Remains of Dogpatch, U.S.A., a defunct theme park near Harrison, Ark., fill the Ozark hills.
MARBLE FALLS, Ark. — The hilltop sign still stands, resolutely pointing passersby to Dogpatch, U.S.A. Instead of fun, however, its peeling paint advertises something else: That times have changed for defunct theme park, a destination that in the past could draw 9,000 people in one day.
The park, themed around the comic strip Li’l Abner, saw an optimistic start in 1968. Its owners were sure that growth would continue; confident that it would reach 1.2 million visitors annually within 10 years.
The vintage relic still points travelers to Dogpatch.
That didn’t happen. After troubling seasons, attempted fixes and numerous owners, the park closed for good in 1993. It’s slid a slow decline ever since.
Today, its buildings decorate the valley in shadowed-hues of their former selves. Most of the rides are long gone. Its current owner, however, still has hope that it can reopen as a hub for local artisans.
But that may not happen — because, like that billboard, there’s a sign nearby that tells something else. That, once again, Dogpatch is for sale.
Wandering through the park.
While Dogpatch’s future is a mystery, its past is rich with history. According to C.L. “Bud” Pelsor, one of the park’s owners, Native Americans were the first to live within the park’s boundaries.
“They inhabited this valley here for who knows how long,” says Pelsor, listing the land’s resources, which included good food and water supplies, ample shelter and a south-facing bluff. “The first deed recorded on this property in the state of Arkansas was to a Choctaw Indian.”
But then the Trail of Tears came through — and so did white settlers. “It was a trading settlement that eventually got overtaken by the white people, and it became an incorporated town, Marble City, in 1840,” says Pelsor.
During those years, resources — including a cotton gin, as well as grist and saw mills — were built, and all powered from the same water source. “They built a race off of the falls, and they powered a 32-foot wheel that set in … rock that split from the bluff,” he says.
During that period, Marble City even netted a national claim to fame. According to a 1961 article in the Camden News, “three blocks of marble from this area helped form the Washington Monument.” Today, a historic monument notes the event for perpetuity.
That town eventually became known as Wilcockson, a name which stuck from the late 1800s through the 1930s. During that time, a nearby cave was discovered and named Mystic Caverns. It began operating commercially by 1928.
Wilcockson, however, faded away. It wasn’t until 1934 when the town was back: This time, it was named Marble Falls in honor of the nearby water source, gushing down into a gorge below. Less than 10 years later, the area’s attraction for tourists grew when Albert Raney Sr., the town’s postmaster, started a trout farm.
One of the park’s dams, built during its trout farm days, can be seen from the vintage mill.
That trout farm ultimately saw the start of Dogpatch. In 1966, Raney put it up for sale: He listed with O.J. Snow, a local realtor, who worked to sell the property — and an idea.
Snow decided that the site would be perfect for an amusement park with a Li’l Abner theme.
After all, in those days, the comic strip was extremely popular. Begun in 1934, the hill-folk filled strip — featuring the likes of Li’l Abner, Daisy Mae, Mammy and Pappy Yokum — quickly found an enthusiastic audience. According to lil-abner.com, it grew to a circulation of 60,000,000 and even prompted the creation of a Broadway musical and two subsequent film adaptations.
Snow’s notion was reinforced by the society’s affection for hillbilly entertainment. The success of television shows, including “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” and “Petticoat Junction,” made Li’l Abner seem like a natural fit.
Take a tour
Those factors led Snow and nine other Harrison businessmen — organized as Recreations Enterprises, Inc. (REI) — to buy the property and start the park, which was officially announced in January 1967.
“The promoters plan to build a city of Dogpatch with log cabins and rough pine buildings, housing craft shops in which employees will demonstrate pioneer skills and sell their products,” wrote the Northwest Arkansas Times in January 1967. The newspaper also noted that tourist rides would include a narrow-gauge steam train, a Dogpatch trolley, a horse-drawn swing, paddle boats and canoes, a stagecoach, a surrey and a burrow pack train.
