“Have a heckuva day at Dogpatch, USA!”
This was the slogan of the once iconic attraction based on the popular comic strip Li’l Abner.
Dogpatch USA Arkansas opened its doors for the first time in 1968 and closed them for good in 1993.
This was more than enough time for the theme park to leave a lasting impression on locals and tourists alike.
Blessed with natural beauty, abundant wildlife, an existing cave attraction, and so much more, the 400-acre park was the perfect setting for Al Capp’s fictional characters.
It still has potential even if it has been abandoned for years, and luckily, you may still see it rise again.
Dogpatch USA Arkansas: A Piece of History
Dogpatch USA's story is a bit complicated, far from the idyllic image that the themed nature park conveyed.
It has more twists and turns than the Frustratin’ Flyer, which was a roller coaster that once zipped its way through the site.
To give you a better idea, here is a closer look at how the whole narrative played out:
Years in the Making
Dogpatch USA was originally an Ozark trout farm owned by the family of Albert Raney Sr. He decided to sell it in 1966 and listed the property with O.J. Snow, a local real estate agent.
Raney, Sr. did not know it, but long before this, Snow had been trying to come up with ideas for an entertainment park with pioneer themes.
When he saw the Raney property, everything clicked in his head. Mill Creek Canyon looked a lot like the comic strip’s “bottomless canyon.”
Mystic Caverns, a nearby tourist attraction also owned by the Raneys, could do a great impersonation of “Dogpatch Cave.”
In short, the trout fishing farm was the perfect setting for someone who wants to bring Al Capp’s Li’l Abner to life.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Snow got together with nine businessmen and created Recreation Business, Inc. or REI. The group’s sole purpose back then was to develop the land.
They sent the cartoonist some home movies of the property and described to him the attractions they were planning, securing his go signal.
Snow and company must have done a marvelous job at it because Al Capp had turned down many other similar offers but accepted this one.
The next challenge that REI faced was the pushback they got from some Arkansas civic leaders and officials. It even included Bob Evans, who was head of the Publicity and Parks Commission.
Fortunately, the commission, as well as the Harrison Chamber of Commerce, liked the plan enough to approve it, despite some reservations.
A Solid Start
The theme park’s groundbreaking ceremony was held on October 3, 1967, and Al Capp himself was in attendance, along with his wife.
Construction for the initial buildings and rides began promptly, buoyed by a budget of $1.332 million. And this was just for the first phase of the project.
They had earmarked another two million dollars to build a train, a tram, a golf course, a motel, and more over the next two years.
There was even a plan to build a “Skunk Hollow,” which was the mysterious neighboring community next to Dogpatch USA in the comic strip.
Everything was in full swing and looking really good. They even had a bit of luck when they discovered a pristine cave while renovating Mystic Caverns.
As they were installing better lighting systems and correcting dangerous conditions, they discovered another cave.
It had great potential, but since they had no previous knowledge of it, they were not able to allot any budget for it. REI decided to block it off and included it in their to-do list.
In the meantime, they pushed on with their original plan. It included shipping in and reconstructing authentic 19th-century log cabins from the Ozark mountains.
They also restored a very old watermill that had stood there since 1834 and made it fully operational.
With Phase I of the project complete, Dogpatch USA officially opened on May 17, 1968.
Around 8,000 people came and witnessed the unveiling of Jubilation T. Cornpone’s giant statue. He was the fictional town’s revered hero.
Al Capp made a big dedication speech, and things were looking up.
Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and other similar shows were also trending at the time, which helped boost the park’s popularity.
Dogpatch USA reported a net profit of $100,000 in the first year, which was not bad at all.
When Things Start Turning Sour
REI hired a consulting firm from Los Angeles called the Economic Research Associates. The team projected a total of 400,000 in attendance for the first year.
It also predicted that over a million people would visit the park annually before its 10th year ends.
Looking back, attendance expectations were just too optimistic. They fell short of their mark at the very start, with a total attendance of 300,000 in the first year.
In one article from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dogpatch USA hosted almost a million visitors each year in the early ‘70s.
