When life and art collide the result is not always explosive. When Al Capp’s cartoon hillbillies were played by real Arkansas youngsters in a Dogpatch built of abandoned log cabins and sawmill shacks in an Ozark hollow, the result was more of an implosion. The failure of Dogpatch U.S.A. had the hollow poetry of “not with a bang but a whimper.” The deflation of interest in hillbillies in mass media in the late 1970s and ‘80s, along with the disappearance of Li’l Abner from the funny papers, were not its only challenges. Developers’ fantasies collided with geographic reality. An amusement park is a very real, material thing that has environmental specificities. A comic strip is a paper-thin illusion. Dogpatch USA was located on a winding two-lane blacktop, miles from anywhere and years too late.
Given the history of Arkansans trying to disassociate themselves from the Arkansas Traveler legend and other rude, backwoods mythos, it’s surprising that it was a group of local businessmen who dreamed up the idea. While Li’l Abner often had satiric sequences with little or no mountaineer clichés, its central characters were indisputably hillbillies who lived in a southern mountain setting. Capp had been pitched on a theme park based on Li’l Abner before, but he bit when Harrison, Arkansas real estate agent O. J. Snow and some friends approached him with an ambitious scheme. They proposed developing Mill Creek Canyon, a scenic valley just off the Buffalo River with a fifty-five foot waterfall, a trout lake, and several caves, into a complex of rides, restaurants, lodging and the entire obligatory theme park infrastructure that would attract tourists.
There were some sensitive souls in the Publicity and Parks Commission in Little Rock with reservations about the hillbilly image thing. By and large, though, the business community and state government got behind creating a job-creating, make-believe hillbilly-land smack dab in a region with an unflattering primitive reputation. All the good timber had been cut out years ago and subsistence farming lost its charm. Ozarkers were desperate for employment. If dressing up in ragged old clothes and talking ungrammatically through your nose entertained outsiders, then so be it. The hillbilly personae had been created primarily for urban consumption. Capp, DeBeck and Webb were hardly southern country boys. Still Arkansas natives, Lum & Abner, and Bob Burns had cashed in playing rusticated naïves. People in rural and small town settings chuckled at Snuffy and Li’l Abner too, although they generally preferred folksier versions of the mountaineer. By this time in history, city and country sensibilities were converging.
Li’l Abner’s creator gave a short speech to a crowd of eight thousand at the park’s opening on May 17, 1968. Capp and his wife also had been on site when ground was broken the preceding year. Then he said, “Of all the by-products of the strip, this is the one I’m most proud of.” Their adopted son, Colin Capp (Kim), came to Dogpatch in 1969 to help with sales and public relations. In an atypically harmonious blend of art and life, Kim fell in love with Moonbeam McSwine, or rather Vickie Cox, the local gal who played the sexy, but unhygienic temptress.
A million-three was spent on the park, and a big expansion was on the drawing boards. Four hundred thousand paying customers came; a million-two-hundred-thousand were projected for the next year. Alas, that first year was the high water mark. In the following twenty-five years attendance would never break two hundred thousand. An argument over whether to distribute the hundred thousand dollar profit from that happy first year among the nine local investors, or plow it back into improvements, created discontent. This riff led to Jess Odum, who had just sold his insurance company for millions, buying out the original group.
Odum had ambitious plans that unfortunately collided with international geopolitical developments like the oil crisis, stratospheric interest rates, and flaws in the concept. When he hired disgraced segregationist, former governor Orval Faubus, to manage Dogpatch USA, he gave ammo to those who didn’t care for the park to start with. Faubus symbolized that “good old boy” type that, like the hillbilly caricature, was becoming a joke that no one laughed at.
The politically savvy hillbilly governor didn’t stay long at Dogpatch. Brooks Blevins works this into his summation of Dogpatch USA in his erudite book, Arkansas/Arkansaw:
We could debate the level of cultural degradation served up by Dogpatch, U.S.A., as well as the complicity of Harrison businessmen and locals and college kids who made a buck or two cavorting around as cartoon characters. But the fiscal health of the park seems rather more cut and dried…In the final estimation, it seems likely that a major reason for the park’s failure was location. Rugged and remote, Newton County might have seemed the ideal setting for a place like Dogpatch, but there is a fine line between rusticity and just plain old too far off the beaten path. Orval Faubus’s decision to jump off this wagon not long after jumping on it should have been a warning to the park’s ownership, for the old governor always had a good sniffer for trends and popular crusades.
Souvenirs from Dogpatch USA. (Click on any to start slideshow).