By Ryan Nix | Photos By JAMISON MOSLEY
If you grew up in Arkansas during the 1970s and 80s, there’s a good chance that at least once your family boarded its massive station wagon and pointed that wood-paneled monstrosity towards Newton County, home to Arkansas’ only true amusement park: Dogpatch USA. Themed after Al Capp’s long-running Li’l Abner comic strip, Dogpatch USA opened in the summer of 1968 and at its peak entertained nearly one million visitors annually. People today still rave about the park’s exhilarating roller coasters, stocked trout stream and its talented cast of walkaround characters.
Today, Dogpatch lies in ruin, stripped of whatever could be sold or stolen; the park’s buildings have collapsed, and its train tracks rust among overgrown weeds. How could such a popular, homegrown attraction fade so quickly from our collective memory? Why did it fail so spectacularly? In search of answers, AY About You contacted Heather and Jeff Carter, two Eureka Springs filmmakers who recently produced a full documentary about the park, titled “Dogpatch, USA: An Average Stone-Age Community.”
“We made this film to preserve the memory of Dogpatch USA. It was so unique to Arkansas and important to our history, and we wanted to keep that for future generations,” says Jeff Carter.
The story of Dogpatch USA starts in earnest in 1968, when the nascent park was purchased by Jess Odom, a Little Rock businessman credited for making Maumelle a thriving community. After selling his life insurance company for $11 million (equivalent to $77.8 million today), Odom traveled to Dogpatch USA, 10 miles north of Jasper, where he bought a controlling share of the one-year-old park. Today, a millionaire driving to the Middle of Nowhere, Arkansas, to spend his newfound fortune on an amusement park themed after the hillbilly cast of a newspaper comic strip would seem insane; at best it would turn out to be some kind of huge money-laundering front, at worst it would demonstrate a complete nervous breakdown.
However, at the time, this investment wasn’t that crazy. Not only had the Disney company just opened its tremendously successful theme park in Florida, 1960s America had developed a strong fascination with country folk. “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres” were the most-watched sitcoms of the decade. As for the park’s particular theme, in the 1960s, the Li’l Abner strips were incredibly popular. “It’s hard for people to understand today, but Li’l Abner was more popular than Superman and Batman at the time,” Carter says. “At its peak in 1968, Li’l Abner was read by over 60 million people every day.” With such a huge audience, it makes sense that building a Li’l Abner theme park looked like a smart, if somewhat risky, business venture.
Adding to the overall eccentricity of Dogpatch’s development, in 1969 Odom hired Orval Faubus as the park’s general manager. You may recall Faubus was the Arkansas governor who was at the center of the Little Rock Crisis. For those of us who aren’t history buffs, Faubus ignored the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to desegregate public schools and dispatched the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from entering Little Rock Central High, prompting President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send the 101st Airborne to escort black students to and from the school.
It’s unclear why Odom hired such a controversial public figure to run his theme park. Faubus was quoted as saying, “Managing Dogpatch is similar to running a government, some of the same tricks apply to both.” Faubus’ tenure was mercifully short; he left in 1970 to pursue the first of three failed attempts to retake the governor’s office.
Post-Faubus, Dogpatch enjoyed several years of success; Odom continued building more attractions and expanding the cast of characters who would entertain and interact with guests. The Carters interviewed many of the former cast members for their documentary, all of whom had fond memories of their time at the park. “Those actors saw Dogpatch as their first love, like your first girlfriend or boyfriend. You don’t forget that face,” says Jeff Carter. “We actually interviewed multiple couples who first met acting at Dogpatch and are still married to this day.”
By all accounts, Dogpatch offered a truly immersive experience. “Once you rode the funicular down the hill, you entered a whole new world,” Carter explains. “Modern theme parks have characters, but at Dogpatch you could go put your arm around Daisy Mae and have a conversation. They always stayed in character.” Dogpatch’s actors would follow daily routines, hang out on the front porches of their character’s cabins and authentically interact with audiences, almost like an analog virtual reality unlike any amusement park, past or present.
Unfortunately, nothing gold can stay. While Dogpatch USA was quite profitable through the next three summers, Odom decided that Dogpatch needed a sister park, one that could be visited through the winter. Odom decided that what the people of Arkansas really needed was its own ski resort, which he built in 1972 and named Marble Falls, complete with ski slopes, alpine chalets and an ice-skating rink.
Unsurprisingly, Arkansas’ first and only ski resort failed, probably because it was a ski resort in Arkansas. Through the mid-70s, Arkansas experienced a series of unseasonably warm winters, requiring Marble Falls’ snow machines to constantly run to keep the slopes skiable. Keeping the ice frozen on the skating rink also proved extremely expensive. Until Odom closed Marble Falls in 1977, he estimated that the ski resort had lost $50,000 to $100,000 every year it had been open, eclipsing the modest profit turned by Dogpatch.
