The pastoral hills are also a haven for hate groups, authorities say. Southern Missouri has drawn more than its share of religious sects and white supremacists looking for a place to hide.
Last week, police arrested the Rev. Gordon Winrod--the leader of an anti-Semitic church--for allegedly kidnapping six of his grandchildren and concealing them for years at his farmhouse in the hills.
The children, ages 9 through 16, ended a four-day standoff with police by peacefully leaving the home last Saturday after urging from their grandfather, brought from jail in shackles and an orange jumpsuit.
The only explanation authorities offer for why the kids were kidnapped is that Winrod thought their two fathers were Jewish. Sheriff Steve Bartlett said the youngsters had been taught by their grandfather to distrust authorities.
At one point, the sheriff said, the children shouted at deputies, ``Get your Jew hands off me.''
Winrod, 73, and his followers gained a reputation in Ozark County for mass mailings of literature calling law enforcement officers and prosecutors ``Jewdicials''--a play on the word judicial--and claiming they cover up murders of whites.
It's not uncommon to find that kind of sentiment in some areas of the Ozarks, which straddles the state line between Missouri and Arkansas. Experts say the region draws hate groups and people connected to the white supremacist Christian Identity movement.
``We are rich in these types of groups down in this part of the country for some reason,'' Highway Patrol Sgt. Marty Elmore said. ``They seem to like this rugged and remote terrain where they can buy up lots of cheap land and get back there where people won't bother them too much.''
Southwest Missouri is often characterized by a lack of adequate law enforcement in rural areas and lacks a tradition of heavy-handed local government and gun control, said Robert Flanders, former director of the Center for Ozark Studies at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield.
``When I think of Ozark County, I always think of how the sheriff did not have a car until 1937,'' he said. ``The rivers weren't bridged and there was no real road system developed.''
Outlaws looking for cover in the backwoods--including such notorious villains as Bonnie and Clyde and Jesse James--were drawn to the area for those reasons, Flanders said.
Religious-based groups, typically those who shun the doctrines of mainstream churches, appreciate the quiet and reserved nature of fellow Ozarkers. ``There is a long tradition in the hills that you live and let live, no matter how weird the beliefs of your neighbors might be,'' Flanders said.
Both Springfield and Branson have seen national and regional supremacy conventions in the last year. In February, some 225 people gathered in Branson for the third annual convention of the Identity group Songs for His People.
``You're right in the middle of the Bible Belt, which plays an important role in the culture there,'' said Devin Burghart of the Chicago-based Identity watchdog group, Center for New Community.
Christian Identity espouses white Anglo-Saxon virtues and calls Jews, minorities and gays enemies of God. Some hard-core members believe in death sentences for those who violate ``God's law.''
In August, Identity follower Buford Furrow Jr. allegedly killed a Filipino-American postal worker and wounded five others after opening fire on a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles. A month earlier, two brothers--also Identity adherents--allegedly killed a gay couple in California and set fire to several synagogues.
Through the 1980s, the Identity movement became associated with other extremist groups, including The Order, the Ku Klux Klan and The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, or CSA.
Many residents here say they have felt intimidated by supremacist groups like CSA and Winrod's church. Most decline to be interviewed or ask not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
``These guys would wear fatigues and walk into the post office with guns strapped to their waists,'' said Tim Morgan, owner of a marina in Pontiac, a town of fewer than 300 not far from Gainesville. ``They were intimidating because they were so military-looking.''
Winrod's church, called Our Savior's, consisted mostly of his adult children, their families and a few other followers. The sheriff said Winrod began distributing his racist mailings to every county resident.
``People would call and complain about it, but there is nothing we could do--he had First Amendment rights,'' Bartlett said. ``We could only keep an eye on him.''