TO BEGIN: Dogpatch is a dream.
The dream that so many have of Dogpatch is a dream that has already happened, that lives on in memories of lost summers, class rings that were fumbled over water, made a plunk and were lost forever, fondness for past loves, sweethearts, second-ever kisses on a simple suspension bridge gently swaying, of feeling the hard suction of a bumble-bee-faced trash sucker gasping for a soiled paper napkin, of feeling the warm hand of a long-since departed loved one. There were day trips, overnighters, honeymoons, family vacations, hot days, debaucherous nights when 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders-slash-ride-operators were given free rein after hours and rode the rides until they lost their lunch. Sometimes, these experiences were preserved on 8mm film or Super 8 film, or VHS, where they could be played over again and again—but more often than not, they were allowed to take root in people’s memories, where the experiences have invariably taken on outsized roles.
Others will tell you the dream now is a difficult one to understand. It’s a dream that keeps you waking. It’s a dream that takes you winding north through the Ozark hills along Arkansas Scenic Highway 7, that keeps the eye of your flashlight steady as it seeks out trespassers, even as the cold gnaws at your hands, that compels you to keep a long-faithful weed whacker forever in the trunk of your car, the latest in a series of yard tools deployed against the perma growth of the park’s flora, its dead-looking but terribly resilient vines suckered to the planked walls of the weathered wooden structures, practically embossed, snaking like varicose veins.
But no matter the shape Dogpatch assumed, there have never stopped being dreams. Dreams are what had given the park life and what kept it from falling. But dreams are not, and have never been, enough to keep reality aloft. After all, it is very, very easy to dream, to conjure the shape of something and wait for someone else to fill it. There needs to be something that buoys reality, a scaffolding from which all those fond memories can hang. Without it, there’s just the faint outline of what once was—something that becomes increasingly difficult to find, even when you’re looking for it.
YOU COULD SEE an awful lot from the tip-top of Earthquake McGoon’s Brain Rattler. Forty-five feet above the ground, the outside world as seen through the metal grates started turning very quickly, a carousel of browns and yellows, glints of water, lush greens, as the little one-person car wound down 450 feet of track, circling the center column like a maypole, till it arrived at the bottom, made a couple of dips and stopped with a jerk. Once your guts stopped flipping and your eyes stopped spinning, or maybe vice versa, all those colors would resolve, melding into something a little bit more concrete, and you’d see something remarkable.
Had this been your first moments of consciousness (or if your brain had been sufficiently rattled), it would’ve felt like waking up in someone else’s dream of the Ozarks: hundreds of acres of idyllic mountain beauty, a roaring waterfall, greenery that would, without hesitation, take hold of everything and gobble it down if left unchecked and allowed to go feral. But a few things would’ve felt off, a few dials turned up too high, the dream’s embellishments a bit too much on the nose.
Coming off the ride, you would’ve seen two large weathered granite boulders, shaped a little too much like faces to be coincidence, their lips a whisper away from touching. In the creek you’d see people floating the waters in a chain of boats linked end to end, but the boats were shaped like logs. Turning around, just a stone’s throw from where you’d gotten your brain rattled, you’d find a small, one-room church with a cemetery in the back, but the names and epitaphs were all wrong.
“Elvira Boggs: Mad enough to die most of her life an’ finally up an’ done it!”
“Po’ ol’ Charlie Bogg: Bit ’n two by a Arkansaw hog!”
“Take heed: Here lies the mortal remains of Clayton McPigeon. He expired after he et his bride’s first meal. (Kindly ignore any burps an’ rumbles from this grave!)”
Had you made your way north—hopping the railroad tracks of the “West Po’k Chop Speshul,” hooking a left on Hawgfat Boulevard up to Slobberin’ Wolf Forks, crossing the bridge at the Old Grist Mill—you’d eventually land among shanties and shacks, a hamlet where real and dream intermingled. Here, there were artisans, but their mothers had given them curious names: a woodcarver named George Bernard Saw; a beekeeper named J. Goodbody Sweetpants; a glassblower named, appropriately, the blowhard politician Sen. Jack S. Phogbound. Weaving among crowds of regular-looking folks were college-age kids dressed in tattered but familiar garb, affecting hillbilly accents, their faces sun-kissed, calling themselves names like Li’l Abner, Daisy Mae and Mammy Yokum, (perhaps they gave the vibe of theater kids or performing-arts majors, but they were staunchly in character and probably wouldn’t have dreamed of touching a hamburger lest the illusion be jeopardized).
