This article was originally published in our June 2021 issue. 

McDonald County locals were understandably skeptical when Twentieth Century-Fox announced in the summer of 1938 it planned to film the bulk of its Jesse James movie in Pineville and the surrounding countryside.

Within a month, though, lead actor Tyrone Power arrived with director Henry King, and Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan, and the rest of the cast and crew soon followed. For the next six weeks McDonald County was the most popular place in the Ozarks.

Two decades later, McDonald County made headlines again when it famously threatened to secede from the state after three of its towns—Noel, Pineville, and Southwest City—were left off the family vacation guide printed on the back of the official 1961 state highway map. Outraged residents protested and made tongue-in-cheek threats to secede from the state, which drew national attention to the tourism possible in the area. See the full story about this incident on our website: MissouriLife.com/divided-we-stand.

Lodge at Little Sugar Farm in Jane, which occupies 376 acres of pasture, woods, and creeks and has been in the same family for more than one hundred years. Sisters Jana and Niki inherited the property from their grandparents and renovated the 2,800-square foot farmhouse as a vacation rental, which accommodates ten or more. For more rustic lodging, choose one of four safari tents with queen-sized beds, chandeliers, and electricity. They sleep up to four and include amenities like a fire pit, shower house, and outdoor kitchen. Three portable bell tents come with twin beds.

There are at least a dozen campgrounds scattered throughout the county, many of them along the Elk River, Big Sugar Creek, and Indian Creek.

Dine at Haven 55 Restaurant and Tavern near Pineville, located on the site of the old Havenhurst Mill. The restaurant and patio overlook a dam on Little Sugar Creek that once provided electricity to the area. Executive Chef Alan Bone opened the “casual fine dining” restaurant with his brother, Brian, in 2012. Open for lunch and dinner (reservations recommended), the menu features sandwiches like the Croque Monsieur and entrees like the Haven 55 Chicken sautéed in baby portobello cream sauce.

The Cave Bar & Grill in Lanagan occupies the former Truitt’s Cave Dining Chamber that opened in 1940. Eat inside the cave or on the outdoor patio under a cliff. In the southeastern corner of the county, Whistling Springs Brewing Company offers gluten-free and traditional beer options with about twenty varieties on tap. The company also won a gold medal in 2020 for its root beer. There’s wood-fired pizza, too. Tall Pines Distillery in Pineville is the county’s first legal distillery since Prohibition and features flavored moonshine.

Located on the site of an old mill, Haven 55 Restaurant and Tavern in Pineville sits on the bank of Little Sugar Creek. While dining on the patio, you may see a great blue heron named Mortimer who frequently visits the area.

Visit Bluff Dwellers Cave in Noel, which has been open for tours since 1927 and is still owned by the same family. Sealed for thousands of years after a landslide, artifacts and skeletal remains found there indicate it was previously used by indigenous cultures. There’s a museum and gift shop on site.

The old courthouse on the Pineville square now houses a museum operated by the county historical society; it’s open on Fridays and Saturdays June through December. There are entire rooms dedicated to the Jesse James movie and the county’s secession movement.