BRANSON, Mo. – In Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery’s 60 years of operation, a facility that was designed to deal with thousands of fish has learned how to accommodate thousands of visitors, too. This point was driven home July 19 when the Hatchery’s Conservation Center – the part of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) facility that serves as the visitors’ center – received its eight millionth visitor.
What the Garnes won’t know is that an internal asterisk of sorts is attached to their visitation because, in truth, they were not Shepherd of the Hills’ eight millionth visitor; they were merely the eight millionth visitor MDC has a record of at the facility.
When Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery in Taney County began operation in 1958, its sole mission was to produce trout. It was MDC’s state-of-the-art answer to the state’s growing interest in trout fishing – an interest that had out-stripped what could be provided by Shepherd’s predecessor; the much-smaller Sequiota Hatchery in Springfield.
The Conservation Center that currently serves as the public entrance to the hatchery was not added until the late 1970s. MDC staff did not begin keeping attendance figures at the building (originally called “The Visitors’ Center”) until 1980. That means several years’ worth of uncounted visitation can be added to the present figure of eight million.
It’s hard to estimate how many people visited the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery in those pre-count years because it was before Branson became a tourist magnet – a fact evident by the original plans of Shepherd’s Visitors’ Center that called for the building to be an un-staffed facility designed for passive, impersonal visitation.
Soon after Shepherd’s Visitors’ Center opened, it was clear the original designers had under-estimated the facility’s popularity. Currently, an average of 250,000 people visit Shepherd’s Conservation Center each year. On an average summer day, 1,200 visit Shepherd. On a busy day, that number can balloon to as many as 1,800.
Visitors get an up-close view of how trout are raised. Through guided tours and individual walks around the rearing pools, people get a look at some of the 1.2 million trout the hatchery produces annually. Besides providing trout for Lake Taneycomo and other Missouri trout-fishing areas, Shepherd of Hills supplies trout eggs and fingerlings for other MDC hatcheries.
In addition to providing views of live trout in an aquarium, visitors to the Conservation Center can see live specimens of some of the Ozarks’ snake species on display in the 50-seat auditorium. The auditorium is also the site of periodic programs and an audio-visual presentation about the hatchery.
“We’re proud to be such a popular destination for families from across the nation,” said MDC Interpretive Center Manager John Miller, who manages Shepherd’s Conservation Center. “It is even more touching to have parents bringing their kids to the hatchery because their parents brought them when they were young kids. Being a sense of place for so many visitors is a true source of pride.”
For more about Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery, visit www.mdc.mo.gov