Although the modern reader might find this all quite foreign, anyone who’d read the funny papers with any regularity since August 19, 1934, would’ve been familiar with the tableau. They would’ve known Dogpatch USA was the “tarnip”-growing community of the Yokums, (a mishmash of “yokel” and “hokum”). They would’ve been familiar with terms and turns of phrase like “going bananas,” “natcherly” and “hogwash,” and phonetically charged curiosities like “Accordin’ to the sun, it hain’t suppertime—but the way mah stummick feels, it must be.”
After all, by the time Dogpatch USA opened in 1967, straddling the line between Boone and Newton Counties, “L’il Abner,” a comic strip penned by Al Capp, had been a cultural force for well over three decades, with a national syndication peaking at well over 900 papers in the ’50s, and an estimated readership of 60 million.
IN READING THROUGH Capp’s work, it’s remarkable, if not unsurprising, to learn that Alfred Gerald Caplin was born, raised and eventually died in Connecticut. Or that the extent to which he’d gotten real-world material for the comic strip was limited to a hitchhiking trip to Tennessee he’d taken at the age of 15. Apparently not terribly well-versed in long-distance hitchhiking, he and a buddy had blown through their $16 cash reserves before they’d even cleared D.C. They spent 22 days thumbing their way down to Memphis, where they briefly stayed with Capp’s aunt and uncle. On the return trip, the pair wove their way back through the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky.
While Capp’s trip through the South lasted all of two months, Li’l Abner would run for 43 years.
ONE THING IS important to note here, however: The idea of staging Dogpatch USA in the Arkansas hills hadn’t originated with Capp. For about a week in August 1962, a man named Albert Raney Sr. advertised “40 or 1000 acres. $15/acre. Ozarkadia. Marble Falls,” in the Arkansas Gazette classifieds. In 1966, he turned to a Harrison-based real estate broker-slash-developer by the name of O.J. Snow for help in selling the property. In the Raney family’s bucolic parcel midway between Jasper and Harrison, however, Snow saw an opportunity for an investment. Although Capp had given Dogpatch’s location as Kentucky in the ninth strip, and on a handful of occasions in 1934 and 1936, more often than not it was just Dogpatch USA. Who was to say, then, that it couldn’t be Marble Falls?
Along with nine other Harrison businessmen, Snow formed Recreation Enterprises Inc., or REI (not to be confused with the Washington-based outdoor recreation company), and pitched the idea to Al Capp. Although he’d refused previous offers, Capp agreed. Many years later, Al Capp’s son, Colin, who’d helped manage the property in the early days, would fault the business-minded approach for the park’s ultimate demise. “They came from a business background, and they tried to use that knowledge to build a theme park—and you can’t do that,” he said in an interview for the documentary Dogpatch USA: The Life and Death of a Theme Park. “You have to have some imagination. You have to see things that aren’t there yet.”
At 12:21 p.m., on October 3, 1967, the investors broke ground. (An article in the next day’s Arkansas Gazette noted that, “It was still a mystery to Snow Tuesday as to why Capp finally permitted Dogpatch to become a reality in Arkansas.”)
Not even nine months later, on Saturday, May 17, 1968, the gates were opened to more than 8,000 people. Along with a number of Arkansas political and cultural dignitaries—Jimmie Driftwood was scheduled to play; Sen. J. William Fulbright said he’d try to make it—Capp was on hand that day, riding the train into the town square to the tune of “Jubilation T. Cornpone.” After his introduction, a newspaper account read, “a boy dashed across the roof with a young girl and an irate father carrying a shotgun hot behind him.”
Now, had you trained a camera on the park and allowed for a cinematic time lapse over the next 25 years, you would’ve seen a theme park transformed time and again, with a succession of new owners and new ideas, motivated largely by mounting desperation and similarly mounting debt. You would have seen a place that never came close to its projected popularity (an economic impact study claimed Dogpatch would draw 1 million visitors per year; it never bested the first year’s 300,000), but still drew a modest following. No doubt, a short recap can’t hope to do justice to the park’s sprawling history, but even a cherry-picked accounting of the park’s rise and fall gives some sense of its brief, outlandish tenure.