Not everyone was thrilled by the news, especially those who believed Arkansas shouldn’t brand itself with a hillbilly image. Bob Evans, director of the Arkansas Publicity and Parks Commission, was one of those individuals.
“Evans said that the state had outgrown the image created by the late Bob Burns, whose hillbilly comic radio program won him wide fame,” recorded the Hope Star in January 1967. “Evans said he objected to anything that would tarnish Arkansas’ new image as a progressive state.”
Despite such sentiments, many others felt differently. “People visiting Arkansas from more sophisticated areas find refinement in the very simple, natural aspects of the great wealth Arkansas has to offer, and our idea is that this very rural ‘hillbilly’ aspect offers great charm and attractions,” wrote Lisa Breckenridge in a letter to the Times in January 1967.
Someone else was pretty excited about the plans, too. Al Capp, the artist behind the comic strip, quickly gave the project his blessing and became invested as a stockholder. His enthusiasm for the concept only grew greater after seeing the site in person.
Al Capp and his wife visited Arkansas for Dogpatch’s groundbreaking in 1967.
(Courtesy of the Northwest Arkansas Times)
“It’s all so much more authentic that I’m going to change the comic to resemble this,” said Capp in the Times in October 1967. He also noted that, of all the by-products of his Li’l Abner strip, Dogpatch was what made him most proud.
“This is the one which will finally gain me some respect from my grandchildren, who until now have always thought of me as a silly man who just draws pictures.”
He voiced those words on the park’s groundbreaking day in the fall of 1967. The ceremony officially kicked off work on project, which would be spread over approximately 800 acres and cost $3 million.
Tracks were laid, and a tunnel made, for Dogpatch’s visitors.
It didn’t take long before Dogpatch was ready for visitors. Although it was only about halfway complete, the park’s opening day was held on May 18, 1968.
Capp, who resided in Boston, Mass., came back for the occasion and was quoted calling it “the greatest urban renewal project I’ve ever seen,” by the Star. “The attitude of the people is something you can’t touch. They made it all come true.”
While a reality in the physical sense, Dogpatch was further recognized as “real” later that month, when the Board on Geographic Names of the Department of Interior officially approved Dogpatch, Ark., as a real community served by the Marble Falls post office.
The park saw rapid success, quickly bolstering area’s summer tourism scene. In addition to the gimmicks tied to the Li’l Abner connection — including characters meandering its streets and a square complete with a statue of Jubilation T. Cornpone — the park carried an authentic Ozarks feel. One example was Mystic Caverns, renamed Dogpatch Caverns, which was improved and tied to the park.
The town square, complete with Jubilation T. Cornpone (and a roof-top goat) in 1969. (Courtesy of Dogpatch U.S.A.)
Additionally, the park’s buildings were noteworthy in and of themselves. “Many old log cabins which were built by homesteaders who used hand-hewn logs, are being carefully moved and reconstructed at Dogpatch,” noted columnist Allan Gilbert, Jr., in the Times in 1968. One building of particular note was the Peter Beller Mill, which was restored in the exact spot it was built during the town’s early days.
All in all, Dogpatch was something visitors wanted to see.
Fading into the brush.
“Dogpatch reports an attendance of something like 75,000 in the last two months, and the park didn’t open officially until June (May?) 18,” recorded the Times in July 1968. “A week ago a number of Harrison motel operators, faced with hordes of tourists they couldn’t begin to take care of, joined with Chamber leaders in seeking a reservoir of private rooms around town to handle the crush. A central clearing house will be created to handle reservations, at least for the balance of the summer season.”
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, 300,000 visitors were reported during the park’s first year.
Challenges to overcome
The dock, complete with capsized, log boats.
Those were the days of Dogpatch’s sweet success, when it stood “a good chance of becoming one of the nation’s biggest tourist attractions,” wrote an editorial in the Times in 1968. The editorial also noted that $100,000 was netted the first season, with a projected gross of around $12 million in around six years. “If that’s a reasonable estimate, and we have no cause to doubt it, the rest of Northwest Arkansas had better start rounding out their own tourist facilities to take advantage of the crowd.”
