Tag Archive for hillbilly

RUINS OF DOGPATCH USA – PART 2

Billboard two miles north of the ruins of Dogpatch USA on Arkansas Highway 7, south of Harrison.

Billboard two miles north of the ruins of Dogpatch USA on Arkansas Highway 7, south of Harrison.

Across the road from the peeling Dogpatch USA billboard is a contemporary smaller sign illustrating the Edenic recreational opportunities of the Buffalo River country. This wild and scenic stream in 1972 became the first National River and is administered by the U. S. Park Service.  (click to enlarge).

Across the road from the peeling Dogpatch USA billboard is a contemporary smaller sign illustrating the Edenic recreational opportunities of the Buffalo River country. This wild and scenic stream in 1972 became the first National River and is administered by the U. S. Park Service. (click to enlarge).

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.

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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.

 

DOGPATCH USA THEME PARK – PART 1

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.

h604Given 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.

h1135Dogpatch USA actually got off to a promising start.

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.

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Bumpsticker. Dogpatch USA had Al Capp’s blessing, but he had little input into the actual park. That a group of native Ozarkers wanted to base an attraction on his characters flattered him. Doubtlessly he was somewhat sensitive to criticism that Li’L Abner reflected poorly on the intelligence, character and cleanliness of southern mountain folk.

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.

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Interior of a 1989 brochure. Near the end of its twenty -five year run, Dogpatch USA devolved from its Li’l Abner themes to an imitation Silver Dollar City craft village with a few carnival rides. The trout lake had been there before the park and it remained popular. Meager as its attractions were, there are a lot of comments on the Internet that reveal many warmly remember the hokey hillbilly hamlet.

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).

HILLBILLY OUTHOUSES

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Hillbilly homesteads are rarely without an outhouse, inevitably embellished with a half moon carved in the door. Countless postcards and souvenirs perpetuate this concept. Unlike other hillbilly attributes like long guns and moonshine jugs, this privy mountaineer syndrome has no genesis in historical accounts. Back in the log cabin era, dimension lumber to construct the little house out back wasn’t available. We have never seen a log cabin privy. Pioneers likely did their business in the woods in shallow pits occasionally spanning them with a section of tree trunk to sit on.

Jokey souvenirs and novelties of hillbilly outhouses have been marketed to a public that readily accepts the backwoods mountaineer as a symbol of perpetual revolt against industrial society’s improvements to hygiene, health, and comfort. (click on any image to start slide show)

Our next post will explore the likelihood that the hillbilly outhouse syndrome did not originate in the mountains.