Bonniebrook Spring

plate 1.

Bonniebrook Spring

by Caleb Brubaker

The “bonnie brook” — for which this property just north of Branson is named — winds its way serenely through the rocks of the Ozark Mountains. Above the brook, an artist’s home — once situated upon a property of 140 acres — now shares a meager eight acres with a museum and courtyard commemorating that artist’s love of beauty. A cemetery here holds the bones of that artist, as well as those of her loved ones.

Bonniebrook was home of Rose O’Neill (June 25, 1876-April 6, 1944). O’Neill, though she received her greatest notoriety for the creation of the Kewpie Doll, was also a talented painter, sculptor and illustrator.

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Plate 2. The Bonniebrook Mansion. Plate 3. Gardens with “Faunness” sculpture at lower left.

O’Neill was a world-renowned artist of her time; and she was a captivatingly beautiful and an immensely rich woman. She was also a rather peculiar socialite who, it was said, could bring life to any party. She had a vision of finding beauty in a place that others could not quite see. Despite her popularity, she died in obscurity and poverty.

O’Neill, not originally from the Ozarks, came to Taney County as a transplant but soon she was dancing in the forests alongside the fairies of the hills; those selfsame hills in which she envisioned Kewpies — plump, cherubic, sometimes mischievous children — in their own “Kewpie Town.”

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Plates 4 and 5. Unique “fairy trails” meander through the gardens.

Eventually the Bonniebrook house was built on the property overlooking O’Neill’s “bonnie brook,” a bubbling miniature river that must have seemed a great torrent to the fairies of O’Neill’s vivid imagination. The house was built according a design made by Rose’s mother and features numerous bay windows because of the elder O’Neill’s delight in them. Sadly, the home burned in 1947. The building here now is a near-exact copy of the original house. The place was rebuilt in the 1980s by The Rose O’Neill Club (which then became the International Rose O’Neill Club Foundation). Now known as the Bonniebrook Historical Society, this is the same group which hosts the annual Bonniebrook Open House. 

The Open House is a time of celebrating Rose O’Neill’s art, her love for this beautiful place and her love of others’ art, craftsmanship and music. The event includes opening the house to the public and inviting guests to enjoy the museum and reception space located just uphill from the Bonniebrook house. 

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Plate 6. An old-style lacemaker at work. Plate 7. From left to right, Bo Brown and Melinda Mullins.

The notable things to see, besides the house, are a gallery devoted exclusively to Rose O’Neill’s art, handcrafted quilts displayed by Annette Fitzgerald, beautiful gardens landscaped by local master gardeners, acoustic music and even old-time lace makers.

Musician Bo Brown (multi-instrumentalist member of the folk music band Blackberry Winter) performed alongside Melinda Mullins. Blackberry Winter was featured on the soundtrack of the Oscar-nominated film Winter”s Bone. Mullins is daughter of Grammy-nominated songwriter Johnny Mullins. Johnny Mullins passed away in 2009. Tia Becker, professor of classical guitar at Drury University and longtime friend of the Mullins family, also performed.

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Plate 8. The art gallery is opened to guests. Plate 9. Tia Becker of Drury University.

After I witnessed some impressive playing, Becker sat and spoke with me for a moment about her friend Johnny. “He was really something special — the Buddha of the Ozarks,” She paused, thinking a moment about her old friend, before speaking with admiration. “He was such a successful songwriter and he could’ve played the game. He could have moved to Nashville but he chose to stay where he was and continue being a janitor at a school because he just loved the interaction with the kids.” Becker said that was indicative of Mullins’ character. “He was just a humble and thoughtful man.” No doubt this thoughtfulness helped lead Mullins to his success and it’s this thoughtfulness his daughter, Melinda Mullins, admired about her father. She has worked hard to organize The Johnny Mullins Collection, gathered to bring public attention to a large body of his unreleased writings and songs.

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Plates 8 and 9.

O’Neill was a poet as well. Award-winning poet Lee Ann Russell — assisted by friend and fellow poet Larry Cummings — shared a selection of their own and O’Neill’s works. Russell was invited after the Bonniebrook Historical Society caught wind of a poem she wrote following a Bonniebrook visit. Inspired by the same forest that inspired O’Neill — and reminded by O’Neill’s grave that she “lives now, and O’Neill lived long ago” — Russell shared a poem entitled Bonniebrook as the grand finale of her presentation. Russell and Cummings respectfully celebrated the love of art Rose O’Neill held dear to her heart, sharing a little of her creativity, as well as their own. 

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Plate 10 The grave of Rose O’Neill. Plate 11. Out on the gravel, Rose O’Neill’s name is on the mailbox.

The Bonniebrook grounds are gorgeous and meticulously kept, creating an environment of peaceful beauty. The effervescent sounds of the glittering brook bubble nearby. Birds chirp in the trees. A squirrel rustles through the leaves. There is little doubt the fairies of O’Neill’s imagination are here as well, silent, playfully fleeing one’s gaze. This is a gentle place, still a haven of gentle souls, just as it was in O’Neill’s time. These seasonal Open Houses help showcase the brilliance of this largely forgotten artist and keep her legacy from shifting into obscurity.

April 23, 2016

Bonniebrook Spring: State of the Ozarks

Photo credits: Caleb Brubaker, April 16, 2016

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