A facility where people can learn about the importance of protecting our outdoor resources has become a site where visitors can appreciate the men and women who protect our country.
In November 2009, a dedication ceremony was held at Missouri Department of Conservation’s Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery near Branson to unveil the facility’s newest feature—a Blue Star Memorial Marker. A crowd that included armed forces veterans, Shepherd of the Hills Garden Club members, Missouri Department of Conservation personnel, Branson city officials, and Missouri Conservation Commissioner Don Johnson, himself a veteran, were on hand to witness the dedication.
The Blue Star Memorial Marker Program is a nation-wide effort of the National Garden Clubs Inc. that began in 1945. The program’s initial purpose was to honor the men and women who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. In 1951, the program’s mission was enlarged to include all men and women who have served, are currently serving or will serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. At present, there are 57 Blue Star Memorial Markers in Missouri and more than 2,000 nationwide.
“The Blue Star Memorial symbolizes the freedom we enjoy in the USA,” said Bev Brown, a member of the Shepherd of the Hills Garden Club and the chairman of the club’s Blue Star Memorial Project. “Our country is the ‘Home of the free, because of the brave.” These markers are small tokens of gratitude from us to them (the veterans) to let them know we will not forget.”
Shepherd of the Hills’ marker, a sign surrounded by a decorative landscaping arrangement of native stone and native wildflowers, is located near the entrance to the hatchery’s Conservation Center. The dedication ceremony was the culmination of an effort that began more than a year before. People and groups involved in this cooperative venture included members of the Shepherd of the Hills Garden Club, the Branson Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the American Legion Post 220, Perberton-Jennings Post 220, members of Branson Cub Scout Pack 93, students from College of the Ozarks and the work of local landscaper Chris Lambing.
“The bottom line of this project is that it was a community effort,” said John Miller, the naturalist programs supervisor at Shepherd of the Hills. “This could not have been done by any one group.”
Those unfamiliar with Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery may think it’s odd to put a veteran’s memorial at a place designed to raise trout. To anyone who has visited the facility, though, it makes perfect sense.
It’s true that Shepherd’s foremost mission is to fuel Missourians’ ongoing love affair with trout fishing. The state’s largest trout hatchery, located on the west end of Lake Taneycomo just below Table Rock Dam, raises approximately 1,250,000 rainbow and brown trout annually. More than 700,000 of those fish—the bulk of which are rainbows—go into Taneycomo each year.
Thanks in large part to the joint management efforts of Missouri Department of Conservation staff at Shepherd of the Hills, Empire District Electric Company (Empire owns the reservoir), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps operates Table Rock Dam), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff at the Neosho National Fish Hatchery in Neosho, Lake Taneycomo has become a widely renowned trout-fishing destination. Cold-water discharges from Table Rock Dam during hydro-electric generation create water temperatures that are suitable for trout habitat over much of the lake’s 22-mile length. These good conditions, combined with the hatchery’s regular stocking efforts, have given the lake a well-deserved reputation for fish quantity and quality. The lake’s most recent headline grabber was the state-record 28.8-pound brown trout that was caught by Scott Sandusky of Arnold in November 2009. There’s ample evidence that even bigger fish lurk beneath the surface:
- In 2001, during their annual summer sampling at Lake Taneycomo, Missouri Department of Conservation biologists captured a brown trout that weighed approximately 37 pounds—a weight that would have shattered the recently set state record.
- In 1997, a dead brown trout weighing 37.1 pounds was found floating in Taneycomo. Even more interesting than its weight was the carcass’ length of 41.75 inches. This was greater than the length of the world record brown trout at that time, which led biologists to theorize that, when this behemoth brownie was alive and healthy, there was a good chance it had been a world record fish.
Shepherd of the Hills’ management efforts aren’t just about producing lunkers for Taneycomo. The hatchery also provides rainbow and brown trout for other Department of Conservation trout management areas in the state and supplies trout eggs and fingerlings to other Department of Conservation trout-production facilities.
However, the hatchery’s connection with the Blue Star Memorial Marker program isn’t as much about the thousands of fish that leave the hatchery each year as it is about the thousands of people that come to the site. Thanks, in part, to the tourism boom of the Branson area, Shepherd of the Hills has become a much-visited ambassador of the Missouri Department of Conservation in southwest Missouri that plays a huge role in spreading the conservation message to the large number of people that travel to the Branson area each year.
Visitors to the hatchery get an up-close-and-personal view of how trout are raised. Through both guided tours and individual walks around the rearing pools, people can get a good look at the trout being raised for release in Taneycomo and elsewhere. Inside the Conservation Center, visitors can get views of live trout and also can see live specimens of some of the Ozarks’ snake species on display in the 50-seat auditorium. This auditorium is also the site of periodic programs and an audio visual program about the hatchery. One of Shepherd’s biggest nonfish events is the annual Vulture Venture program held each February. This event helps visitors learn more about the hundreds of vultures that winter at Lake Taneycomo each year. Nature trails and a photo blind in the vicinity of the hatchery provide visitors additional opportunities to appreciate the area’s natural beauty.
Currently an average of 250,000 people visit Shepherd’s Conservation Center each year. An average summer day’s attendance is 1,200—on a busy day, that daily attendance number has frequently ballooned to as many as 1,800 people. To put that in perspective of an eight-hour work day, that means an average of 300 people per hour are walking through the doors of Shepherd of the Hills’ Conservation Center on its busiest days.
In July of 2008, the hatchery reached an attendance milestone when it received its 6-millionth visitor. This accomplishment takes on added significance when it’s noted that the hatchery, which was built in 1958, didn’t begin keeping attendance figures until 1980.
In addition to sheer numbers, Branson’s far-flung fame as a vacation destination has added another distinguishing characteristic to the crowds that come to Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery each year: They frequently are from elsewhere in the country and, on occasion, from elsewhere in the world.
All these factors made it a perfect location to put an honorary marker for the country’s armed forces that you want people to notice.
“Choosing this location was the Garden Club’s idea,” said Pat Piland, president of the Shepherd of the Hills Garden Club. “The site had to be a location where the marker would be seen by a large number of people, it had to be a civic location (not privately owned), had to have ample parking, had to have room for landscaping, had to have approval of the authorities who owned the land, had to be in a protected area and had to have the commitment of continual upkeep from the owners of the land. Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery met all of the above criteria.” Brown agreed.
“We felt the location added history, beauty and educational opportunities along with being a tribute to all veterans, a way of saying ‘Thank you,’” she said.
When garden club members came to Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery staff with the idea of putting a marker at the hatchery, their request fell on receptive ears.
“When we approached John Miller, he was excited to have the memorial located at the Hatchery,” Piland said. “This has been a good fit from the start.”
Miller feels the Blue Star Memorial Marker is a good fit for the hatchery. Even though the sign makes no mention of the management of fish, wildlife or forests, he said the message it conveys has a definite tie to conservation.
“This memorial reminds us that our veterans helped to protect our people, our way of life and the natural resources of our country,” he said. “This memorial, in such a beautiful setting, will remind everyone of the wonderful natural beauty of the state and this region—and we have our veterans to thank for the protection of this natural beauty.”
Visiting Shepherd of the Hills
Area Hours: September–June: 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
Memorial Day–Labor Day: 9 a.m.–6 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Directions: The hatchery and conservation center are located on Highway 165 just south of Branson, below the dam at Table Rock Lake.
Tours: Guided hatchery tours are provided at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. weekdays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. During the remainder of the year, self-guided tours are available.