The Johnny Morris Story
We take a closer look at Top of the Rock, its impact on local tourism and the man who built it all: Johnny Morris. Get to know Johnny, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, Big Cedar Lodge, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, Top of the Rock and more.
By Savannah Waszczuk
There's a sense of sincerity in Johnny Morris's voice as he tells his story of falling in love with the Ozarks and its rich history.
He speaks slowly and thoughtfully, recalling events that happened more than 50 years ago almost as if they just happened yesterday. “I grew up fishing on the rivers here with my dad and my mom’s brother, Uncle Buck,” says Johnny, who turned 66 this year. “One time I was on a float trip with my father, and when I went to get our truck, I cut across a field. It was after a spring rain, and a farmer had just plowed, and I looked down and saw an arrowhead sitting there.” Johnny goes on—the passion building in his voice—to describe everything he felt at that very second. “That just really captivated me,” he says, almost lost in the moment. “It got to me. I started thinking, ‘What was life like when the person made this point? What was wildlife like? What was fishing like?’ I was standing there in my jeans and my tennis shoes just thinking, ‘What did they wear? Did they have on a deer skin crop? Or maybe a buffalo hide? What were they really like?’”
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Fast forward five decades, and now Johnny is the owner of Bass Pro Shops, Tracker Boats, Big Cedar Lodge, Integrity Hills, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park and—his most recent creation—Top of the Rock. All of them have not only enriched the lives of 417-landers but also played a huge part in bringing state- and nation-wide tourists to southwest Missouri. And although his outdoorsy empire has flourished since that spring day some 50 years ago, not much about Johnny has changed. This guy is truly fueled by sharing his love of the outdoors and telling the story of what life was like long ago.
What is now an outdoor enthusiast’s dream on the shores of Table Rock Lake began with a simple passion for fishing. Johnny has been fishing in 417-land waterways since he was a child. “When I was about 10 years old, I went to the opening of Table Rock Dam with my grandfather,” Johnny says. “We watched the first water come up over the dam. It really changed the habitat for fishing here. A lot of our favorite places on the river went away, but it created a whole new fishery.” As he grew through high school and college, so did his love of the sport. “In 1970, I was going to school at SMS—or I was supposed to be—but I was also fishing a lot,” Johnny says with a laugh. “During the first national B.A.S.S. [Bass Anglers Sportsman Society] tournament, I met fishermen from all over the country. I knew when I went to that tournament that all I wanted to do was fish or be around fishing.” This inspired Johnny to rent a U-Haul trailer, travel across the country and fill it with the newest and most exceptional fishing tackle he could find. When he returned to Springfield, he started selling the tackle out of his dad’s Brown Derby Liquor Store. It was a hit, becoming popular for anglers who visited on their way to 417-land lakes, and they began calling Johnny even after they returned home to ask him to send them some of his specialized gear. To feed the growing demand, the first Bass Pro Shops catalog was created in 1974. And in 1978, the same year he turned 30, Johnny created and sold Bass Tracker, the industry’s first fully accessorized, ready-to-fish boat, motor and trailer package.
In 1981, nearly 10 years after he originally opened Bass Pro Shops in the back of that Brown Derby store, Morris opened a Bass Pro Shops outdoor destination store in Springfield. Since then, the company has grown exponentially, and Bass Pro Shops has even been named one of the Top 10 Hottest Brands in America along with M&Ms, iPad, Droid and others by Advertising Age magazine. According to Katie Mitchell, the communications manager for Bass Pro Shops Group, it’s also among the top tourist destinations in Missouri and one of the most popular outdoor retailers in the world. The 90 retail stores and Tracker Marine Centers across America and Canada host 116 million people per year. (Editor's Note: Bass Pro Shops has acquired Cabela's since the publication of this article.)
