For over two decades now it has at times not so quietly slumbered. The old, faded buildings now standing in silent vigil as if remembering a time when their colors were bright & fresh; when were surrounded in laughter and the smiling faces of adults and children alike. The grass grows tall here and the structures that remain are entangled with a variety of plants that now call them home. A place where the sounds of a merry go round, trains and other rides are replaced by the sounds of crickets at dusk, rain drops falling to the ground from tattered roofs and the occasional sounds of frogs & other creatures that now call the park home, But that my friends is not where the story begins or ends. No, this story starts with a man named Alfred G. Caplin...
He was born September 28, 1909 in New Haven, Connecticut of Russian Jewish heritage, Al Capp, as he came to be known, was the eldest child of Latvian immigrants Otto Philip and Matilda (Davidson) Caplin whose families had migrated to New Haven in the 1880s. At the young age of nine, Al lost his left leg in a trolley accident. Although shaken by the loss of his leg, Al refused to let the accident stop him and continuously acknowledged the disability the rest of his life, although usually in a humorous way. At 23, Al had moved to New York and became what was possibly the youngest syndicated cartoonist up until that time.
On August 13, 1934 Al Capp launched what was to be by far his most well known creation, the comic strip Li'l Abner with eight newspapers and became an instant success. Amongst the contributions of the strip was the now traditional Sadie Hawkins Dances at schools and colleges across the nation, that are based off the strips Sadie Hawkins race where the girls chase the guys! While on the surface the strip was funny and amusing, it was Capp's underlying satiric messages on society, parodies of the corporate giants of the day, celebrities and fellow cartoonists that gave the strip its long lived popularity. Another popular creation of Capp’s was the creatures known as the shmoos. (By the way, if you are unaware of what a shmoo is, you probably aren’t alone as the real meaning of what a shmoo represents in the strip is still being debated to this day.) Superficially, the shmoo was a creature that lived to serve humanity to the point of self-sacrifice and was ever abundant. The creature showed if nothing else that we should accept what is given to us and just be happy.
Yet it would be the Li'l Abner strip that featured characters from the fictional town of Dogpatch and whose lives centered on the adventures of the main character, Li'l Abner. A handsome and strong, if not very bright young man that was raised to be honest and brave except in the face of his girlfriend Daisy Mae, but it was the location that would bring the comic strip to life in a small community now called Marble Falls near Harrison, Arkansas on Highway 7.
It should be noted though that it was the landscape of Dogpatch, not the characters that drew in a real estate broker named O.J. Snow, who had been considering opening a rustic themed amusement park in the Ozarks.
But the area that would become Dogpatch had quite a bit of history to it long before Mr. Snow came a knockin’. Let go back a bit to the 1830’s to when the Washington Monument was being planned. You see funds were short to build and complete the monument and a call went out to the States and Territories to donate commemorative stones that could be fitted into the interior walls. Arkansas was one of many places to answer the call. Mr. Peter Beller moved to Arkansas from Alabama in 1833. In 1834 he and the three of the Harp Brothers dug a 4' X 3' X 2' block of marble out of the hillside across from Dogpatch to contribute to the Washington Monument. The stone was hauled on a sled by a team of twenty oxen for approximately sixty miles across the Ozark and Boston Mountains to the Arkansas River. From there it was loaded on to a barge and was then sent to New Orleans. From there it was loaded onto a ship bound for the Potomac Basin.
Sometime later, a second stone from the very same hillside was donated by freemasons from the area who wished the donation to honor the fact that George Washington was himself a master mason.
Going back to Mr. Beller, sometime around 1840 he acquired the land that included nearby Marble Falls and built a mill there. For a time, Mr. Beller’s Mill steadily continued to grow successfully until the start of the civil war. Years later in 1870 a gentleman with the name of Willcockson built another mill here, and the town, which would bear his name for a time grew an the prosperity of the mineral waters and healing springs that it became known for. But like all good things that too came to an end in the early 20th century. With the advances in medicine that inevitably came the town’s popularity dwindled. Then came Albert Raney Sr. He and his sons bought the land and changed the name to Marble Falls, he diverted the cold mountain spring water that the town was once so popular for into a trout hatchery, which they owned and operated for several decades.
The Great Idea
Now fast forward to 1966, the elderly Albert Raney Sr. listed his family's trout farm and surrounding land featuring its own canyon, a 55-foot waterfall and an adjacent (and already in operation) public touring cave named Mystic Caverns for sale. It was Snow who, after viewing the property, envisioned the Dogpatch themed park using the existing features of the property to imitate locations featured in the comic strip such as Onneccessary Mountain, the Bottomless Canyon, and Kissin' Rock, (handy to Suicide Cliff), West Po'k Chop Railroad, and the General Jubilation T. Cornpone memorial statue (the last of these three were built on site in amazing detail to look just as they appeared in the strip.
