For 25 years, Dogpatch USA was a hillbilly theme park in the Marble Falls area of northwestern Arkansas.
The 400-acre park once hosted a few hundred thousand visitors a year. Now, it lies abandoned in the Ozarks, home to weeds but no tourists.
The park was the creation of O.J. Snow, a real estate agent from nearby Harrison. The property, once a trout farm, had some striking similarities to the world of Al Capp’s long-running comic strip Lil’ Abner.
Snow thought it would be an ideal place for an amusement park based on Capp’s fictional hillbilly world. Using real-life Ozark cabins, Dogpatch USA soon took shape. Perhaps, Snow hoped, it would even be the next Disneyland.
The park debuted on March 17, 1968, to a grand opening crowd of 8,000. Al Capp provided a speech dedicating Dogpatch USA, honoring both his own cartoon and the real-world fantasy land it spawned.
Attractions included the Wild Water Rampage slide, the RMS Jamboree, and the “Skunk Works.”
Harkening back to the property’s roots, the park even included a trout farm. Fresh-caught fish could be served in the park’s restaurant.
But attendance never reached the projected 400,000 a year – or even more ambitious 1 million its owners thought it might bring in by the 1980s.
Dogpatch changed hands a few times over the years. By the 1990s, it was performing so poorly that free admission and a la carte pricing became standard policy. With Lil’ Abner no longer appearing in newspapers (Capp had ended the strip in 1977), and the hillbilly craze of the late 1960s long past, the park was struggling.
Its owners at the time downscaled the park’s ambitions, stripping it of the cartoon strip influences. In October 1993, Dogpatch closed for good.
The park is now a haunting window into hillbilly life and late 1960s American pop culture. It’s particularly striking how visitors can still find pieces of the old Lil’ Abner strip along with an unsettling mix of hillbilly culture and mid-century commercialism.
Dogpatch never got anywhere close to matching Disneyland’s trailblazing success in the theme park world.
Instead of a vibrant attraction for visitors of all ages, the park is instead home to eery log cabins, abandoned rides, and rusty old signs.
But that could change.
In 2014, Charles “Bud” Pelsor and James Robertson purchased the property for just over $2 million. Now two years later, the pair are seeking to sell the $2.75 million as of May.
That was a discount, though. Pelsor and Robertson had originally listed the park for $3 million. Pelsor would actually like to keep his half, if possible, and help see through his plan with a new partner. He wants to turn the old park into The Village of Dogpatch, which he envisions as an ecotourism-focused attraction with new restaurants and artwork displays.
“[The potential new owners] said they would like to have me involved,” Pelsor told Arkansas Online earlier this year. “They like the plan that I have, but they have plans of their own, of course. I feel like I’m on a mission and would like to complete it. There’s plenty of room, especially if they buy more.”
But Pelsor is also cautious in his optimism, saying “I don’t get excited until somebody actually signs the check.”
Until then, Dogpatch remains an empty collection of hillbilly paraphernalia. It’s a slightly spooky look at a theme park that once was and could be again.