But back in 1982, just as Johnny was in the thick of growing Bass Pro Shops and Tracker Boats, he met his wife, Jeanie. “I was actually friends with his sisters, and we met through them,” Jeanie says. “John was a bachelor, and he stayed busy fishing and building his business.” But as busy as he may have been, he still took time to take Jeanie on some unforgettable dates that she still laughs about. “When we first started dating, he had this old wallet,” she says. “It was a green nylon wallet with a Bass Pro logo on it, and it had Velcro. Well, it always made that ‘ripppppp’ sound when he was getting ready to pay for dinner,” she says. Jeanie bought Johnny a new leather wallet as a gift when the two spent their first Christmas together. “He said, ‘Oh, this is cool…’” Jeanie says. “Well, he carried it for about two months, and then he goes, ‘Hon, can I get my old wallet back?’” Now, 32 years later, Johnny still carries that same Velcro wallet. “It still rips open—it’s a mess!,” Jeanie says. Her voice beams with pride as she talks about her husband, and it’s obvious that she now knows that old wallet, along with many other quirks, make Johnny the man she’s been in love with for more than 30 years. “He’s very friendly and very down-to-earth,” Jeanie says. “He’s just such a good guy. I really got lucky.”
Building a Tourism Empire
Tracker Marine Group, which manufactures and sells a variety of boats for fishing and cruising, has produced the No. 1 selling brand of fishing boats for more than 36 years. But long before Tracker Boats became so popular, and just a few years after he began selling them, Johnny decided it would be nice to let customers try out their new purchases. “He said, ‘Well, these people are all coming to Springfield to pick up their boats, and I’d love to have a place to host them, so they could put their boats in the water,’” Jeanie says. He began to search for properties on nearby Table Rock Lake. “One Sunday, he said he was going down to the lake for a land auction,” Jeanie says. In the meantime, she noticed an ad in the newspaper for a piece of land nearby. “I called him and told him about it, so he could see it while he was there,” she says. The auction deal didn’t work out, but Johnny fell in love with the property Jeanie had found. “He called me up and said, ‘Hon, I love that place you found!,’” Jeanie says. “Then he took me out there, and I thought, ‘Oh goodness. What did I do? This is in the middle of nowhere, and every building has a different architecture.’” Not sure why Johnny was so intrigued by the land, Jeanie asked him what they’d do to it. “He said, ‘Oh, just some fresh paint and new TVs,’” Jeanie says. They bought the place, and it has since evolved into Big Cedar Lodge.
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After purchasing the Big Cedar Lodge property in 1987, Johnny was inspired by the beauty of Table Rock Lake and his own childhood memories of family fishing trips, so he forfeited his plans of being a fishing host and instead created a place for families to reconnect with nature. Today, Big Cedar is fully equipped for families with first-class rooms, cabins and lodges, fine dining restaurants, spa services, swimming pools, golf courses and, of course, an unbeatable lake-front setting. And it has gained quite the reputation over the years, being named one of the world’s best family hotels in the company of big names such as Ritz-Carlton, Disney, Four Seasons and more by Travel + Leisure. It has also been recognized as the No. 2 Top Resort in the Midwest by Conde Nast Traveler, the Best of the Best by The Wall Street Journal and one of the Top 10 Resorts in the Country by Southern Living, among other accolades.
In 1990, Johnny continued to expand his resume of properties when he acquired the first parcels of the land that are now Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. Located in Lampe, Dogwood Canyon is a 10,000-acre park that attracts local and national visitors to 417-land by offering hiking, biking, trout fishing, 3D archery, tours and more. “I wanted to create a nature park where I could bring back some buffalo and elk that were native to the area and also have a place for people to fish and hike,” Johnny says.
When you lump Dogwood Canyon with Big Cedar Lodge and Johnny’s newest property, Top of the Rock, the three greatly contribute to southwest Missouri’s tourism and, in turn, economic health. “These three destinations help shine a spotlight on southwest Missouri and the natural beauty of the Ozarks,” says Missouri Division of Tourism Director Katie Steele Danner.