Presenting The Great Idea To Al Capp
Snow, with other business Leaders from the area formed Recreation Enterprises, Inc. or (REI) and set off to propose the grand plan of the park to Dogpatch creator, Al Capp.
Capp, who had turned down previous proposals for such ventures, was inspired by the plan and shared Snows vision for the park. He ultimately approved the idea and became a partner in the project. By this time, Li'l Abner had inspired two film adaptations, a Broadway musical and had gained millions of readers so it seemed the perfect venue to compete in the theme park business. The over 800 acre theme park was set to not only be a reality, but in the minds of its creators, had the capability to become a major player in the theme park community.
Both Al Capp and his wife made a three day trip to the Arkansas site for the ground breaking ceremony which took place on Tuesday, October 3, 1967. An interesting fact is that even before the groundbreaking, there were already a few attractions operating on the site such as trout fishing, a boat dock, an operating stage coach & trail ride, a honey shop and arts & crafts.
A mere 7 months later on May 17, 1968, Al Capp was back on the site to deliver the dedication speech of Dogpatch USA. At first the park was begrudging supported by the local Arkansas residents of what was for a time called Dogpatch, Arkansas and resisted the park as a daunting reminder of the “hillbilly” stigma that still hung over the residents of the Ozark town, but at the same time they welcomed the hopeful influx of tourism dollars the park would bring to their below median income community.
Standing before a crowd of about 2,000 visitors on May 17, 1968, Al Capp uncovered the centerpiece of the park, the giant statue depicting the civil war hero of Dogpatch, Jubilation T. Cornpone, The park admitted a whopping 8000 people its opening day with an admission price of only $1.50 for adults and $0.75 for children.
Little did anyone realize at the time that by1993 through a combination of fate, nature, and unforeseen circumstances, Dogpatch USA would be gone...but not forgotten.
The parks design had been agreed upon by both O.J. Snow and Al Capp to hold true to the theme of the strip it was based on. Mr. Capp did not want the park full of monster; behemoth rides the zoomed around everywhere.
Although competing in the same market, the park had almost the opposite focus of the Disney parks in that where Disney was always focused on exemplifying the innovations and latest technology, Dogpatch USA represented the simplicity of life and beauty of nature. Although the park had some rides geared to pull in the “roller coaster” crowd, most of the attraction of the park was geared around actually spending time with your family and enjoying a leisurely vacation.
Now, taking a virtual stroll back in time to the park let’s take a look at some of the attractions, shall we…
One of the parks most loved attractions was the trout pond which carried forward the legacy of the land’s previous purpose. It was where visitors could cast a line in the always overstocked pond and for a fee, have their catch cleaned and cooked for them while they sat enjoying the parks surroundings.
Dogpatch Caverns which had been around previous to the parks creation under the name Mystic Caverns. A second cavern was discovered by accident while renovating the original cave and was planned to be called “Old Man Moses Cave”. It has, since the parks' closure been called Crystal Dome. The caves hold the distinction to be the only attraction which has operated both before and after the park closed.
The Frustratin' Flyer was a steel "Monster Mouse" coaster created by Herschell. It was installed in 1968 for the park's debut and it operated until 1991. A later victim of the failing park the Frustratin’ Flyer was sold between 1991 and 1992 season.
Earthquake McGoon’s Brain Rattler was a toboggan roller coaster that was manufactured by Chance Rides. The ride is believed to have been part of the park when it was opened in 1968. In early brochures it was depicted as being a track wrapped around an enormous tree, but the ride was actually made of metal. At some point in the 1970's the ride was closed, possibly due to maintenance problems. It did not reopen until the park was sold to Ozark Family Entertainment in 1981, and was believed to be in service for the remainder of the park's life. One of the few rides to survive the closing of the park the ride is still in operation under the moniker of The Wild & Wooly Toboggan at Little Amerricka amusement park in Marshall, Wisconsin.
The Funicular Tram, referred to as the "decliner inliner", the tram was used to transport visitors from the parking lot into the park below. It was purchased from an unknown manufacturer in Switzerland and shipped to Dogpatch USA at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars. It was installed in 1970 and opened at the beginning of the 1971 season, it could transport as many as 1,700 guests per hour. As passengers descended into the Dogpatch USA valley they were given a short story about the park over the tram's PA. The tram remained in service until 1992 when the park eliminated general admission, and has the distinction of being the only ride that remains in the park, although it’s remains lies in somewhat less than working condition.
