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The Tree Lover Behind Silver Dollar City

Nature enthusiast Jack Herschend has developed some of the most popular theme parks in America.

If it weren't for wildflowers, things might have turned out differently for Jack Herschend (EB54). Herschend's mother and stepfather, Mary and Hugo Herschend, loved to hunt wildflowers, and every year they would drive nearly 600 miles from their home in Wilmette, Ill., to Branson, Mo., where the Ozarks' rich soil and temperate climate offered an incredible variety of species.

After five springs hunting for wildflowers in the area, the pair purchased a 99-year lease on Marvel Cave, a local attraction near Branson, from two sisters in 1950. To attract more tourists, the family resurrected Marmaros, constructing a replica of the 1880s ghost town — complete with a general store and a church — that once stood at the cave's entrance. It opened in 1960 and became an instant success.

Today that "town" is called Silver Dollar City, one of Branson's foremost attractions, drawing more than 2 million visitors each year. Jack and his brother, Peter Herschend (EB56), who attended Northwestern but left the University to help Mary operate the cave when Hugo died in 1955, built the family business around that first entertainment venture. Herschend Family Entertainment still owns Silver Dollar City and owns, operates or partners in management of 21 other attractions across the United States, including Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

Jack and Peter began to look for property beyond Branson because of the national gas shortage in 1973. They wanted to open attractions close to major urban centers, such as Atlanta or Nashville, so tourists wouldn't have to drive so far to enjoy their theme parks. They operated the mildly successful Silver Dollar City Tennessee in Pigeon Forge for 10 years before getting word that country singer Dolly Parton wanted to open her own attraction in the area.

"Dolly was hot as a firecracker at that time. She was on the cover of everything," Herschend says. "We thought it would be great to join her."

Parton and Herschend forged a business partnership that produced Dollywood in 1986. He considers the country singer an astute, creative businesswoman who has a sense of what the customer wants "like nobody else I've ever met."

Herschend says his own business acumen comes from his mother, a former librarian and homemaker who served a prominent role in the company until her death in 1983. Mary came to the Ozarks with $7,000 in savings. She lost money the first four years in the entertainment business, but she never succumbed to the pressure.

"She was a visionary and a risk taker, which always surprised me," Herschend says. "She lived and raised me through the Depression. You would have expected her to be conservative, but she wasn't."

In her leadership of the company, Mary became known for her preservation of flora and fauna. An ardent conservationist, she once fired Jack for cutting down a dogwood at Silver Dollar City to make way for a railroad.

Herschend's nonprofit Gift of Green reforestation and beautification project is part of his mother's legacy, and it's one of his many philanthropic ventures. A devout Christian, Herschend also works with many Christian organizations to promote positive values in his community.

He chairs the board of the National Institute of Marriage, a Christian organization that boasts an 85 percent success rate for turning around marriages in turmoil. (Jack and his wife, Sherry, whom he met at Silver Dollar City, have been married for more than 50 years.)

In the Ozarks he is also known as "the tree guy." Herschend, a tree farm owner, donates his sugar maples and white pines as a fundraiser for Lives Under Construction Boys Ranch, a residential treatment home for troubled young boys.

Though he has retired as CEO of the family business, Herschend still looks to keep the theme parks fresh. One of the biggest yearly attractions at Silver Dollar City is World-Fest, a gathering of hundreds of performers from countries around the world who share their entertainment, costumes and culture. The idea for the event originated from Herschend's travels around the world in search of new ideas.

But while the theme park attractions may change, the company retains its roots.

"We're the largest family-owned business in the industry," he says. "The most important thing is that we remain that way. We can, within a family business, do things that may not make sense on Wall Street. The future of the business for me is less about growth and more about maintaining the culture within the organization."

— Scott Sode (J08)

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Jack Herschend
Jack Herschend, on his tree farm in southwest Missouri, has received awards for his commitment to conservation. He hopes to plant more than a million trees in his lifetime.