“When you have a resort property like Big Cedar, which is an outdoors enthusiast’s dream come true, paired with attractions like those at Dogwood Canyon and Top of the Rock, you’re offering guests a truly exceptional experience. And what’s great is, those experiences are found only in Missouri, and they are the kinds of unique opportunities travelers seek.” In turn, this helps the overall economic well-being of the entire region. “While travelers may tour or visit these sites specifically, they’re also eating at local restaurants, staying at local lodging establishments and using other local services,” Steele Danner says. “All of those activities generate revenue for local business while also providing jobs for working Missourians.” Sheila Thomas, the Executive Director of the Table Rock Lake Chamber of Commerce, agrees that the attractions bring a plethora of business to 417-land. “We feel extremely fortunate that Johnny Morris has chosen to build some of his signature properties on Table Rock Lake,” she says. “I think that he has really helped in putting Table Rock Lake on the radar for a lot of potential visitors. He helped elevate it to a new level.”
The Birth of Top of the Rock
While building up his businesses both locally and nationally, Johnny’s life has always been on-the-go, and he’s regularly meeting new people and forming new relationships. “Somewhere along the way, I got to meet a grand gentleman by the name of Dr. M. Graham Clark,” Johnny says. “He was the president of Hard Work U—College of the Ozarks.” Johnny and Dr. Clark became dear friends. As Dr. Clark and his wife got up in their years, the college offered to allow them to live on the campus. “They were going to sell their home,” Johnny says. “They owned 243 acres where Top of the Rock is.”
The nature enthusiast in Johnny loved the idea of owning the property, which sits at the highest point in Taney County and commands a bluff overlooking the ruggedly serene Ozark Mountains and Table Rock Lake. Also, it’s located just minutes from Big Cedar Lodge, which made it even more appealing for Johnny. “He told me he paid $5 an acre for that land when he bought it in the 1940s, but he sure didn’t sell it to me for that,” Johnny says, laughing. “But, besides making sure he got a fair price, Dr. Clark really cared a lot about his land. We walked over every inch of that property before he agreed to sell it to me. He showed me some springs and some caves and some big trees, and that’s how I really got my attachment to it.”
After purchasing the property, Johnny asked Jeanie what she would like to do with it. “He asked me, ‘Hon, do you want to live there, or do you want to make it a restaurant,’” Jeanie says. “We have four kids, and they were all in school at Springfield at the time, so I said, ‘Let’s make it a restaurant.’” Then in 1995, the original Top of the Rock was born, offering 417-landers fine dining with a side of world-class views. But there was a fire at the restaurant in June 2005, and Top of the Rock closed. For the following several years, the restaurant’s plans to reopen were rather hush hush. “People would say, ‘What the heck is taking so long to open that restaurant after a pizza fire?’” Johnny says.
The Big Reveal
After much anticipation and speculation from 417-landers, Johnny Morris’ Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve reopened in June 2014, and it became obvious what took so long: What used to be a single restaurant is now an entire 462-acre property with four restaurants, a 2.5-mile nature trail and cave, a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, a practice course designed by Arnold Palmer, a Himalayan putting green designed by Tom Watson, a natural history museum, an all-American wine cellar, a chapel, a cabin and countless jaw-dropping views of Table Rock Lake and the surrounding landscape. And while this landscape could be considered the star of the show, each and every building of Top of the Rock competes. Everything was created with much thought and attention to detail. Every single beam on the property was carefully hung, and each and every one of the thousands of stones was placed with the utmost care. Everything is precisely manicured, and it all goes together to create a truly picture-perfect masterpiece. It all just seems to belong, exactly as it is.