The newcomer to the park was Li'l Abner's Space Rocket - The ride was added sometime prior to 1978 but in sharp contrast to the rustic theme of the park, it never quite fit in with its surroundings, its addition has been thought to signal the beginning of the end of the park. The ride, prominently displayed on brochures from the era, was removed when the park closed in 1993 and its whereabouts have since vanished into the winds of time.
The Trash Eaters also bear mentioning, though not really an attraction - The park had trash cans equipped with huge animal heads that "ate" (or rather sucked) the trash out of patrons hands and into their mouths. The heads were shaped like goats, pigs, and even razorbacks and the unusual design encouraged patrons to properly dispose of their trash by making it a fun experience. The trash eaters used a unique & unusual design in their operation. You see, there was a blower motor inside the trash eater "house". The inside of the "house" was sealed so that when the door was shut, a vacuum was created which sucked trash into the trash eater's mouth. The trash then hit a stop and fell into the trashcan located inside the trash eater "house". Several of the trash eaters still stand in silent vigil to this day, but for how much longer...no one knows.
Right out of the comic strip came the Kissin’ Rocks. They were a natural landmark in the Dogpatch comics & came to mirror the comic in real life. The real life park icon is made of granite & was one of the most photographed areas on the property. After uncounted kisses caught on film it still stands today as a testament to this once great park that remains in a special part of so many peoples' memories.
The West Po’k Chop Speshul was the miniature train that ran on this line at Dogpatch USA departed from the depot station and ran along the outskirts of the town. The tracks crossed over a bridge overlooking Marble Falls, known as “The Bottomless Canyon”. The train went through a tunnel and then circled through the valley of the Shmoo’ & then returned to the depot by the same route. The train made one stop on the return trip, near “The Brainrattler” ride, allowing passengers to wander that section for a few minutes. Normally there was only one train in operation, but there were two locomotives available during peak capacities in the park. The whereabouts of the train are clouded in mystery. At some point after the park closed passerby’s spotted the engine being loaded up on to the back of a trailer. Weather it was stolen or saved remains to be seen. One can only hope for the latter.
Other Rides In The Park Included The Wolf Island Paddle Boats, The Boat Train ride (replaced in 1988 by bumper boats), The Helicopters (kiddie ride), Ole' 99 (which was a kiddie train ride), The Wild Water Rampage, Yo-Yo ride, The Paratrooper ride, The well-known Scrambler ride, The Merry-go-round, The Antique Cars, General Bullmoose's Gravity House (a blacklight maze, fun house), The Shooting Gallery, Hairless Joe and Lonesome Polecat's Kickapoo Joy Juice Barrel Ride (which was a Rotor ride) replaced by a children's play area in 1988, Sky Driver (which replaced the Brain Rattler in 1989), The Wheel of Misfortune (a Round Up, spinning ride, Wheel of Fortune spinner theme-decor)
The Beginning of the end actually came at the end of the first season; the park had over 300,000 visitors and made a comfortable net profit at the time of $100,000. Rumored disputes of O.J.Snow and the other investors over distribution of profits from the park led Snow at first and eventually the majority of other investors in the park into selling their shares to Jess Odom.
Al Capp, who was at first hesitant about Odom’s new role in the development of the park apparently put his fears to rest at some point and signed a substantial agreement giving Odom license to use the Li'l Abner themes and likenesses in franchising agreements that could span decades had with an equally substantial share of gross proceeds going to Capp.
Odom had plans to invest millions in the development of the Dogpatch USA park as well as develop a new sister park called Marble Falls Resort and Convention Center. Which would have three ski slopes, an indoor ice rink, and an amphitheater which would feature various music and theatrical events. This remarkable idea may have worked if not for a series of unusual and foreboding weather events that caused a delayed opening to the resort. In another turn of unfortunate events a mild winter brought an early close to the first season. This combined with countrywide climbing oil & gas prices that was affecting tourism coupled with rising costs of operating the parks led to spiral into debt that the parks would never recover from.
In a bizarre sense of irony Dogpatch USA itself was profitable for all but two years of its operation. However, other local attractions such as Silver Dollar City which had more elaborate rides and attractions began to win over many of the parks paying customers.
Al Capp Retires
The parks, already suffering from lower attendance then received what was possibly the most significant factor in the imminent demise of the park. The retirement of Al Capp from producing the popular comic strip in 1977.
