Dogpatch USA is an abandoned theme park located on State Highway 7 between the cities of Harrison and Jasper in Arkansas, USA, an area known today as Marble Falls. It was opened in 1968, and was based on the comic strip Li'l Abner, created by cartoonist Al Capp and set in a fictional village called Dogpatch.
Dogpatch USA was a commercial success in its early years. Investors tried to parlay that success into a sister park, "Marble Falls", planned with a ski resort and convention center. The venture failed and led to the park's closure in 1993. The property has been fallen into disrepair.
In 1966, Albert Raney, Sr. decided to sell his family's Ozark trout farm and listed it with O.J. Snow, a Harrison real estate agent. Snow examined the property and decided that the Raney farm was ideal for an amusement park based on pioneer themes—an idea he had entertained for years. He noted that features of the area resembled those pictured in the Li'l Abner comic strip: Mill Creek Canyon at the base of a 55-foot (16.8 m) waterfall was deep enough to be the "bottomless canyon", and the nearby tourist attraction Mystic Caverns (also owned by the Raney family) could become "Dogpatch cave", where "Kickapoo Joy Juice" was brewed by a few unsavory Dogpatch characters.
Snow and his associates formed Recreation Enterprises, Incorporated (REI) to develop the land and present the idea of a theme park to Al Capp. According to an Arkansas Gazette article, Snow sent Capp home movies of the property and descriptions of the attractions. There would be horseback riding, paddle boats, train rides, local arts and crafts shops, family-oriented theatrical presentations, an apiary and a honey hut and a fudge shop. There would be a botanical garden, rustic-themed entertainment, and many Li'l Abner comic-strip characters who would roam the park and perform skits for the patrons. All in addition to the trout farm and the Mystic Caverns cave, already in operation.
Snow also assured Capp that the park would be quiet and dignified, and would not include roller coasters or thrill rides that would conflict with the rustic Li'l Abner theme. Capp, who had turned down other offers, accepted this one and became a partner, claiming he had once driven through the Ozarks and had pictured just such an area for the setting of his fictional "Dogpatch" town. Capp was apparently happy with Snow's concept and confident that his Li'l Abner creation would not be tainted.
Arkansans have always been sensitive about being portrayed as hillbillies, so the concept of a theme park based on such a stereotype was questionable. Lou Oberste of the Publicity and Parks Commission expressed reservations, and Commission Director Bob Evans agreed that Arkansas had difficulty shedding a similar image created by comedic actor Bob Burns and the once-popular radio characters heard on the long-run Lum and Abner series (1932–54), which led to the creation of a Lum and Abner Museum in Pine Ridge, Arkansas.
Edwin T. Haefele of the Brookings Institution and Leon N. Moses, Professor of Economics at Northwestern University, happened to visit Arkansas at this time. When reporters asked for their opinions of the Dogpatch project, they expressed doubts about the likelihood of its success, citing the failure of other theme parks that had popped up trying to capture the success of Disneyland. They also felt that such theme parks tend to cause nearby property values to deflate and local businesses to relocate to more desirable areas.
Despite these reservations, the Publicity and Parks Commission toured the property and decided to support the project, and the Harrison Chamber of Commerce approved the plans for the 825 acre (3.3 km2) park (in comparison, Disneyland originally called for only 8 acres).
Building and opening the park
Al Capp and his wife attended the ground-breaking ceremony on Tuesday, October 3, 1967. Phase I of the project, at a cost of $1,332,000, included construction of the buildings and rides. Phase II, which was to be the construction of an RV park, amphitheater, motels and a golf course, would cost an additional $900,000 but would never be fully realized.
Under the direction of Jim Schermerhorn, an REI board member and experienced caver, Mystic Caverns, which was renamed "Dogpatch Caverns", was completely renovated. Dangerous conditions were corrected to ensure safety, including a better lighting system, walkway, and entrance. During renovation, while Shermerhorn was operating the bulldozer, a second cave was discovered next to Mystic Caverns. Realizing the potential value of this pristine cave, he had it blocked off so that it could be preserved untouched. It was named "Old Man Moses Cave" and put on the "to do" list along with the other projects intended for Phase II. Schermerhorn also acquired several authentic 19th century log cabins in the Ozark Mountains and had them dismantled, shipped, and reconstructed in the park. This fact was never advertised.
Dogpatch USA opened and welcomed about 8,000 visitors on May 17, 1968. The centerpiece of the park was a giant statue of the fictional town hero, Jubilation T. Cornpone, and it was unveiled that day during Al Capp's dedication speech to a crowd of about 2,000. General admission was $1.50 for adults and $0.75 for children, and the park reported a net profit of about $100,000 at the end of the 1968 season.
Attendance expectations for the park were, in retrospect, extremely optimistic; a Los Angeles consulting firm projected 400,000 patrons in the first year, and 1.2 million by the year 1977. But Dogpatch USA hosted only 300,000 visitors in 1968, and never reported more than 200,000 visitors in any subsequent year.