At a news conference in Little Rock on January 8, 1969, Jess P. Odom, a former insurance executive who’d go on to develop the central Arkansas community of Maumelle—and who’d also recently purchased a controlling stake in REI—had a few big announcements to make: For starters, the man sitting on his right, former Gov. Orval Faubus, would be president of the park. According to the Arkansas Gazette’s account, he would be “assisting with its public relations, serving in a managerial capacity, overseeing the employees who run it and insuring [sic] that proper courtesy was shown to visitors.”
He also announced his plans to invest $5 million to $7 million over the next three years and had already ordered $350,000 worth of rides, marking a thematic departure for the park which had previously prioritized Capp’s source material. Within three years, Odom said he hoped to have the park open year-round. Much of what he announced that day in Little Rock day must’ve seemed ambitious. But sure enough, a week and a half before Christmas in 1972, Odom opened Marble Falls, a winter resort boasting three ski slopes—two 500-foot beginner runs and a 1,500-foot intermediate slope—along with Alpine-style chalets and a skating rink. And for those who might be asking, “Well, how exactly does one ski in Arkansas?” The answer is six snow cannons and a monthly $22,000 utility bill. (Also: Not well.)
What happened in the years that followed? It’s difficult to understate just how many setbacks the park faced. There was, for instance, the less-than-cooperative weather, which transformed the already teetering-on-the-brink-of-a-pipe-dream winter park into a full-blown money pit (it was closed by October 1977). There were the lawsuits, the impossibly high interest on loans, the ballooning debt, the threats of foreclosure, the revolving gallery of owners. And then, of course, there was Li’l Abner himself—or rather, the lack thereof: On November 13, 1977, Al Capp retired the strip.
It’s very, very easy to get caught up in the details of how Dogpatch USA met its end. It’s easy to focus on the symptoms of inner financial turmoil that bubbled into view, and all the last-gasp ploys to coax prospective visitors to a place that seemed, literally and figuratively, ever more removed from civilization. But in speaking with people about their experiences at the park, these failings never cloud their fond memories. The park never stopped meaning something to many people—even after it closed for good on October 14, 1993.
AFTER DOGPATCH WAS closed, it wasn’t long before whatever magic had previously bound the park together began cracking and sloughing off. Even before the park had closed its doors, a couple from Fort Smith, John and Debbie Nielsen, had started buying up much of the former Marble Falls property atop the hill, beginning with a pair of chalets, eventually amassing some 217 acres. The park proper—or at least some 417 acres of it—was sold on the courthouse steps for $455,000 on December 20, 1994.
A representative for the then-unnamed buyers (later revealed to be Ford Carr, and Jaro L. Finney and his wife, Wanda Finney) called the purchase “spur of the moment,” later elaborating that “it was more speculation” and “a pretty good buy.” Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, the new owners weren’t especially active. When there was talk of an eco-tourism venture in February 1997, their attorney didn’t express much hope for the prospects. (“They’re aware of it, but not part of it,” he said.) Odds are, however, that their attention was getting increasingly drawn less to future plans for the property and more to what had plagued management from the beginning: finances.
During the years of 1995 to 2002, the park was described as “swimming in red ink” no less than three times, by three different authors in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In 1997, when the park was threatened with an auction—some $49,251 in back taxes had accrued from 1990-95 and the new owners were on the hook for it—the county clerk noted that he wasn’t sure why anyone would want to buy the property: “If I bought it, I would lay awake at night and wonder who will be the next to file something against it.”
Eventually, the park was listed on eBay in October 2002 for an opening bid of $1 million. However, as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette noted: “As of late Friday, Dogpatch had attracted no bidders. Carr said he wouldn’t sell for the opening bid of $1 million and that he’s hoping for $4 million. The land could be sold or swapped, he said.”
FOR ALL THESE reasons, it’s not especially surprising that people weren’t exactly lining up to take ownership of the property. Nor is it surprising to learn that the most recent owner, Stewart Nance—whose father, Jim Nance, had been one of the original members of REI—hadn’t even sought to acquire the park. Rather, it’d come to him and his family in the form of a court settlement.