In 1969, Odom walked into Dogpatch with $11 million. Eight years later, he was $3 million in debt and would soon sell the park.
Despite this, Odom wasn’t wholly to blame for Dogpatch’s failure. We can also blame Ayatollah Khomeini. “A less obvious factor was the gas crunch in the late 1970s, which really hurt Dogpatch,” Carter says. “People were afraid to drive out to a remote area like Harrison and get stuck because they didn’t have any gas out there.” Odom put out ads and press releases promising the town had gas available, which alleviated that problem. However, the future of Dogpatch was short-lived.
In 1977, Al Capp, the creator of Li’l Abner, decided to retire, taking the comic out of publication. “They probably could have downsized a little and changed up the park’s focus and survived, but after Li’l Abner went out of print, a whole generation of kids had never heard of the comic,” says Carter. Once the comic stopped appearing in newspapers, the park lost its cultural relevance.
Imagine what would have happened to Disneyland if after Walt Disney died in 1966 his company stopped making movies. The park would probably survive for another few decades, but the next generation of children wouldn’t understand why their parents cared about Snow White or Dumbo and would also probably be frightened of the park’s giant, walking rodents. Without the model of Disney’s theme parks to follow, it’s unlikely that theme parks in general would have survived as a concept.
Considering that 60 million people read Li’l Abner, it’s amazing how quickly it faded into obscurity. Today, the strip’s only apparent cultural contribution are Sadie Hawkins dances, named for an annual event in the comic where women would chase down reluctant bachelors. If a male runner could be caught and dragged to the finish line, he and his captor would start filing their taxes jointly, if you catch my meaning. Thankfully, our Sadie Hawkins dances only involve a reversal of traditional gender roles with women inviting men to the event, although I’ve personally never dated anyone I couldn’t outrun, just in case.
Anyway, the end of Li’l Abner sounded the death knell for the park. The final year that the park turned a profit was 1978, as people began losing interest in a park themed after a comic that was no longer published. Also, by that time Magic Springs and Silver Dollar City had opened and provided more robust entertainments, draining Dogpatch’s already-diminished pool of potential patrons.
Dogpatch passed through the hands of other owners, first a conglomerate of Ozark businessmen, then to Melvyn Bell, who owned several amusement parks, including Magic Springs. Bell lost his hat in the 1987 stock market crash and sold Dogpatch, along with his other properties. The park limped into the 90s, but finally shut down for good in 1993.
Failed Plans, Lawsuits and Spill-Proof Dog Bowls
For 20 years, Dogpatch USA lay dormant. Ironically, Marble Falls was able to make something of a comeback; it was purchased by Debra Nielsen, who now runs it as a hotel and restaurant. However, Dogpatch itself had very little going on. It was picked clean of sellable rides and attractions while the remaining buildings sagged, the grist mill’s wheel broke apart and the covered bridges collapsed into the stream.
Enter Bud Pelsor, who made a small fortune inventing the spill-proof pet water bowl, calling it the “Buddy Bowl,” which he sold through his company Great American Spillproof. In 2014, Pelsor purchased the park’s remains, where he intended to build an eco-tourist village of artisans and craftspeople. However, a series of unfortunate events and mishaps led to Pelsor selling the property last October.
Around the same time, I was able to visit Dogpatch USA. While walking around the grounds, I ran into a wiry, mustachioed man wearing a half-buttoned shirt. Once we got over our mutual surprise, I explained that I worked for AY About You and he explained that he was, in fact, Bud Pelsor — successful inventor, pet supply magnate and owner of Dogpatch USA. He also revealed he had sold the park, exclaiming that he was “Getting out of this place!” as in, moving out of the park’s former ski lodge where he’d been living for several years. I was intensely curious why he had bought the park in the first place. I couldn’t see why any successful entrepreneur would buy a defunct amusement park in the boonies, unless he wanted to become some kind of “Scooby-Doo” villain.
AY About You: Why did you purchase Dogpatch?
Pelsor: I knew people around here and visited when it was in its prime. You can’t find a more magnificent property.
AY: What did you have planned for the park?
Pelsor: We had planned on building an intentional community and bringing back the gristmill, the trout farm, living in the park and developing it into a community of artisans. We wanted to bring back some of the heritage of Ozark folks’ arts and crafts.
AY: Like a Commune?
Pelsor: Almost, more of an evolution of the concept. An intentional community is where we make sure the right people come in and develop the area in a proper fashion with respect to commercial pursuits and respectful of the environment. It would be open every day to tourists and visitors, who could spend time and money here, supporting the residents.
AY: What went wrong?