Without the national exposure from the comic strip, the Dogpatch/ Li'l Abner began to fade from the public eye and their memory. The effect of his announcement however, did not have an immediate impact on the park nor did anyone see the gathering storm clouds As a matter of fact and in sharp contrast to the announcement, 1977 had recorded numbers of visitors as well as record sales per visitor to the park.
Musical (Chair) Owners
Then, almost in no time at all came rapid successions in ownership. With every new owner came various enthusiastic plans to change and revitalize the park. However, despite the bright future that each new owner promised Dogpatch USA filed bankruptcy in 1980. The park was never the same after the Bankruptcy, but, they lingered on and the parks then began their slow decline into obscurity. Instead of upgrades and renovations, the management began cutting costs by focusing on arts/crafts and charging for individual rides scratching desperately for every penny that could be earned. Intentional cost saving measures aside, the final death nail came as the L'il Abner/Dogpatch brand was removed from the park altogether referring to itself as Dogpatch, Arkansas. The park like so many before, although seemingly successful alone, could not bear the additional burden of supporting its failing sister site Marble Falls Resort and Convention Center. Struggling under massive financial pressures in 1993...the parks closed.
In the years that followed the park changed ownership, bits and pieces of what remained began to disappear and although ideas abounded and rumors swirled about the park being reopened, it being converted to a movie ranch, an eco-tourism hub and about a thousand other ideas none of which materialized. Instead year after year, new weeds would break their way through the seams in the concrete, vines would climb a little higher on the old decaying buildings, the grass would grow a little higher and the once meticulously maintained landscape would fade from view as Mother Nature began to reclaim her own. Gone were the sounds of children and their laughter. The only occasional tourist that the park would see were those either looking to document the withered remains of the park or worse, those that would raid it for whatever scraps of the park that weren’t nailed down, and for that matter some that were. Yes the park had been rapidly losing its battle with time, the elements, and those who would have no purpose other than to destroy what was left of this once beautiful theme park.
You would think then, in consideration of all that had happened to it so far, that the park would then quietly fade off into history But no, as if to add insult to injury, a 2005 accident ended in a judge rendering a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit, a 17-year-old named Pruett Nance and his father. The young Mr. Nance was riding his ATV onto the property and claimed he had permission to be there by the property owners when he ran into a steel cable nearly decapitated himself. The owners at the time claimed the cable was stretched between two trees to thwart trespassers. In a lawsuit filed by the Nance’s it was claimed that the cable was put with the knowledge it would cause harm. In a battle that lasted all the way to the Supreme Court, the Nance Family received a judgment in favor of Pruett Nance and according to various sources he was given the deed to Dogpatch and became one of its youngest owners when the owners could not, or would not pay the judgment which ranged from $650,000 to $700,000.
More Bad News
Bad luck would continue to plague the area when four years later more trouble would come to Marble Falls (who had changed its name from formally from Dogpatch in 1997) in the form of wastewater issues. In January 2009 a waste sewage lift station, which was installed during the creation of Dogpatch USA back in 1968, ceased to function due to an ice storm which in turn caused sewage to over flow into nearby Mill Creek. Mill Creek fed into the Buffalo National River which resulted in direct contamination of the Buffalo National River with raw sewage flowing from Marble Falls. The community supported by the massive system is only about 100 users. Because of this the Arkansas Department of environmental quality left the Marble Falls Sewage Improvement District two options,
1.) Fight the case in court ,which they would almost certainly lose or,
2.) Build a new sewage treatment facility which would cost a total of over $1,000,000 which would still only serve 100 users. This translates into a cost of $10,000 per user. I don't know about you, but I would have just a little bit of a problem with that.
The Undiscovered Future…
Fast forward to present times in 2012. The park now not in the hands of a corporation or business man, but in the hands of a young man who has a lot of ideas for the future of the land that the remains of the park reside on. What is in the future for Dogpatch USA? A new Amusement Park? A restored version of Dogpatch? A RV Campground? A Camp for Youth? Whatever it may become of it in the future, hopefully it is in better hands now than it has been in a long time. With the imagination of youth and perhaps some financial backing, history may turn into the future for this ole' dog...
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This episode of Echoes Of Laughter is brought to you in part by Amazon.com. Please help support Echoes Of Laughter and our other shows by visiting audiosmaximus.com and clicking The Swagus Maximus Store Link or by clicking on our Amazon Affiliate Link. The products you purchase cost you no more than they do normally but we are paid a small commission that helps to pay for the cost of producing our shows. Thank You All For Your Support!
Script Written By: Kenny Fairchild & T. Michael Fairchild
Rides info per http://www.abandonedok.com/dogpatch-u-s-a/