On September 9, 2005, his son, Pruett, had been riding through the park on an ATV with his girlfriend when he ran into what Stewart would later estimate to have been a half-inch-thick steel cable strung across an asphalt road, unmarked. When the matter went to trial in 2008, the defense claimed Pruett had been unable to speak even at a whisper until the following spring, and that both his esophagus and trachea had been severed in the accident. In 2011, after years of litigation, his family was awarded a $764,582 judgment—and when those funds weren’t available, the judge awarded them the park.
In a brief 3.5-minute radio interview that took place in May 2011, two weeks after the settlement was announced, Stewart told the reporter:
“I’m pleased that my son has lived through the ordeal he’s been through, and we certainly didn’t ever know, or intended, we’d end up with the Dogpatch property. But the Lord has wonderful ways of working, and the way we’ve ended up with the property wasn’t, again, anything that we ever thought would happen. But be that as it may, we certainly intend to do something with the property that would give it the kind of attention and bring it back into the mainstream for the public to enjoy and have access to at some point in the future—but that’s probably a ways down the road.”
ON THE FIRST weekend of December 2014, an older man with an enormous walrus-style mustache was speaking to a group of people in front of the old Raney trout pond. Embroidered in red thread over his right breast pocket was his name, “Charles L Pelsor,” with his nickname immediately below: “Bud.” A few months before, on August 13, the Indiana native-slash-inventor of a “spill-proof” dog bowl (“Great American Spillproof Products” was embroidered over his right pocket) had purchased the property for $2.2 million. And now, speaking to those gathered around him, he was laying out his dream for what Dogpatch USA could be.
“Down here, one of our first endeavors will be gently cleaning the stream bottom so that we can incorporate mussels in the stream bottom, put the stream back to its gravel and rock bed like it was originally—silt it in, with a lot of weeds in it,” he said. He then seemed to grow a little wistful. His voice loosened and moved a little easier, as if he could already see what was going to be there: teaching gardens with standards above organic, orchards, vineyards, Arkansas black apples, a haven for the endangered Ozark chinquapin tree. As he spoke, he kneaded the loop of a purple leash, at the end of which was his beloved wolf dog, Dia, short for Miss Arkansas Diamond.
“Course,” Bud said, inadvertently echoing Stewart Nance’s words from a few years before, “everything’s a long-term project, and it’s a step at a time.”
For those listening, this must’ve seemed like a dream. Over the course of that weekend’s “Riverwalk,” a two-day open-house-slash-meet-and-greet for anyone interested in meeting Bud and seeing the property in person, Bud estimated some 5,000 people had walked the grounds, (the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that 3,000 waivers had been signed, but Bud said hundreds more had come through an entrance that was supposed to be closed). And while there was good reason for skepticism, there was one central fact that no one could deny: For the first time in nearly 20 years, the park had been opened to the public. It was akin to Willy Wonka flinging wide the gates to his factory.
Still, as was clear to anyone in the park that day, the years had not been kind to Dogpatch.
Many of the rides had been sold off shortly after the park had closed. Windows had been smashed in or out. Walls were braced with vines. The 18-foot statue of General Jubilation T. Cornpone had been transported to Branson, Missouri, for repairs in 2003 but was still decamped 11 years later. A sign headed with the words, “A word about Dogpatch,” lent the surroundings a touch of unintended irony: “Formal landscaping is literally unknown to the citizens of this quaintly delightful community.”
Although considerable effort had been made in the past few months to pare back the growth and remedy some of the more glaring concerns—the latticework of the old Wild Water Rampage water slide had been completely camouflaged by greenery, revealing just the upper platforms above an impenetrable tangle of ivy; one of the log-boats from the Empress O’ Dogpatch had gotten lodged on the promontory at the edge of the waterfall—time and neglect and vandalism had leveled a serious toll.
There were also concerns that weren’t so obvious. At one time, many years before, the pool where Bud stood had been fed by a 58-degree mountain stream. Rainbow trout had squiggled just below the water’s surface, slipping around the kicking orange feet of white ducks, and were caught, fried and served at an adjacent restaurant to whoever had hooked them. That stream, Mill Creek, flowed over five spillways, filling a man-made lake that stretched 7 acres before eventually reaching a grist mill. Not so many years before, in January 2009, an ice storm had caused a waste treatment system to dump an estimated 3,600 gallons of sewage into Mill Creek every day for months. In spring 2010, a few spikes of E. coli prompted a dye test to determine whether the system was the source of the elevated bacteria levels, (the tests were ultimately inconclusive—though it’s worth mentioning that mussels, like the ones Bud promised, eat the culprit bacteria).