That projected growth came with a change in ownership. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, local businessman Jess Odom bought controlling interest from REI in 1968, giving him clear leadership of the park. “He was the motor behind the boat,” says Pelsor. “He was the one who basically got this place running.”
The next year, Odom brought Orval E. Faubus, former six-term governor of Arkansas, on board as president of Dogpatch.
“The former governor said he wanted the job because he believes that development of the tourist industry represents one of the best methods of improving Arkansas’ economy,” reported the Times in January 1969, which noted that Faubus would travel to other states to help with the park’s publicity. “He said he will stay out of politics as long as he is connected with Dogpatch.”
(Faubus didn’t last long at the park. The next year, he bowed out when he decided to run in the gubernatorial primary, a race he did not win.)
Less than a year after Dogpatch opened, plans for major expansion were already in the works. In January 1969, the Times noted that Odom planned to quickly invest “several million dollars” in Dogpatch’s development, and that $350,000 worth of new rides would be installed at the park before it reopened for the season in May 1969.
The Wild Water Rampage remains.
Odom’s influence continued to grow: He bought out most of the remaining REI partners by 1972. That same year, plans were announced for Marble Falls, Dogpatch’s sister park, which the Star noted would be “a highly unique snow-skiing and convention facility which will offer a variety of seasonal attractions the year round.”
While well-intentioned, Pelsor says such efforts ultimately sabotaged Dogpatch’s success — and other factors seemed to follow.
“It cost them over $3 million … to build (Marble Falls’ ski lodge) and they were open two seasons,” he says. “And I don’t know how many days they were open each season, but it wasn’t many. That started things going a little downhill.”
Dogpatch’s profits also hurt its success. Instead of reinvesting them in its early years, Pelsor says that Odom needed the cash for other projects. That choice forced the hand of the other businessmen, who were mandated to take a cut, too. “In a C corporation, if you’re going to pay yourself a dividend, everybody’s going to get a dividend,” says Pelsor.
Society didn’t help, either. The hillbilly themes that were so popular when Dogpatch began were quickly fading. “America was transitioning to a different lifestyle,” says Pelsor. “Hillbilly-backwoods was going out of style, and more upscale television shows were coming on.”
The park’s “Kissin’ Rocks” sculpture is one of few themed elements still at Dogpatch.
Of course, competition with hour-away Silver Dollar City — a theme park also founded on the site of a former village and connected with a cave — didn’t help matters.
“They anticipated 10,000 people a day here everyday, and it never did get that,” says Pelsor of Dogpatch. “It got close. I think 9,000 was the closest they ever got, and it wasn’t everyday.”
Another nail in the coffin came in 1977, when Capp retired his comic strip. Two years later, he passed away.
“Li’l Abner died with Al Capp,” says Pelsor. “You had a theme park with all the characters dead.”
The Fish Hut
Less than a decade after it began, Dogpatch was in dire straits. The rest of its life was a complicated, convoluted mess: Bankruptcy was involved, it passed through various owners, and was eventually chopped up. Mystic Caverns, still open today, was sold in 1981.
Eventually, Dogpatch closed in 1993.
“There were a lot of mistakes. Bad judgement calls,” Pelsor says, pausing. “I don’t know that they could’ve made good ones. The United States was going through some serious transitions in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.”
The Riverbend Music Show hasn’t played in quite some time.
Even though Dogpatch has been closed for nearly 25 years, it hasn’t been void of activity. The park, often due to debt, has changed hands several times.
It also faced controversy in 2005, when a man was hit in the throat by a neck-high steel cable while riding an all-terrain vehicle across the property. The man, identified as Pruitt Nance by the Harrison Daily Times, was awarded a $650,000 judgement. However, when owners didn’t pay, the park’s deed was handed over in lieu of cash in 2011.
Three years later, Pelsor came into the picture.
A former millwright and brain behind “Buddy Bowl,” a spill-proof dog bowl, Pelsor never visited Dogpatch while it was open. He did pass it by, however, while keeping up with family connections in Pelsor, Ark. And when he was quietly notified that the park was for sale, he decided to see if he could write its next chapter.
