Bill Caldwell: Al Capp’s comic strip came to life in Dogpatch USA | Local News

For more than 40 years, Al Capp’s comic strip “Li’l Abner” ran in the pages of The Joplin Globe. The strip began in 1934. The Globe introduced readers to the residents of Dogpatch on Dec. 18, 1936. The strip continued in the Globe until Capp concluded the strip on Saturday, Nov. 5, 1977.

For decades, a whole world of characters and places were created by Capp’s fertile imagination. While the comic strip was peopled with rustic characters, Capp used them to satirize contemporary political and social scenes. Li’l Abner, the lead character, was strong but clueless. His girlfriend, Daisy Mae, pursued him for years before they finally tied the knot in 1952. Mammy and Pappy Yokum and scores of other characters filled Dogpatch. Capp created Lower Slobbovia as a foil for political and diplomatic satire. A recurring character was Li’l Abner’s favorite comic strip character, detective Fearless Fosdick, who fought crime with abandon, always getting his man but creating chaos in his wake.

By the 1960s, Capp’s strip had inspired a play and films. But in 1967, O.J. Snow and nine other Harrison, Arkansas, businessmen took up the idea of creating a theme park around the comic strip. They purchased 825 acres on Highway 7, south of Harrison, for that purpose.

Capp had resisted previous offers but was convinced when Snow sent home movies showing the property and how he envisioned the attractions. Instead of roller coasters and thrill rides, Snow planned paddle boats, train rides and horseback riding as well as musical presentations. Capp liked the concept and agreed, and Dogpatch USA was born.

The area Snow purchased had been known as Marble Falls. After Capp’s agreement, the residents petitioned to change the name from Marble Falls to Dogpatch in 1968. Work on the park took about a year and a half to complete.

The park held its grand opening on May 18, 1968. Capp, Arkansas’ lieutenant governor, an area congressman and Miss Arkansas all were on hand to kick off the attraction. For the first day, there were skits by Dogpatch characters and musical groups. The grand opening ceremonies centered on a speech by Capp and the unveiling of a statue of Jubilation T. Cornpone, Dogpatch’s founder. An estimated 8,000 visitors were welcomed that day.

Besides the rides, a spring-fed trout hatchery provided fish for the mill pond and two trout lakes. The Globe’s story covering the opening noted the ponds were “open to anglers with no license required and no limit. The fish are dressed and packed in ice by employees of the park after the catch.” The park had craft shops featuring artisans who made candles, wood carvings and blown glass, all with a look at yesteryear.

The first year, the park attracted 300,000 visitors. That was the record attendance. The next year, 1969, marked a high point of national popularity of rustic entertainment, which included nearby Silver Dollar City and CBS television’s “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres.” Capp’s comic strip was syndicated in more than 700 newspapers.

For the first few years, it was profitable. A number of additional attractions were added. Marble Falls Resort and Convention Center opened in 1972 as the first ski resort in Arkansas. The park used snow machines. Lodging was available in condominiums and campsites. Rides such as Pappy Yokum’s Positively Petrifying Putt-Mobiles, a shooting gallery, animal attractions and cave tours of Mystic Caverns and Old Man Moses Cave kept visitors entertained.  

But the mid-1970s were not kind to the park. The energy crisis of the 1970s slowed down tourist travel. Rising interest rates caught park owners in a vise as a series of warm winters kept the ski resort idle. And then, in 1977, Capp ended the comic strip.

The park changed hands in 1981. With new investment and corporate sponsors such as Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper and Tyson foods, the park revived. The Earthquake McGoon’s Brain Rattler ride was added, as were musical shows. The caves were spun off to separate owners. Marble Falls Resort changed hands and became embroiled in a series of complicated legal problems. Still, the park was profitable through the 1980s.

By the latter part of the decade, park operators began to realize they could no longer lean on Li’l Abner and the comic strip, as it was not part of the popular culture of the younger generation. Competition with Silver Dollar City and Branson with its many entertainer-based theaters and with the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View cut into the park’s customer base. By 1991, the managers dropped the Li’l Abner theme and changed the name to Dogpatch, Arkansas. That lasted another two years until the park closed in October 1993.

The acreage has been divided in subsequent years by developers trying various recreational ventures with limited success. Even as late as 2014, plans were made to revitalize the park but without success. While the Mystic Caverns are still in operation, Dogpatch USA remains a fond memory.

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