When you consider the decay, the vandalism and the potential environmental concerns, to say nothing of insurance costs or the series of unfortunate events that struck the property after Bud signed the papers—two floods, a fire that took three buildings—there’s little doubt that he faced an uphill battle even from the beginning. Still, his biggest hurdles weren’t even related to the park: It was trying to get people to take him seriously. When he met with a local politician and tried to build support, he recently recalled in an interview, “It just felt like I was talking in the end of the sewer pipe. It went nowhere. And it was the same way with other people who were promising help and promising grant money and promising this and promising that—and it’s like, Where is it?
“I just feel like I didn’t play the right politics to get the grant money, because my ideas are definitely worthy. They save the environment. They are more than sustainable; they’re in the plus direction instead of just standing still.”
So it was that Bud’s tenure wasn’t defined by what he did, but who he allowed in. To his credit, however, that was more than most of his predecessors had done. The following spring, in May 2015, Bud hosted another Riverwalk event. That fall, there was the Pirate Invasion in September; the Dogpatch Heckuva Halloween in October; the Christmas Village in December. There were smaller events—artisan markets, craft fairs, car shows—and of course, there were individual tours: Anyone willing to sign a waiver and fork over $5 could have access to the park.
There were also some less-expected uses for the property: A fan-made production of the original Star Trek series, The Federation Files, was shot in a storage building on top of the hill. (According to IMDB, Bud was given credit for two episodes: one for executive producer, the other for “rescue facilitator” and “wolf handler.”) In May 2017, the park became the site of a post-apocalyptic hellscape known as Atomic Falls, in which hundreds of people donning their end-of-days best descended on the property with dirt bikes and tricked-out riding lawn mowers. (“We are proud to say that Atomic Falls welcomes all travelers, regardless of faction, clan, mutant DNA or species. We think you’ll have a heckuva day at Atomic Falls, USA!”)
As the years wore on, it became clear that things weren’t going to happen the way that Bud had envisioned. In March 2016, the park was put up for sale for $3 million, (a newspaper account reported that Bud’s business partner, James Robertson, wanted out for health reasons). A few months later, in June 2016, the asking price was dropped to $2.75 million. Eventually, it fell to just over $2 million.
And then, in the fall of 2017, Bud got a call from a potential buyer. He’d heard from the guy roughly a year before but had written him off as a big-talking sort. This time, however, the guy said he was serious: He had backers. He had contractors. He was ready to move forward. Was Bud willing to meet?
ON THE SOUTHERNMOST end of the park, located on Lovers Leap, overlooking Bottomless Canyon, there are a pair of enormous stone faces called Kissin’ Rocks. Because of their hardiness, they’d remained untouched by the years and curiously unmarred by vandalism. For so many visitors, the two boulders which had filled the backgrounds of so many photos, their lips never touching, had become a visual shorthand for this place that had captured so many imaginations.
On November 26, 2017, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a black Ford Explorer pulled up to the stone faces, and a man named David Hare, representing a company called Heritage USA, formerly based out of Las Vegas, stepped out of the SUV with his business partner, Mike Bigelow. Although there had been some maintenance, the park was overgrown, with reality rapidly outpacing the myth. It was, to put it very, very mildly, a “fixer-upper.”
But for David, it must have felt like walking into a dream for the first time. The pictures didn’t do it justice, he said. He saw the rocks on the verge of kissing, the lips on the verge of brushing, and felt something, surely, not unlike what so many before him had felt: joy.
And having signed a lease-to-purchase contract the night before, Dogpatch USA was his.
It was also the first time he’d ever seen the park in person.
IN THE INITIAL virtual town-hall-style meeting that David live-streamed on January 8, 2018—and the subsequent video updates, many of which ran from 45 minutes to well over an hour—viewers gradually got a sense of what was planned for the park. He said their initial focus would be on the properties at the top of the hill: the hotel, the RV park, the theater. He said they planned to have someone out to survey the old train to see if they could make it work. He said they’d have the cars from the old Dogpatch Auto Drive ride. He said they planned to open the property up in stages, and invited travelers to stay at the hotel. He said that they wanted “to be part of a community—not kings, or wanna-be kings sitting on a hill.” He said a grand opening was scheduled for summer 2020. He said it would be called Heritage USA Ozarks Resort at Historic Dogpatch.