Pelsor: Well, we had some serious financial problems right off the bat. My major business partner died suddenly of a heart attack, and we lost her network, so that put us behind for a few years. Then there was the whole thing with Heritage USA.
Heritage USA, Inc. was a company owned by David Hare, not to be confused with the similarly-named Heritage USA, a Christian-themed waterpark run by televangelists Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker. Coincidentally, the Bakkers’ Heritage USA theme park is also now closed. In 2017, Hare made a deal with Pelsor to develop the Dogpatch property into “Heritage USA Ozarks Resort at Historic Dogpatch.”
Soon after signing leases to rent both Dogpatch and several adjacent properties owned by Debra Nielsen, Hare stopped making payments. On August 20, 2018, Nielsen filed an eviction suit against Hare, who had apparently disappeared, having never paid a cent of his $5,500/month lease. Hare also owed Pelsor $29,000 in back rent, all while taking thousands of dollars from hopeful visitors to reserve rooms at his hypothetical resort.
We don’t know whether Hare was a grifter from the start or if he genuinely wanted to revitalize Dogpatch. On Heritage USA’s YouTube channel, Hare claims to be “Just one of hundreds of writers, producers, imagineers, animators and creative talents who want to celebrate America,” although the video’s aggressively poor quality calls that claim into question. In other videos, Hare states that through his theme parks and planned streaming service, Heritage will “defend against attacks on Christianity” and address “the educational system that has been overwrought with an anti-American agenda.” It’s unclear how an amusement park in the Ozarks would achieve these aims, but either way, Heritage USA turned into a scam and Hare has proven unreachable for comment.
AY: What is your perspective on the failed merger with Heritage USA?
Pelsor: (Sighs deeply) In one word, insanity. Hare seemed like a normal person, if a bit arrogant, but then he started losing it. He would scream and rave at his contractors and major investors, running them off and pretty much tanking our development. Once I realized he was a maniac, it was too late.
AY: Do you know what happened to David Hare?
Pelsor: Well, after everything went south, his dad came and got him. Last I heard he’s basically spider-holed in his mother’s basement in Orange County, California.
AY: Now that you’re moving on from Dogpatch, what’s your next step?
Pelsor: I bought a piece of real estate outside of Austin, Ind. We’re going to start doing a music show. I’ve decided to call it “Outside Austin City Limits.”
AY: Aren’t you worried about getting sued by “Austin City Limits” [Texas’ popular music festival and television series]?
Pelsor: Oh no, I welcome it. The notoriety would be great for us. So far we have a studio and several venues in Louisville, Ky., lined up. We’ve networked with local TV and radio stations up there. I’m basically promoting and producing for a small stable of exclusive talent, like a combination record label and event promoter.
AY: Who purchased the Dogpatch USA property?
Pelsor: I don’t know, actually. Jim Robertson, my company’s CFO, handled the sale.
After a few days of trying, I was finally able to reach Jim Robertson, who repeatedly claimed that he had no information about Dogpatch, and that I should talk to Pelsor. My curiosity piqued; I called Donnie Davis, Newton County Circuit Clerk. According to Davis, there is no record of the Dogpatch USA property being sold; the last paperwork related to the park is a 2014 quitclaim deed between Pelsor’s company and Debra Nielsen. Davis also mentioned that he believed there was a recent offer that fell through.
I did a bit more digging and found that, while Pelsor has paid his personal taxes, Dogpatch USA’s property taxes haven’t been paid since 2016. If they are delinquent for another year, Newton County will repossess the park. With all the peculiar developments, I called Pelsor back, hoping he could shed some light on the situation. Evidently, this was a surprise for him as well.
When I called to talk to him about the lack of evidence for a sale and the tax delinquency, Pelsor says, “This is new information for me.” Pelsor continues, “Oh boy, that leaves it on my shoulders, doesn’t it?”
Given the turn of financial discourse, Dogpatch may indeed be up for sale — again. Newton County’s next public land auction, scheduled for July 14, 2020.
A New Day For Dogpatch USA?
Evidently there isn’t really a market for small, local theme parks in general, particularly those located deep in the Ozark Mountains. So, the question must be asked: Is there any hope for Dogpatch? After filming their documentary, the Carters believe there is a path back to success. “Young people nowadays are more interested in adventurous, outdoorsy stuff. The one aspect of the park that was consistently profitable was its trout farm, which actually existed before Dogpatch and is still there,” says Carter. “There [are] two springs producing over 4,000 gallons of fresh mineral water. Dogpatch could renovate the trout farm and then build an adventure park around that.”
Pelsor, the park’s erstwhile owner, agrees. “Yes, a nature park would be viable. You don’t even need to move the buildings off the land, they just need to be rebuilt and restored. The area’s not in bad shape; they just need some renovation and infrastructure built, then you could rent them out to fishers and hikers,” he says.