the new roller coasters.

Christian Ethics Are Good For Business

The Herschends' commitment to a high ethical standard goes back a long time. The company's mission statement, to "Create Memories Worth Repeating," declares that their efforts should be performed "in a manner consistent with Christian values and ethics."

One might assume this deep Christian commitment originated with Hugo and Mary. Not so, said Jack.

"Hugo and Mary never went to church. They would drop Pete and me off at the Christian Science church on Sunday mornings and then pick us up when church was over," laughed Jack. "We learned a lot about Mary Barker Eddy but never heard too much about Jesus," he remembered.

Both brothers credit their wives for their deep Christian faith. While working at the cave, Sherry Nickel met Jack and while working at the park, JoDee Remien met Pete, and the wives got them going to church. They became regular members.

Jack and Pete both emphasized you do not have to be a Christian to work with them, but you do have to accept Christian principles in dealing with customers and fellow employees. They don't wear their religion on their sleeves.

"It's a little like seasoning food," Jack said. "Seasoning can make it better but if you add too much of it, you can ruin the dish."

In non-religious terms, the company's culture has changed little from what Mary wrote about creating "highly repeatable experiences" and its core values. Half of employees' annual evaluation is based on how well they performed in accordance to their core values, and the other half on how well they met their specifically assigned goals.

Clearly, their religion is at the center of the lives of Pete and Jack. But people deeply committed to their faith are not necessarily successful. Both brothers cite timing as a major factor in Silver Dollar City's success.

It was the construction of Table Rock Lake that launched modern-day Branson. Before the lake was formed, Branson had maybe 150 hotel rooms, about the same size as Rockaway Beach, Pete said. Business rose with the lake level. Table Rock Lake, Silver Dollar City, and the country music shows combined to make Branson a successful, multi-faceted resort destination. The area has something for everyone. Tourists who choose not to fish or ski could go to Silver Dollar City during the day and the music shows at night.

After SDC became such a phenomenal success, the brothers decided to expand into other markets. The enterprises are diverse; it is a portfolio that spreads over 10 states and 26 locations and includes theme parks, the Showboat Branson Belle, aquariums, water parks and more.

While they have been tremendously successful, they have had their setbacks. It's important to stick to your knitting, Jack said. He was thinking of the Grand Palace entertainment venue and Celebration City, an amusement park, both of which were mega-million dollar investments that were later sold or closed.

"Of course we've made mistakes — for example, Celebration City," Pete said, "but we sold the Palace as a successful enough business for it to continue to operate under new ownership for an additional 10 plus years before they closed it.".

"There's nothing like getting a daily reminder of what you're good at and what you're not when you have to drive past the (closed) Grand Palace every day on the way to work — what an opportunity for humility!" he laughed.

Jack and Pete are both excited about the company's latest acquisition, The Harlem Globetrotters. It was an acquisition advocated by their CEO Joel Manby. Manby, who was featured in the TV series Undercover Boss, is the author of a book called Love Works, which is based upon the principles set forth in Corinthians 13, written by the apostle Paul.

About 14 years ago, the brothers turned over the operation of their businesses to the board and CEO. Since then they have focused their efforts on various philanthropic causes. Pete still serves on the Missouri State Board of Education, has raised about $1.5 million by biking over 11,000 miles for Multiple Sclerosis, and he and JoDee support single mothers in need. Jack's environmental program has planted over a quarter-million trees in the Ozarks, and he serves on the board of several ministries. Sherry supports Nazareth Village in Israel, presenting the life and teachings of Jesus. The Silver Dollar City Attractions fund a foundation that supports kids in need in Stone and Taney counties with over $1 million donated since 2006.

In everything they've done, the brothers have stayed true to the vision of Hugo and Mary. It's a business based on Hugo's dream, nurtured by Mary's dogged determination, and prospering under the commitment of both sons to honor their heritage and keep the faith. That's how Mary Herschend and her family turned a hole in the ground into their Promised Land.

Where did the name come from?

The name Silver Dollar City was the brainchild of Don Richardson, the former head writer for the TV show the Ozarks Jubilee in the 1950s. By 1959 he was working full time for Mary Herschend and suggested the name as part of an advertising gimmick. In those days people bought gas and groceries in cash. So when visitors came to Silver Dollar City, Richardson made sure that change was always made using silver dollars. That way when the tourists got home and exchanged their silver dollars, store clerks invariably asked them where they got them. The tourists replied "Silver Dollar City" and proceeded to tell them about their vacation.

About this series

This is the fifth in a series of profiles of Ozarks business titans, written by a well-known businessman himself — former Springfield Mayor Tom Carlson. Many people might not know that Carlson has a bachelor's degree in journalism and worked at the News-Leader as a reporter from 1975 to 1976. In these profiles — one will appear every month or so — Carlson will delve deep into the stories of some of the area's most fascinating entrepreneurs.

Contributed on 1/31/16 by hawkinsdonna48
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Submitted: 1/31/16 • Approved: 2/24/16 • Last Updated: 4/17/18 • R785702-G785700-S3

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