But while the responses to his early updates were generally positive and enthusiastic (as of this writing, there are still 543 thumbs-up votes on that first town-hall video, and just nine thumbs-down), there were no shortage of red flags off camera—even from the very beginning.
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, David cut an exceptionally charismatic figure (I was told it was “difficult not to be on the David Hare train”), but within 24 hours of signing the contract, people say he became a different person. His mood grew more volatile. He seemed suspicious of people he interacted with on a daily basis. He was easily frustrated by the locals. When he visited the Marble Falls post office and was told that he wouldn’t be able to use “1 Dogpatch Boulevard” as his address, he berated the post office employee. An interaction with his lead investor, Phil Goodlet, had especially unfortunate consequences: After being told to get the f*ck off the property, Phil promptly did so—and he took his funding with him.
It doesn’t sound as though David had always been this way, however. A high school friend, Terry, who’d moved his family from California to help with the park, remembered David as an exceptionally charismatic kid: He was a class clown, very gifted, very talented, “a breath of fresh air” who had a knack for making people like him. In later years, the two men had reconnected via social media and developed a good relationship, one primarily focused on Scripture scholarship. And when David was looking for people to help get Dogpatch off the ground, Terry agreed to help: Terry and his family arrived in late February, ready to work. But this wasn’t the David he’d known. By mid-May, Terry recalled, after three months of 80- to 90-hour workweeks, screaming matches, and ultimately, not getting paid, he and his wife had quit. (“We lived in hell for four months,” he said.)
They weren’t the only ones struggling to get paid.
Although David had claimed he’d liquidated his broadcasting company in Las Vegas, he had only been able to pay Bud a check for the first month’s rent. Debbie Nielsen, who was leasing Heritage the motel, convention center and restaurant, received one payment as well—however, she was also ultimately saddled with a $30,000 plumbing bill and an interior-design nightmare: “I kid you not, I had at least 10 different paint colors. It looked like a bunch of clowns was turned loose,” she said of the space Heritage had used for their office. “Now, on YouTube, you’re like, Wow, look at that. But you got inside the building—different story.”
PERHAPS BECAUSE THERE was such an emphasis on media—and because David put so much of himself into their production—the videos posted to the Heritage USA YouTube page provide some insight as to what the mood at Heritage might’ve been like as everything began to fall apart.
In “Down in Dogpatch Movie – Episode 1 – Part 1,” posted on April 28, 2018, viewers were introduced to Foxworthy, a backwoodsy talking fox puppet. In this episode (the first and only produced), Foxworthy gets all riled up that a character named Hubble Hare is trying to buy his beloved Dogpatch and embarks on a Mission Impossible-style attempt to apprehend the foreign interloper. The episode closes with a chase through underground passageways, with the disembodied voice of Hubble Hare echoing, “I’m just trying to help,” and Foxworthy’s paw catching a tripwire, triggering an explosive booby trap.
“From Disney to Dogpatch. A Personal Journey,” posted on June 3, 2018, is far different from the other videos, in that it doesn’t explicitly address the goings-on at Dogpatch. Instead, it’s a series of clips spliced together that show David Hare over the years: home-movie footage of a young boy playing at Disneyland; a young man in his mid-20s dressed in a tuxedo, crossing a stage with microphone in hand; a middle-aged man interviewing people in tropical locations for “America’s Television Network”; a modern David Hare manipulating the Foxworthy puppet for the aforementioned “Down in Dogpatch Movie.” The music track, the video’s only audio, is revealed in the credits to be “Follow your heart” with “Words, Music, Piano, Vocal: David Hare.” With the family movies shot at Disneyland paired with highlights from David’s professional reel, he seems to be saying: “I’ve wanted this my whole life, ever since I was a kid, and I’ve been working toward it my whole life. I’m somebody.”
While both of those videos are arguably somewhat veiled in their messaging, one of the last, and most telling, videos from the page doesn’t require the same measure of interpretation.
In “Do It Talk 3: Moving Forward. The Challenge,” posted on June 28, a less-composed David appears before the camera, lamenting some technical challenges. He soon gets to the point of the update, however, when he says, “We are in the middle of the challenge of our life, a very big challenge. And I’m going to tell you as much as I can tell you. Which I think will give you a picture of what we’re dealing with.”