C.L. “Bud” Pelsor, one of Dogpatch’s owners
According to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette, he and business associate James Robertson purchased the remainder of the property in 2014 for around $2 million with hopes of transforming it into an eco-tourism themed artisan village.
“I’d hoped to turn this into an artist community,” says Pelsor. “Of people actually living here and producing art.”
He still has hopes of that: Due to the help of volunteers, the park’s condition is much better than it used to be. But in the three years since, many challenges have kept the dream from being realized.
“We’ve had everything to hit us,” says Pelsor. “We’ve had windstorms just blew stuff away, we’ve had arson that burned three buildings. We had a flood that literally was up in the buildings. … It was unbelievable.”
Time hasn’t stopped everything at Dogpatch.
Today, ghost-like memories fill the park. Little from the Li’l Abner legacy remains: Some of the original artistic accents have been either sold or stolen over the years, and the few left are tucked away. Jubilation T. Cornpone no longer reins supreme on the town square. A concrete desert, freckled with empty, decaying former business buildings, comprises the area near the ski lodge. Dogpatch U.S.A. won’t be on a map these days, unless it’s a vintage one.
Skeletons stand in a slow state of decay, including the park’s “wild water rampage” ride. A couple of log boats float capsized; an old bumper boat looks longingly at a reservoir. But not all is different: Water still gushes from the falls and over the numerous dams, which date to the park’s trout farm days.
The 20-something buildings, scattered over the acreage, many not have the strength to stand — but they still have the power to summon memories.
Wolf Gal’s Island
That was obvious in 2014, when the park was opened to the public for the first time since 1993. Around 5,000 people came to tour the deteriorating structures, a turnout that surprised Pelsor. At the time, he told the Branson Tri-Lakes News that he anticipated reopening in 2016.
That, unfortunately, didn’t happen. But something else did: In 2016, Pelsor’s business partner decided he wanted out for health reasons. “So it’s all for sale, or part for sale,” says Pelsor of the property.
After months on the market, the price has dropped to $2.75 million for the entire place, which currently comes in at around 400 acres.
The way out
Despite his dream, Pelsor is clear he wouldn’t be disappointed if he ultimately doesn’t reopen Dogpatch. “No,” he says. “I’m wanted in other places.”
Until a buyer comes along, however, the dream remains. And, working a day at a time, Pelsor aims to see if he can make it happen.
“I woke up this morning, I’m breathing, I can get my boots on, so I guess I’ll go to work,” he says. “That’s just the way I deal with it. I just get up and go to work, and I don’t look too far down the road because I’d be overwhelmed if I did.”
Want to see Dogpatch?
Dogpatch will be open to the public on May 6 – 7, 2017 for a craft fair. Admission is free. To follow updates about the park, connect on Facebook.
“Al Capp is excited with his Dogpatch,” Hope Star, May 20, 1968
“And it’s near your hometown of Camden,” Ruth Malone, Camden News, Aug. 6, 1961
“Dogpatch USA,” Russell T. Johnson, Encyclopedia of Arkansas, 2015
“Dogpatch is official,” Northwest Arkansas Times, May 23, 1968
“Dogpatch making a comeback,” Cliff Sain, Branson Tri-Lakes News, Dec. 30, 2014
“Faunus named president of Dogpatch, U.S.A. Park,” Northwest Arkansas Times, Jan. 9, 1969
“For $2 million, inventor reels in Dogpatch acres,” Bill Bowden, Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette, August 15, 2014
“Large sum paid for car at rare auction,” Camden News, May 5, 1972
“Longer season for Dogpatch; opens May 5,” Northwest Arkansas Times, May 1, 1973
“Snow skiing? Dogpatch will have it!” Hope Star, June 24, 1972
“Time for planning,” Allan Gilbert, Jr., Northwest Arkansas Times, July 11, 1968
“To Capp it off,” Northwest Arkansas Times, Oct. 31, 1968