There are many reasons Kansans steer their Family Truckster to Branson, Mo., every summer for vacation.
It’s an affordable and driveable destination to enjoy fishing and boating on Table Rock Lake, family-friendly live shows or the newest roller coaster at Silver Dollar City theme park, to name just a few attractions in the mecca of Ozarks tourism.
Visiting a college campus probably isn’t your first thought when it comes to Branson, but it should be on your places to stay or visit while there.
Judging by TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards, staying and playing at the College of the Ozarks is no longer a secret. In 2016, the college’s 15-suite boutique hotel ranked as the top small hotel in the U.S. based on feedback from the travel website’s users. It has remained in the top 10 of the ratings since.
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Last year, celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern visited for an episode of “The Zimmern List” and called the kitchen at the campus restaurant “the best show in town,” a high compliment for an area with more than 50 theater venues.
Why does a college campus have a hotel and restaurant, along with a handful of other sights open to visitors?
College of the Ozarks is one of a handful of colleges in the U.S. that does not charge tuition. Instead, their roughly 1,500 students are assigned jobs at one of about 100 work stations on campus as part of the Work Education Program.
They graduate debt-free with a four-year degree and often pick up skills that relate to the career they plan to pursue.
The Wall Street Journal once dubbed the private, Christian, liberal arts college “Hard Work U” and the institution has embraced the nickname.
Students log about 15 hours per week at their jobs during the school year and 40 hours per week over the summer to help pay for room and board. Jobs range from milking cows at the campus dairy to working in the public relations office to waiting on guests at the restaurant or lodge.
The 1,000-acre campus is three miles south of Branson, in Point Lookout, though you don’t feel like you’ve left the city. It’s close enough that the Ride the Ducks tour operating out of Branson comes through campus.
The entry point for a visitor experience at the College of Ozarks is the Keeter Center, which is also the largest work station. More than 350 student workers are assigned here in what the school considers a learning lab for skills in the hospitality and food service industries.
The 95,000-square-foot rustic log lodge was built in 2004 and includes a hotel, restaurant, bakery, creamery scooping flavors made with fresh cream from the campus dairy, gift shop selling handcrafted student-made products and a conference center.
The hotel is inside the Keeter Center and is called Mabee Lodge. Its 15 suites range from traditional-sized hotel rooms to an 1,188-square-foot, two-bedroom unit. Students make and deliver a continental breakfast each morning and turn-down service features cookies and milk.
Dobyns Dining Room serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch with many ingredients provided by the college’s farms, dairy and mill. The restaurant employs an executive chef and about 80 students. When Zimmern visited, he ordered pork pomodoro made with campus-raised pork and campus cornmeal polenta, He also sampled the dinner special that night, sautéed chicken and gnocchi. Zimmern’s episode on Branson aired on the Travel Chanel on April 10 and will re-air on June 20.
Directly across from the Keeter Center is the campus public relations office. Stop there to get a map, then either walk or drive through the campus to see:
Ralph Foster Museum: Home of the original truck used in the television series “The Beverly Hillbillies,” this museum covers the history of the Ozarks region. Start your visit by watching a seven-minute introduction video, then make your way through three floors packed with artifacts including firearms, natural history exhibits and fine art. There’s also a one-room schoolhouse next to the museum. Students docents are stationed on each floor. Adults $6, seniors $5, students free. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Edwards Mill: This working mill is a replica of an 1800s water-powered grist mill. Take a tour or walk through the three floors on your own. One floor is a weaving studio where students design and weave baskets by hand and use traditional looms to create rugs, shawls and other textiles. They sell what they make, from textiles to freshly ground grains – biscuit, muffin and pancake mixes – and milk from the campus dairy.
Williams Memorial Chapel: This neo-Gothic chapel and bell tower was built by students and completed in 1956. It has an 80-foot vaulted ceiling and ornate stained-glass windows.
Point Lookout: Take a short walk from the chapel or Ralph Foster Museum for this panoramic view of the Ozark hills, Branson 76 highway and Lake Taneycomo.
Fruitcake & Jelly Kitchen: Stop by for a free sample of fruitcakes that have been made on campus since 1934. You can also tour the kitchen where they make 30,000 jars of jams, jellies, preserves, and apple butters a year. They are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, though tours are not available in November and December during peak production of their 25,000 annual fruitcakes.
Hoge Greenhouses: See more than 7,000 plants, including a large orchid collection. Individual orchids and houseplants are for sale.
Gaetz Tractor Museum: Half of this collection of antique tractors and farm equipment is in working condition. Items date as far back as 1910. Admission is free; hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Patriots Park: This park at the entrance to campus recently dedicated its Korean War Memorial and also includes Veterans Grove, the Missouri Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Missouri Gold Star Families Memorial and the World War II Flag Plaza. The memorials are open daily until 10 p.m.
College of the Ozarks
Where: 3 miles south of Branson in Point Lookout, Mo.
More information: Lodging and dining – keetercenter.edu; general college info – cofo.edu