After explaining there were limitations to what he could say on camera and posing some rhetorical questions (“Is it doom and gloom? I’m going to talk about that. Is it over? No, it’s not over.”), he gripped the microphone and pulled it closer to his mouth.
“I want to say from the beginning that I am not here. … I honestly have no desire to disparage anybody at all. I have been angry and frustrated with the circumstances that we’re contending with. But I have learned not to form hard, fast judgments about people and their motives, et cetera. Because you don’t always know. I don’t know. I can speculate, and I’ve got a number of speculations I think about at times. Nevertheless, I don’t know. So this is not personal, and I’m not going to make it personal, and I’m not going to attack anybody. I’m just going to say what is, because I think it’s only right that I fill those of you in who’ve been following the journey.”
He goes on to give a brief overview of Heritage’s time there: how they’d visited during Thanksgiving, approached property owners, come up with a plan for enlisting additional investors. But then how two of their partners—their main investor and their CFO/chief legal counsel—had walked.
“So that’s the challenge. Am I saying we’re quitting? Well, I’ll tell you something. … Here’s the thing. We have to deal with this matter. And like I said, I’m not saying anything to be combative in any way whatsoever. I want everything to work out. I want things to work out for everybody. But Mike and I didn’t walk away, but we’re not getting anything at this point but a lot of sleepless nights, and incredible work, and the hope that we can see it through.
“It’s not a matter of we just leave, so those of you that want us gone—well, even if we weren’t on the property, we wouldn’t be gone. We’d still be dealing with some things,” he says with a laugh, explaining that there was still the matter of property owners needing to be paid. As he closes the video, he says, “On behalf of Heritage USA, don’t count us out—but we’re not taking reservations for October, either.”
The headline in the Sept. 10, 2018, edition of the Newton County Times read, “Hare hops away from eviction.”
ON JANUARY 26, 2020, a man who has not been in this story at all, who has no financial stake in the property, who never visited the park when he was younger, patted the door frame of the church at Dogpatch and walked through the open door. It was a Sunday morning, although there was no mention of this, because there would be no service. The inside of the space was sparse, uniformly brown. There were no pews. A recovery Bible had once sat open on the pulpit, but it was gone this morning. At this point, you should know, there are no more dates, no more settlements, no more talk of unending pending litigation or debt or fault, no more quotations from newspapers.
After walking back out in the sunlight, Eddy Sisson made his way to his white sedan, which he’d parked within just over spitting distance from the Kissin’ Rocks, and hefted a well-loved weed-eater from the trunk. After scrounging for some spare plastic line and threading it through the head, he walked over to where grass had grown waist-high on the north side of the church. For the next hour, the air was filled with the brappy sound of a little gas motor that had seen better days.
If you’re wondering why, at this point, you should concern yourself with someone who, at least on paper, has very little to do with the Dogpatch property, there’s this: There are few people who can claim to have been fixtures at Dogpatch in the way that Eddy Sisson and his crew of volunteers have been.
Unlike so many 30-somethings whose histories start with childhood visits to the park in the ’80s and ’90s, Eddy’s history with Dogpatch extends back about a decade. In July 2012, he started a page on Facebook for Dogpatch USA, which now boasts nearly 40,000 members. In November 2013, he first visited the park with the urban exploration group called Abandoned Arkansas. In a set of some 200-odd photos from that first visit posted to Facebook, he wrote, “Finally here! I’ve loved it from afar for years, but now I can see it’s [sic] beauty with my own eyes. It is beyond describable.” Abandoned Arkansas visited many places during those years—abandoned schools, churches, hospitals, zoos, bowling alleys—but Eddy continued to visit Dogpatch. Again. And again. And again.
Eventually, he got to visiting so often that he started taking on minor maintenance around the park. Within two years, people started going with him and a community started to form. They’d spend weekends clearing the vines thickly braided on the buildings. They’d clear the trash that inevitably built up from Bud’s events, and they also found trash which had been undisturbed for decades, (there was no shortage of pull-tabs from old soda cans). They’d spend nights in the park panning flashlights over the buildings to let prospective trespassers and vandals know that there was someone there. In an odd twist on the park’s original purpose, the broken-down version of Dogpatch allowed them to break away from their real lives for a time and escape. It was a place that gradually began to feel more real than home.
