The story of Dogpatch USA is a meandering one that now covers half a century. Its course resembles the winding, up-and-down path of Scenic Highway 7 that brought hundreds of thousands of visitors during its 25-year run.
The tale of the rural theme park located between Jasper and Harrison has continued to grow even since its closing in 1993.
New characters have joined the ensemble once populated by a comic cast that included the curvaceous Daisy Mae, sassy Mammy Yokum and wide-eyed Li'l Abner. The cartoon-that-once-came-to-life created a colorful backdrop to Dogpatch’s roller-coaster history.
That history features appearances by a couple of legendary Arkansas businessmen, Jess Odom and Melvyn Bell; timeshare condos and chalets, part of a bold and ill-conceived effort to popularize snow skiing in the Ozarks; and a serious four-wheeler accident that led to a change in ownership.
Now, 24 years after the theme park closed, new investors have big ideas for this patch of land “down here in the middle of nowhere.” Ironically, original sets from the futuristic Starship Enterprise have made their way to the primitive setting. Plans include selling non-GMO cornmeal produced by the old Dogpatch grist mill with an eye toward developing an eco-tourism village.
Current plans also include a trout farm, which as it happens, is where our story begins, with the Raney Trout Farm and Marble Falls.
The entry fee was 50 cents a carload for families to picnic and enjoy the natural beauty of Mill Creek with its 55-foot plunge over Marble Falls. Souvenirs and such could be purchased at a gift shop near the falls.
Most of the revenue came from trout fishing in a put-and-take pay lake formed by a dam on the spring-fed creek. The Raneys supplied bait and tackle, so visitors could “put” a line in the water to “take” a fish.
Payment came when the catch was weighed and sold by the pound. Dressing the trout and packing it on ice for the trip home was part of the bargain. The Bluff Spring hatchery on-site helped replenish the supply of fish.
The trout farm was the brainchild of Albert Raney Sr.
"Grandfather was the instigator," said Ernie Raney, who grew up on the property and continued to tend to the trout farm during most of the Dogpatch years.
"I enjoyed the trout farm and doing what I did and messing around that creek. I learned to swim in that creek. When it was decided to sell, I didn't want to do it. But that wasn't for me to say."
Back in 1966, when the idea of Dogpatch was hatched, O.J. Snow of Harrison formed a group of 10 local investors to buy the trout farm along with more than 700 acres owned by the Raney family and transform the small roadside attraction into something grander that would create jobs and more commerce.
The group formed Dogpatch U.S.A. Inc. in January 1967 after striking a licensing deal to use Al Capp's Li'l Abner hillbilly comic strip characters as the motif for their theme park.
Starting a theme park is one thing. Operating it as a viable, sustainable business is another.
Over the unseen horizon was lurking the Great Inflation that began in 1972 and overshadowed the rest of the decade with climbing interest rates, gasoline prices and utility costs.
“The theme park business is capital-intensive and a labor-intensive business. Dogpatch was undercapitalized from day one.”
"The theme park business is capital-intensive and a labor-intensive business," said Wayne Thompson, who did two tours of duty at Dogpatch, as operations manager 1971-75 and as general manager and part owner 1980-90. "Dogpatch was undercapitalized from day one."
Built for $1.3 million and mostly completed when it opened on May 17, 1968, Dogpatch was a hit. But keeping the momentum going with new attractions to keep the crowds coming back to feed the cash-hungry operations was daunting.
"We could tell it needed $500,000 or $1 million more to really do something with it," said Joe Nance, the only surviving member of the original Dogpatch investors. "That's why we went to Jess Odom."
The Odom Years
Odom was flush with cash after selling Little Rock's National Investors Life Insurance Co. in August 1968 for a reported $11.8 million.
Tom Bill Rogers, a Harrison banker and one of the original Dogpatch partners, knew Odom and made the connection. Odom brought more money to the table and, in return, gained a 51 percent share of Dogpatch USA.
The Odom-plus-10 partnership only lasted a few years before a dramatic falling-out. A new line item cropped up in a financial report reviewed by the minority partners: $80,000 in 1971 dollars for administrative expenses paid to Odom.
A conference call asking questions about the legitimacy of this bookkeeping entry led to a face-to-face a few days later at the Dogpatch offices.
Odom entered the meeting with an entourage of lawyers and accountants in tow. He took the floor to address concerns voiced on the phone by his partners who questioned his integrity in handling the money.
Odom walked around the room talking about his impeccable character, his honesty and spotless reputation. He made several strolls around the seated gathering while extolling his virtues to the minority partners.
His soliloquy was finally interrupted by Hallie Ormond, who called Odom out. Ormond didn't trust Odom and told him so in no uncertain terms.
Flabbergasted, Odom went into an indignant rant. His unimpeachable honor was being assailed and his good name was being openly slandered.
When the 65ish Ormond could get a word in again, he reiterated his position and that of the minority partners in even more colorful terms to make sure Odom didn't miss the plain meaning a second time.
"That meeting ended one minute later," said Joe Nance.
The sheets were loudly torn asunder. Odom ended up buying out the 10 original Dogpatch investors not long after that.
It would be Odom's show for the rest of the 1970s. But the breakup of the partnership left a lingering cloud of local distrust that would help prevent his ownership from extending into the next decade.
Odom's grand plans included adding Marble Falls Resort in 1972 with a convention center, an indoor ice skating rink and a ski slope supported by snow-making equipment.
Why go to Colorado when you can hit the Ozark Mountain slopes? Discounting reliable weather and more accommodating topography, the visionary idea made perfect sense.
Some remember the man-made skiing conditions at Marble Falls Resort were ice more often than not, even when the temperatures were cold enough to make snow.