While many people credit Johnny for the breathtaking creation, he’s quick to shift the spotlight. “Top of the Rock was—more than anything—created from passion, and a shared passion of a lot of great craftsmen, a lot of them from right here,” Johnny says. “Over the years, while working on our stores and down at Big Cedar Lodge, we’ve come to know a lot of remarkable craftsmen.” Johnny noted a few individuals who played huge roles in the creation of the property, including general manager Tim Smith, metal worker Tim Burrows, three generations of stone masons in the Blevins family and Danny Schwartz and his family, who did much of the wood work and even moved Arnie’s Barn from its original location in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, along with contractors Gary Shaver and Jim Wolfenberger. “Hopefully, people can see the heartfelt attention to detail and passion from these craftsmen and the many others who really put all their energy and years of training and talent to work at Top of the Rock,” Johnny says. “Hopefully it’s something that will be here for people to enjoy for a long time to come.”
The Man Without a Plan
Perhaps the most mind-boggling part of Top of the Rock, aside from how such a breathtakingly beautiful place exists right here in southwest Missouri, is that it and all of its parts were created without any real set of plans. “When the original Top of the Rock closed after the fire, the chef said, ‘Well, we really need a whole new kitchen,’” Jeanie says. “Well, one thing led to another, and here we are.” And Johnny seconds that fact. “I don’t know that we had any sort of architectural plans,” he says. “We just started off with a passion.” But, the truth behind the matter is, this wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary for a Morris project. That’s just the way Johnny works. “He always knows what he’s doing, but the process he uses to get there is totally different than most people,” Jeanie says. “He’s very hands-on.”
He’s so hands on, in fact, that he spent hundreds of enjoyable hours hiking and marking out the Lost Canyon Nature Trail to bring visitors into close contact with dramatic natural features. “He’d go out there with those little flags and fluorescent ties and mark which trees they could take out and where the trail would be,” Jeanie says. “He loves doing that stuff.” And to help capture the most scenic views possible, he also personally located each structure and approved every view from every window. “When he’s building something, they almost always do a mock up,” Jeanie says. “Then he goes out there and gets a forklift to get up and check the view from every opening and every window. He’s a nut about views.” He also approves all other decisions, small and large, on everything from the design to the décor.
But Johnny’s hands-on approach expands far beyond marking trails, approving views and okaying paint colors. In fact, he’s had a part in nearly every other feature at every single building of Top of the Rock, including finding many of the artworks, artifacts and thousands of arrowheads displayed in the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum. “My wife says she’s going to put me in AA—Arrowheads Anonymous,” Johnny says with a laugh. “We had a collection over at Dogwood, but then the building burned down, and we lost them. I started thinking it would be pretty neat to share this new collection, but I didn’t want to lose them like the old ones, so we put it all underground.”
This desire to share these many artifacts, shows the true face of Johnny’s character: Jeanie says sharing is an underlying goal in everything he does. “People ask us, you know, ‘Why not just build your own retreat?’” Jeanie says. “Well, that’s not the way he works. He wants to share everything.” And perhaps the most charming part is that he’s quiet and humble, and he never wants to take any of the credit for himself.
At press time, Johnny had an estimated net worth of $4.3 billion according to Forbes.com, but you would never know it. He is a man who is most comfortable in jeans and a familiar frayed green corduroy shirt. He’s more than content driving his well-worn Toyota pick-up truck, and he’s the kind of guy who would rather rent golf clubs than splurge on a set of his own. His true passion doesn’t lie in flaunting his money while wearing thousand-dollar suits; rather, it lies in sharing his fortunes with everyone else, including his many properties. “I think where Top of the Rock sits now—overlooking the lake—is one of the grandest views in the Ozarks,” Johnny says. “To me, the most important thing is that, when visitors come here, they can see and appreciate that hilltop and enjoy all the views and the surrounding nature.” And as for what’s next on his agenda, it’s hard to know exactly, but one thing is for sure: He isn’t going anywhere. “I’ve been blessed to travel a lot of places, but I think we’re all lucky to live right here,” Johnny says. “This is one of the most special places around.”
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