Dogpatch USA operated from 1968 to 1993 as an amusement park based on characters and locations in Al Capp’s popular “Li’l Abner” comic strip. The town of Marble Falls (Newton County) between Jasper (Newton County) and Harrison (Boone County) changed its name officially to Dogpatch to help promote the park. The name was changed back in 1997.
Harrison real estate broker Oscar J. Snow conceived the park when Albert Raney Sr. listed his Ozark trout farm for sale in 1966. Snow and nine other investors formed Recreation Enterprises, Inc. (REI) and approached Bostonian Al Capp with the idea. Capp, who had rejected such offers in the past, agreed to be a partner in the enterprise. The partners acquired 1,000 acres, and the Harrison Chamber of Commerce approved plans for an 825-acre park.
Capp spoke at the groundbreaking on October 3, 1967. The cost of the original construction was $1,332,000. The park originally featured the trout farm, buggy and horseback rides, an apiary, Ozark arts and crafts, gift shops, entertainment by Dogpatch characters, and the park’s trademark railroad, the West Po’k Chop Speshul. Management added amusement rides in subsequent years.
Many of the buildings in the park were authentic nineteenth-century log structures purchased by board member James H. Schermerhorn. The logs in each building were numbered, catalogued, disassembled, and reassembled at the park. In 1968, the first year of operation, general manager Schemerhorn reported that Dogpatch had 300,000 visitors. Admission was $1.50 for adults, half price for children. Al Capp’s son, Colin C. Capp, worked at the park that year and met and married Vicki Cox, the actress portraying Moonbeam McSwine.
In 1968, Jess Odom bought controlling interest in REI from Snow and several other board members. Capp had some misgivings about the change in leadership, since he had made his original agreement with Snow, but he was eventually persuaded to sign a long-term licensing agreement with Odom. Odom upgraded the park with several new rides, campsites and other visitor accommodations and hired former governor Orval Faubus as general manager.
By 1972, Odom had bought out most of the remaining REI partners and built a winter sports complex called Marble Falls on the hill overlooking Dogpatch in hopes of operating the park year round. A series of unusually warm winters, delays in delivery of snowmaking equipment, rising interest rates, the Arab Oil Embargo, the end of the “Li’l Abner” comic strip due to Al Capp’s retirement in 1977 combined to drive expenses up and revenues down.
In order to keep the ski resort open, Odom used Dogpatch assets to secure loans at unfavorable interest rates. Although Dogpatch made a profit in all but two years of operation, it could not overcome the burden of the Marble Falls debt. The City of Harrison rejected Odom’s proposals to refinance the debt with a bond issue, and plans to turn Dogpatch into a religious theme park called “God’s Patch” never advanced. Interests in Clarksville (Johnson County) and Ozark (Franklin County) also briefly considered bond issues to refinance the park and move it to one of those cities, but those cities rejected the proposals when Dogpatch had its worst summer during the drought of 1980. Dogpatch declared bankruptcy in November of 1980.
Wayne Thompson, head of Ozark Entertainment, Inc. (OEI) purchased Dogpatch but not the Marble Falls improvements. OEI operated the theme park from 1981 to 1987 and then sold it to Melvin Bell’s company Telcor, which owned and operated two other theme parks, including Magic Springs in Hot Springs (Garland County).
Lynn Spradley managed the park under OEI from 1988 to 1991. During that period, Dogpatch came under increased pressure from larger and better funded competition. Nearby Branson, Missouri, offered more country music. A Missouri frontier themed park called Silver Dollar City offered more extravagant amusement park rides. The Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View (Stone County) also offered an authentic mountain culture educational experience but was subsidized by the state. Shirley Cooper managed Dogpatch from 1992 to its final season in 1993.
In 1994, Dogpatch was sold to partners doing business as Westek Corp. and Leisure Tek, Ltd. Although the owners began a program to reconstruct and preserve the property in 2006, they never made public any plans for the park.
In 2011, the Newton County Circuit Court named new owners for the property that was once Dogpatch USA: Stewart Nance, Pruett Nance, and Brent Baber (the Nances’ lawyer). The ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Nances followed a 2005 incident in which Pruett Nance struck a steel cable while driving an ATV on the privately owned land.
In 2014, inventor Charles “Bud” Pelsor purchased 400 acres of land in Newton County that used to house Dogpatch USA from the Nances and Baber for nearly $2 million. Pelsor intended to encourage ecotourism through green development, including restoring a trout farm on the land and reestablishing a population of pearl-bearing mussels. In late February 2015, a fire at the site destroyed three buildings, and in March of the following year, Pelsor put the property up for sale. In November 2017, Pelsor agreed to lease the property to Heritage USA, a conservative entertainment company with the aim of “celebrating American exceptionalism.” In August 2018, Pelsor told reporters that David Hare, the president of Heritage USA Ozarks, and others from the company had broken their lease agreement and abandoned the property. In November 2019, Pelsor was served with a foreclosure notice due to being far behind on lease payments; he announced his return to Indiana, giving up on efforts to transform the property.
The property was scheduled for auction on March 3, 2020, but was purchased in late February. The finalization of the sale was announced in early June 2020. Few details were announced, but according to paperwork filed in Newton County Circuit Court in Jasper, Dogpatch was sold for $1.12 million to Down By the Falls LLC, which was incorporated in Delaware in late May but listed a Springfield, Missouri, street address. The purchaser was later revealed to be Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops. In September 2021, the senior director of conservation for Bass Pro Shops told the Buffalo River Conservation Committee that the plan was to transform the land into the Marble Falls Nature Park.
For additional information:
Bowden, Bill. “After 50 Years, Fun Finally Wearing Off.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 21, 2019, pp. 1A, 10A.
———. “Owner of Neglected Dogpatch Disclosed.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 5, 2020, pp. 1A, 2A.
———. “Theme Park Is Sold for $1.12M.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 5, 2020, pp. 1B, 8B.
———. “Theme Park Owner out, Bless His Heart.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 8, 2019, pp. 1A, 14A.
Johnson, Russell T. “Dogpatch U.S.A.” The Arkansas Roadside Travelogue. http://arkansasroadstories.com/attractions/dogpatch.html (accessed June 8, 2020).
Thompson, Doug. “Shuttered Dogpatch USA to Become Nature Park, State Panel Told.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 1, 2021, pp. 1B, 5B.
Waldon, George. “Dogpatch Dreams.” Arkansas Business, January 30–February 5, 2017, pp. 1, 10–12.
Russell T. Johnson
Little Rock, Arkansas
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