However, the same paper reported that the park never broke the 200,000 mark in the years following its opening.
Another bad sign for the park was the disagreement among REI members on how the first year’s profit would be handled.
Snow wanted to reinvest everything back into the park, but others wanted to divvy up some of it among themselves. It created a tense financial atmosphere for the group.
In the midst of all these issues, Jess Odom, a businessman in search of opportunity, bought out some of the other members’ shares.
He became the principal owner and got controlling interest in the park, allowing him to make most of the most important decisions himself.
Among his first moves were to add 60 mobile homes for park guests, a sea lion exhibit, an aviary, a boat train ride, and other attractions.
He also announced his plans for a sister park with a ski resort and convention center.
Odom was making the right business moves, but a series of unfortunate events greeted him at every turn, casting a dark shadow on all his plans.
Attendance figures fell short of their anticipated annual attendance, and the interest rates soared.
There was also a nationwide energy crisis that kept people inside their homes most of the time.
The entertainment industry was not immune, and networks started canceling shows. Most of the casualties had country themes, which resulted in the waning popularity of hillbillies.
To top things off, mild winter weather visited Arkansas in the ‘70s, putting a damper on its ski resort.
Consequently, the themed nature park never really took off as the year-round attraction that Odom wanted it to be.
Banks started to foreclose on millions of dollars of debt from park owner Melvyn Bell and others in 1976.
The ski resort was among the first to close since it really never lived up to its role as an income generator.
Still, in the middle of all these, Odom tried to keep the iconic attraction afloat by adding various activities. This included grass skiing, an arcade, a water slide, and a disco.
However, the challenges just kept on coming.
The park faced two personal injury claims in the late ‘70s, each one seeking more than $200,000 in compensation.
Of course, there was Al Capp’s retirement in 1977, which basically ended the run of Li’l Abner. Without the comic strip obtaining positive attention for the park, it just kept on withering.
Odom tried to secure tourism bonds from nearby towns to help refinance some of the debt but to no avail.
There was also an attempt to sell the park to God’s patch, Inc. and turn Dogpatch into a biblical-themed amusement park, but this did not materialize.
The year 1980 was one of the worst for the park as a severe heat wave hit Arkansas.
Before it ended, Dogpatch had to file for bankruptcy, and the bank put it up for sale to pay off a total of seven million dollars in debt.
Ozarks Entertainment Inc., or OEI, bought it the following year and tried a new approach for the park.
They brought in superhero characters for personal appearances and autograph signings and sought corporate sponsorship from big brands like Tyson Foods and Coke.
OEI did things on a grander scale and tried a bunch of other promotional strategies to generate interest for the park.
At the same time, they tried to be smarter by reducing the park staff in half while adding other attractions. Still, it was not enough against stiff competition.
They had to sell some parts of the property, and Bruce Raney, a grandson of Albert Sr., ended up with Dogpatch Caverns and Old Man Moses.
Ownership of Dogpatch USA would change a number of times over the following years until it finally closed for good on October 14, 1993.
Did you grow up fishing on the trout farm, exploring Dogpatch Caverns, or enjoying one of the many amusement rides?
If so, it’s hard to imagine that all these other things were going on below the surface. Still, there is a reason to be optimistic.
The park was recently bought by Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris. He wants to rebuild it as Marble Falls Nature Park, but he has been secretive about how he plans to do it.
Bob Ziehmer, senior director of conservation for Bass Pro Shops, alluded to wildlife tours, conservation education, and other things that highlight the natural beauty of the Ozarks.
Morris is the mastermind behind Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, so this should not come as a surprise.
Own a Piece of Arkansas History
Dogpatch USA’s story is long and winding, and it is far from done. It had resort buildings and an in-park repertory theater in its heyday.
At one point, it almost became a Christian theme park.
Now, it is owned by Bass Pro Shops and is on its way to becoming a nature park of some kind. The details are not yet clear, but you can rest assured the park is in good hands now.If you want to own a piece of Arkansas history, get this cool Dogpatch USA Arkansas shirt by Rock City Outfitters.
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