A keen observer of popular culture, Roger Brown, published an article called Dogpatch USA: The Road to Hokum, published in Southern Changes, The Journal of Southern Regional Council (1993). Brown actually set foot in the park shortly before its demise:
Dogpatch USA is a classic American roadside attraction. It’s a basket of cornpone and hillbilly hokum in a beautiful Ozark mountain setting. Nearby is a waterfall, limestone caverns, and a spring that flows clear and steadily into a creek that has powered a gristmill for more than 150 years. The decor is bumpkin kitsch.
Though Brown enjoyed the “hokum”, he found the place had “surreal” aspects that the patrons likely missed:
What most of the visitors didn’t fully realize, however, was that they were participating in a moment rich with a sort of postmodern poetics which has since become commonplace: The Arkansas syndicate that built Dogpatch USA was peddling colonial stereotypes as family entertainment, and at the core of the park’s attraction was a complex melody conjured by the dueling banjos of simulation and authenticity.
He interviewed Melvin Bell who bought the park from investors who acquired it at a bankruptcy auction held on the courthouse steps in Jasper after Odum went bust. The auctioneer’s wife once played “Daisy Mae” at Dogpatch. Bell thought the growth that was happening 45 minutes away at Branson would help Dogpatch. Brown also gave some credence to that incorrect idea.
Since 1906, Branson had aggressively pursued tourism with the assistance of Harold Bell Wright and the Missouri Pacific Railroad. A four lane highway now connected the Shepherd of the Hills country with an interstate highway. Silver Dollar City, Dogpatch USA’s competitor, didn’t lock in its image to a clever, but sarcastic comic strip. Folksy Romanticism was in. Irony apparently didn’t appeal to the generation who saw nothing wrong with protesters like leftist folk singer Joan Baez, who Capp had satirized as “Jonnie Phoanie”. Though Silver Dollar City tolerated some fringe hillbilly-ness the park played up a hillfolk portrayal a la Harold Bell Wright and emphasized native crafts. Al Capp might have done a takeoff on the hillbilly Las Vegas, as the neon lit booming Branson was misleadingly called. Early on, he had ripped Shepherd of the Hills in his comic strip.
In the spring of 2014, we wandered through the abandoned Lil’ Abner themed venture in Northern Arkansas. That summer, newspaper articles began popping up announcing that the long closed attraction had a new owner. Charles “Bud” Pelsor and investor James Robertson and wife of Newbury Park, California had purchased 400 acres of the troubled property. Other sections had been already disposed of.
Pelsor, inventor of the Spill Proof Dog Bowl, had big plans. He announced he would restore the old grist mill and with grain milled on the grounds bake artisan bread. He wanted to fix the train tracks that once circled the park and buy back the little locomotive. Trout would be stocked and served at a restaurant. Fresh water mussels would produce pearls. Dilapidated buildings would be reborn. No more locals dressed as characters from a hillbilly comic strip would communicate with visitors in an anachronistic vernacular regional dialect. In other words, Pelsor is not going to go hillbilly with his theme park. The Harrison Daily Times ran an article titled “This Place is Magical” on September 3, 2014 that said: “The park will be geared to eco-tourism. They will plant gardens, orchards, and vineyards.”
Click any image to start the slideshow of Crystal Payton’s photographs of abandoned Dogpatch USA, May, 2014.