Jess Odom ownership
In 1969, a disagreement arose among the members of REI with regards to investing the profits of the first year. Snow believed all the profits should be reinvested in the park, but the other members wanted to divide some of it among themselves. As a result, Jess Odom, an Arkansas businessman in search of an opportunity, bought Snow's and other REI members' shares for $750,000 and gained a controlling interest in the park. Odom had been successful in several other endeavors, including the founding of a planned community northwest of Little Rock called Maumelle. REI expected Odom to spend an estimated $5 to $7 million on improvements and the addition of "Skunk Hollow" next to Dogpatch USA, but these plans never came to fruition.
Odom signed a long-term licensing agreement with Capp, giving the park and any future Li'l Abner franchises the rights to use all characters, events, jargon, names, and titles until 1998. In return, Capp would receive two to three percent of the gross of admissions over the same time period.
Also in 1969 the b-movie 'It's Alive!' was partly filmed at the Dogpatch Theme park.
1969 marked a particularly popular year for rustic and hillbilly pop culture. Shows such as Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and The Beverly Hillbillies were in vogue on American television, and a similar rustic-themed park just a few miles away near Branson, Missouri, Silver Dollar City, had become a huge success. The Li'l Abner comic strip was appearing in over 700 newspapers daily throughout the country, which kept the fictional town of Dogpatch in the public eye. In addition, Al Capp had just signed a deal for a restaurant franchise and the rights to develop his comic strip into a TV series.
Dogpatch USA was profitable in its first few years. In 1971, Odom, who foresaw unlimited potential for the park, bought out most of the remaining investors for $700,000 and became, essentially, the owner. REI borrowed $2 million from Union Planters Bank in Memphis in May 1972 to build a sister park called "Marble Falls", with the intention of making the "Twin Parks of the Ozarks" a year-round attraction. Marble Falls, a ski resort with a convention center, toboggan run, motels and an ice skating rink, was ready for the Christmas season of 1972.
Success seemed to be on the horizon for Odom and Dogpatch USA, but the many unforeseen events of the 1970's cast a dark shadow on Odom's dreams. Attendance figures throughout that decade were woefully short of expectations. In 1973, interest rates began to skyrocket, and a nationwide energy crisis kept many tourists home. TV shows with country themes virtually disappeared from the American TV screen and the popularity of hillbillies waned. The Li'l Abner TV show and restaurant chain never came to be, and Al Capp retired. Capp's retirement brought an end to one of the greatest advertisements for Dogpatch USA – the Li'l Abner comic strip.
The mild winter weather which visited Arkansas through the mid-1970's proved to be the undoing of Marble Falls as a ski resort, and its snow cannons and slopes sat idle much of the time. The modest profits of Dogpatch USA were not sufficient to keep the two parks afloat, and Odom, already $2 million in debt, was forced to borrow an additional $1.5 million in the unfavorable financial atmosphere of 1973.
In 1974, Odom partnered with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville to create an in-park repertory theater featuring its own "Boars Head Players". This venture turned into a huge disappointment; the group presented two of the five promised productions, and did not return for any of the following seasons. Today, this troupe is still active at the University of Arkansas.
In 1976, Union Planters Bank began foreclosure proceedings on $3.5 million in debts. In 1977, Al Capp and the Li'l Abner comic strip retired, and First National Bank of Little Rock began foreclosure proceedings on $600,000 in debts. In September of that year, Odom stated that, because Marble Falls had lost as much as $100,000 a year since it opened, the ski slopes would be closed permanently. Amidst this, Dogpatch USA recorded one of its most profitable years in 1977.
Two personal injury lawsuits, seeking more than $200,000 in compensation, were brought against Dogpatch USA in 1979 and settled in 1980. By 1979, Dogpatch USA's income was less than its operating expenses, and attempts by Odom to get the town of Harrison, and later Jasper, to issue tourism bonds to refinance millions of dollars of debt were unsuccessful. That same year Odom announced that negotiations had been underway to sell the park to a private nonprofit group called God's Patch, Inc., which would turn Dogpatch USA into a biblical-themed amusement park, but funding never materialized. The heat wave of 1980, one of the worst in Arkansas' history, made that year one of the worst for the park and marked the second consecutive year that Dogpatch USA operated without sufficient income. In October 1980, Union Planters Bank filed to take possession of both Dogpatch USA and Marble Falls. A month later, Dogpatch USA filed for bankruptcy.
In 1981, Ozarks Entertainment, Inc. (OEI) bought Dogpatch USA for an undisclosed amount; it would retain ownership through 1986. Taking the park in new directions, OEI, under the leadership of General Manager Wayne Thompson, reduced the park staff by more than 50% and added many attractions, one of which was "Earthquake McGoon's Brain Rattler", the park's second roller coaster ride. The amphitheater hosted concerts featuring stars such as Reba McEntire, Hank Thompson, and Ike and Tina Turner.
Thompson also brought in the corporate sponsorship of Coca Cola, Dr Pepper, and Tyson Foods, and superheroes including Spider-Man, Batman and Robin, and Captain America for personal appearances and autograph signing. Gospel and bluegrass shows were presented, and Denver Pyle (Uncle Jesse from the popular TV series The Dukes of Hazzard) was signed as the park's spokesman both onsite and in TV commercials. The emphasis on new promotions paid off; Dogpatch USA was profitable in every year that Wayne Thompson was General Manager for OEI (1981–86), and more visitors spent more money per person during these years than in any other years.