The attempt to create a second season of business through Marble Falls was supported by $2 million in debt-funded infrastructure.
Instead of augmenting Dogpatch's warm-weather revenue, the resort was a financial disaster that produced five money-losing winters and was dragging the theme park down with it.
To shore up the financing, Odom tried to win support for a tourism revenue bond issue of $9 million, then $6.5 million and finally $5.2 million through the city of Harrison. On Jan. 7, 1980, the city council unanimously rejected the proposal. Afterward, talk of moving Dogpatch to near Ozark or Clarksville was thrown in to stir the pot. Later in 1980, a proposed $5.5 million bond issue through Newton County fell apart, even though Odom kept his name removed from the effort to avoid a repeat of the Harrison vote.
Creditors couldn't agree on a revised repayment plan required to accompany the bond-funded refinancing.
Also helping sink the deal was skepticism the park could attract the minimum of 236,000 visitors in 1981 to support the restructured debt. The head count had reached only 169,000 in 1979.
“If he had concentrated on the park, I think it would still be there today. But it might not. We're down here in the middle of nowhere with a theme park.”
According to news accounts, the Dogpatch-Marble Falls Resort debt in March 1980 totaled $7.3 million, of which $2.2 million was owed to Odom Enterprises.
Bankruptcy removed Odom from Dogpatch in 1980, and Union Planters Bank of Memphis became its brief caretaker. "I think Mr. Odom let people talk him into some things," said Ernie Raney. "He got some advice from some people that wasn't very good advice.
"If he had concentrated on the park, I think it would still be there today. But it might not. We're down here in the middle of nowhere with a theme park."
Despite its rural location, Dogpatch was historically profitable though not a gold mine. That would be proven out when mismanagement on Odom's watch would be washed away by new ownership.
Enter Ozarks Entertainment Inc., which paid $1 million to Union Planters for Dogpatch sans Marble Falls Resort and its supporting chalets and time-share condos.
"Their motivation was to re-establish Dogpatch, and they did," Thompson said of OEI, which included some of the original investors.
With Thompson running the day-to-day operations and cranking up marketing efforts, Dogpatch enjoyed stable seasons during what some consider to be its true glory years of 1981-86.
"The best years are when we bought it in 1980 and restored it and started having some success with it," Thompson said. "We really were doing some fun things. We were bringing in some name entertainment and had full employment." Melvyn Bell, chairman of Little Rock's Environmental Systems Co., entered the ownership picture in 1987, and his timing couldn't have been worse for Dogpatch.
Bell's fortune was built on his Ensco stock holdings, which he leveraged to buy many things. That fortune went into a freefall on Oct. 19, 1987, remembered by Wall Street as "Black Monday."
The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged by 22.61 percent, the largest one-day decline drop in its history, part of an epic global market crash.
In two months alone, the market crushed the value of his Ensco holdings from $42.3 million to $21.7 million. His business empire would never be the same.
In a 1998 deposition, Bell placed his net worth at a negative $5.6 million. Somehow, he managed to soldier on and keep Dogpatch operational until 1993.
Bell had already dispatched with the Li'l Abner characters, and the theme park that bore their hometown name closed on Oct. 14, 1993.
Like Odom before him, foreclosure removed Bell and ushered in new ownership. Odom died in 1998, and Bell died in 2006. In 1994, a $455,000 bid on the Newton County Courthouse steps in Jasper began a shadowy 17-year ownership by two Missouri brothers, C.L. and Ford Carr. They tried to sell the Dogpatch property, stripped of most of its amusement rides over the years, in hopes of making millions on their purchase. There were no takers, and the property sat idle.
A Sept. 9, 2005, four-wheeler accident started the removal process of the Carrs.
That day, Pruett Nance, grandson of former Dogpatch investor Joe Nance, was severely injured when he struck a neck-high steel cable while riding on the former theme park property.
Three years later, a Newton County jury viewed the unmarked cable as a liability-bearing hazard created by the Carrs that overshadowed conflicting testimony over whether permission was granted to be on the property.
The Nance family was awarded $233,762 in medical expenses plus damages at the two-day trial in September 2008.
The Carrs lost ownership of the Dogpatch property after they were allowed to post the property in lieu of a cash bond in an unsuccessful appeal of the verdict. The case ultimately went before the Arkansas Supreme Court before ownership of Dogpatch finally passed to the Nance family in 2011.
Stewart Nance, Pruett's father, had a dilapidated, vandal-damaged theme park on his hands until two investors entered the picture in 2014. He hopes that James Robertson of Newbury Park, California, and his partner Charles "Bud" Pelsor, can bring new life to Dogpatch.
"They have done a really good job cleaning up the place," Nance said. "It was under briars and brush when I got the property. You couldn't even drive through it."
Pelsor, who has set up house in the former Marble Falls ski lodge, has big-picture plans for an ecotourism village with a more immediate goal of getting the trout farm restarted and the grist mill operational to produce non-GMO-cornmeal — this year, if he can.
"I have rose-colored glasses on when I look at this," Pelsor admits. "I always underestimate the time."
Two items bring an other-worldly quality to the Dogpatch story.
A visit by the Spook Earth Paranormal crew on Nov. 18 suggested that a ghost theme park built on the former site of a ghost town may indeed have ghost activity. Pelsor figured some free internet publicity couldn’t hurt by granting access.
Meanwhile, “Star Trek” film sets have found a home at the former theme park. The bridge, sickbay and transporter room from the old TV series are owned by Dan Reynolds, president of Reynolds Media Inc. in Harrison.
Is Dogpatch on the brink of becoming a destination for Trekkies, too?