@story TONYA MCCOY
@image COURTESY THE KEETER CENTER
People from the Ozark hills were born into hard work. Settlers came to the wilderness and chipped out a living by the sweat of their brows. They worked farms, milked cows, built log cabins. In the small town of Hollister, Missouri, one school honors this tradition today. Students at the College of the Ozarks cultivate greenhouses, operate milking machines in their dairy, and they’ve even built a hotel/log lodge called The Keeter Center, that’s drawn visitors from all over the country. Former president George W. Bush, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and General Colin Powell, are just a few to visit the nationally renowned school and center.
As you drive into Hollister, a three-story wooden lodge appears on a hilltop. The Keeter Center, which houses a hotel, restaurant, and conference center, is eye-catching with large round ponderosa pine walls and fountains that shower onto pools of gray rock. You step inside and the roof of the first floor juts down to give the illusion of another cabin within the lodge. This floor houses Dobyns Dining Hall, and a gift shop that sells stained glass, jellies, pottery, fruitcakes, handwoven baskets, and milled grain products, all made by C of O students. The giant lobby opens to reveal two higher stories of hotel suites connected by a glass elevator that glides up beside a goliath fireplace with a three-story stone chimney.
Elegance meets rustic history in this giant lodge that boasts nearly 100,000 square feet. The design comes from a much smaller old Maine lodge that was on exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. A group of physicians dismantled it and rebuilt it here in Hollister to be used as a hunting lodge. Just a few miles away, a Presbyterian missionary named James Forsythe had built a high school called the School of the Ozarks, where students received a Christian high school education in trade for labor to keep the school running. A couple of years after the school was built, it was destroyed by fire. The school administration discovered the physicians’ hunting lodge and made the owners an offer with their insurance money from the fire. The doctors hadn’t used it as much as they had hoped, so they were happy to sell it. And from there the school got its new start in Hollister. In the 1950s the high school changed to a college, keeping its belief in Christianity and its labor for education policy.
“What really makes it neat is the fact that students actually built the building [The Keeter Center]. I think that’s where the connection for visitors is as they enter this facility. It’s magnificent. But when you start to realize that the students, or the alumni at this point, pieced together this lodge, that’s where it makes it so much more than just a log building,” says Tom Healey, The Keeter Center’s General Manager.
The center opened in 2004, and because Hollister is so close to Branson, many tourists choose to stay at The Keeter Center’s hotel, Mabee Lodge. The suites are made for pampering, with private fireplaces, individual balconies, kitchen and living areas, king size beds, robes and whirlpool tubs. Guests enjoy turn-down service with homemade cookies and milk from the college’s dairy, and also a room service breakfast of choice. And talk about breathing room, the suites range from six hundred to twelve hundred square feet in size. In the Presidential suites, there are two bedrooms and two bathrooms, which is perfect for a family stay.
Here, at the college’s most exquisite example of craftsmanship, 240 students work their way through school. No student pays tuition. Instead they work on campus at places like the Mabee Lodge or Dobyns Dining Hall. In the restaurant, students wishing to learn about natural foods and preparing high quality cuisine are taught by on site culinary staff.
“All is made from scratch. We don’t buy or have any premade items. We employ pastry chefs along with the students to produce all of our fresh baked goods… You can buy really nice products out there, but they’re not from scratch and that’s what we pride ourselves in,” says Tom.
Carrying a plate full of hot biscuits and homemade apple butter, a waitress nicknamed Liz Arkansas (Elizabeth Wiley) walks through Dobyns Dining Hall. She glides the plate down onto the white linen table cloth. She’s smiling and making light conversation despite her heavily bandaged arm. “I got pushed down and now I have a fractured wrist. So my Black Friday experience will never happen again.”
But her will to earn her degree and fulfill her responsibilities to the college is stronger than her injury and she doesn’t miss a step as she works from table to table. Another student walks to a piano by the fireplace, flips through a few pages of music and begins to play.
“It’s getting to the point where families can’t afford to send their kids to school, and this is an opportunity for them. Every year more and more kids try to get into school here, because every year, school is getting more expensive for families,” says Liz.
Some students have travelled from as far as New Guinea, San Andreas Island, and Indonesia. Most international students hear about the C of O from American Christian missionaries. For the most part though, students are from nearby, mainly from the Ozarks plateau area.
Liz is from Flippin Arkansas, and her mother and father assemble eyeglasses for Success Vision. She has two brothers and four sisters. Her parents have already paid for two sisters to go to other colleges. Liz didn’t want her parents to have to pay for her school so she applied to C of O and is working her way to her degree in Early Childhood Education. “Every day I count my blessings for me being able to go to school here, because I don’t think my family could afford me to go somewhere else.”
Along with a bachelor’s degree, Liz will take with her some pretty amazing memories from the college. She received a kiss on the cheek and was able to briefly speak with former President George W. Bush while waiting his table in 2011. She remembers when she and a group of fellow waitresses asked Sarah Palin if she used a bump-it to get her perfect hair in 2009. “She doesn’t. It’s all natural!” laughs Liz. But her most memorable college experience is when she was able to accompany WWII veterans on a trip to Hawaii, paid for by the college. “It was the best thing ever. Not [the trip to] Hawaii, but those men. They’re awesome. That’s something that a normal college student would not get to experience anywhere else.”
nd College of the Ozarks is anything but normal. Students get an education that was named number six out of one hundred of America’s Top College Buys by Forbes Magazine in 2011. As for you, well you can get a luxurious stay at an elegant hotel at a bargain of a price.
Suites at Mabee Lodge range from $189 to $299. Dining at Dobyns Hall ranges from only about $10 to $20. For reservations or more information on The Keeter Center log onto keetercenter.edu. For more information about College of the Ozarks log on to cofo.edu.