In 1981, Dogpatch Caverns and Old Man Moses Cave were sold to Bruce Raney (grandson of Albert Raney, Sr.) and a fellow investor. Old Man Moses Cave was finally renovated and renamed "Crystal Dome" and "Dogpatch Caverns" became "Mystic Caverns" again. Managed by Raney until they were sold to Omni Properties, Inc. in 1984, the twin caves continue to operate as tourist attractions.
In the 1980's, the ownership of Marble Falls was divided and changed until it became so entangled in legal problems that it was impossible to clearly identify who actually owned each part of the property. In 1983, a new investor, "Buffalo River Resorts", began selling parcels of the land for timeshares and condominiums, although buyers had to be informed of the uncertain legal status of the property.
In 1987, The Entertainment and Leisure Corporation (Telcor) purchased a 90% stake in OEI. The other 10% was retained by Herb Dunn, Lynn Spradley and Jerry Maland, residents of the area. Telcor, a corporation formed to buy and manage theme parks and headed by Melvyn Bell of Bell Equities, owned two other parks at the time, Deer Forest Park in Coloma, Michigan, and Magic Springs in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Wayne Thompson, who was general manager of the park, became President of Telcor with Sam Southerland as Vice President. Thompson and Southerland were principal owners of OEI, and Southerland actually managed the finances for all three Telcor parks. Under Thompson's leadership Telcor made renovations and improvements, and a new ride called the "Space Shuttle" was added.
In 1988, Wayne Thompson departed, and Lynn Spradley, a Dogpatch USA veteran of 14 years, became GM and managed the park through the 1991 season. During this time Spradley bemoaned the fact that Dogpatch USA was forced to spend much more per patron on promotional strategies to attract visitors than other theme parks, and that most kids did not know who the Li'l Abner characters were. By this time the comic strip had been out of print for more than 10 years.
Dogpatch USA floundered in the face of stiff competition in the Telcor years, especially from Silver Dollar City, which duplicated most of what Dogpatch USA offered but on a grander scale, and was an hour's drive to the north. And what Silver Dollar City lacked, the Ozark Folk Center (a fully subsidized state park) in nearby Mountain View provided, and neither park was wrapped in an outdated cartoon franchise.
In 1991, after concerns from civic leaders that the park would not open for the 1991 season due to financial problems, it was indicated that if the park opened at all, it would open as a scaled down arts and crafts park. General admission was eliminated; patrons paid for each individual attraction instead. Telcor decided to save the money that the Capp estate was receiving for use of the name and characters, and with that one of the most distinctive aspects of the park—the Li'l Abner theme—was completely dropped and the name changed to Dogpatch, Arkansas.
The park was closed permanently on October 14, 1993.
The abandoned park, 2005
Shortly after it closed, the park was put up for auction on the courthouse steps in Jasper. The auction was handled by Jim Sprott, a Harrison lawyer whose wife Jan had been "Daisy Mae" at Dogpatch USA from 1968 through the 1970 season. Ford Carr, president of Leisuretek Corporation and Westek Corporation, received a quit claim for the property. At that time, however, he neglected to do anything with the park. In late 2002 he had the 141-acre (0.57 km2) site placed on eBay with a minimum bid requirement of $1 million. Although he was looking for a $4 million bid, there were no bidders. In 2004 it was reported by KATV in Arkansas that the property was again for sale, for $5 million.
In 2005, 17-year-old Pruett Nance was riding an ATV through the property with permission from the property owner. He collided with a length of wire strung between two trees, and was injured. The question of whether or not the wire was put there maliciously became the subject of a lawsuit the Nances filed against the park's owners. The suit eventually ended up in the Arkansas Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Nances. They were awarded $650,000. When the park owners did not pay the judgment, the deed to Dogpatch was awarded to Pruett Nance, and he became the new owner of the park.
Revitalization of Marble Falls
In 1988 Debra Nielson began buying parcels of the Dogpatch property. Eventually the area she owned included the ski lodge, convention center, roller rink, and motel. She renamed the acreage "Serenity Mountain". She moved into the Ski Lodge and operated a bed and breakfast there. She also opened a nondenominational church in one of the abandoned resort buildings. In December 1999 Nielson leased the abandoned skating rink to the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protection or HELP. HELP was a non profit group that provided therapeutic horse back riding free of charge.
A few businesses have revived sections of the Marble Falls property. Bob Richards and Randal Phillips purchased and later reopened a portion of the property as "The Hub", a motorcycle-themed center, in June 2005. The Hub features a 60-room hotel and a convention facility that seats 1,500 in theater style. Fred and Larisse Mullens have begun a venture called "The Shepherd's Fold Retreat Center and Campground". The centerpiece is a large church, where weekly services are currently being held, next to The Hub at #4 Dogpatch Blvd. They hope to redevelop the old Dogpatch USA campground and are seeking donations. Signs on their property indicate that they also plan to open a country store. There is also a section of their website dedicated to this.