Or at least until November 2017.
THE SHORT REASON for Eddy’s absence from November 2017 until January 2020 is that people tend to have strong feelings about Dogpatch. While everyone wants the best for the property, there are many different ideas as to what that means, and it can be frustrating for all parties involved when those ideas aren’t realized. As a consequence, there’ve been no shortage of hurt feelings, injured pride and falling outs. Put simply, the reason why Eddy didn’t visit the park proper for so long is that, around the time of the whole Heritage USA debacle, he and Bud had a falling out.
Put simply, the reason Eddy was able to come back is that Bud was gone.
When Bud first signed the papers with the Nances on August 13, 2014, he’d agreed to make monthly payments of $6,599.56, and eventually, five years down the line, pay whatever was left of the original $1 million principal, plus 5 percent interest. After he fell behind on the monthly payments and missed the August 2019 deadline for the balloon sum, the Nances filed a complaint for foreclosure on September 19, 2019, saying Bud owed them $922,919.35. By the end of the year, Bud had gone back to Indiana.
On January 4, 2020, Eddy and his volunteers went back to the park.
On January 25, they went again, but this time their priorities had shifted.
Two days before, the news had broken that Dogpatch would again be hitting the auction block come the morning of March 3, (it was later called off when a solid buyer came forward). Although Eddy had originally planned to spend that second weekend fixing up a little cabin: (“I would really like to temporarily fix that. Just so the next guy won’t be like, Well, it’d be cheaper to knock it down than it would be to, you know, to build it back.”), he ended up spending much of that Saturday day walking a pair of prospective buyers around the park. He told them about the place. He explained why it mattered. He showed them what it meant to people.
And that’s the thing with Dogpatch: You almost need to have someone who knows the property show you around. For roughly an hour, when Eddy was weed-whacking near the church, I found myself alone, wondering what all of this might’ve looked like when it was open. I made note that there were blue buildings, and red buildings, and off-white buildings, and stone buildings with brown second stories, and orange buildings, and that there were buildings that had collapsed into the water. I didn’t know what I was looking at.
As I was approaching the northern end of the park, Eddy pulled up in his car. We drove for a moment down a narrowing stretch of pavement, and I told him that I’d been wondering what the different structures were. The road ended. He put the car in reverse. We started driving backward, and Eddy proceeded to identify buildings as we passed them: the old Raney House, an aviary, Dogpatch University [sic], concession booth, a trio of trout-farm-related buildings, two of which he said predated Dogpatch. A small blue lean-to with a sign that read “Warning: Security Camera In Use,” had once been a locker and stroller rental, he said, and was later used as an information booth. “It’s been a little bit of everything,” Eddy said.
He then stopped in front of an intricate looking building, vaguely alpineish in design.
“This was the administration offices and the restaurant, where they fried your fish,” he said. “You caught the fish right in this pond up here, and they took it and fried it down below, and you’d eat it up there.” Turning to the right end of the building, he explained the administrative offices used to be there. “That used to be Odom’s office up there, the guy that did Maumelle and [Dogpatch].”
From there, Eddy pointed out the location of the barrel ride, the train station, the little cabin he’d tried to fix up. As a rule, to spend time in the park with Eddy is to have a sense of where things stand and where things have stood, a remarkable feat for many reasons, but particularly because for Eddy, Dogpatch has always looked like this.
The only exception to this rule had been the night before.
THAT EVENING, EDDY had been walking the grounds, trying to find something that had been there once but wasn’t any longer: the remains of an old mill. Underfoot, the rocks on the hill were big, black slabs, slick and crusted with old moss, making for treacherous footing. His normally soft speaking voice was raised a little bit to overcome the sound of the 33-foot waterfall that could be heard rushing somewhere back behind the stand of winter-bare trees.
“Where was that?” he said, his question drifting off. He took two or three steps up the hill, stepping carefully, before turning around and heading back the other way. His feet crunched through the scrub brush. As he found dryer ground behind a thin stand of trees, what little remaining evening daylight was quickly fading. “Man, I can’t find it,” he said.
A few minutes before, he’d gestured at this place and said, “You’re where the town used to be.” Not where Dogpatch used to be. This was where Marble City had once stood, where a man named Peter Beller built his mill around 1840, and extracted a 1-ton slab of marble that can now be found in the Washington Monument. This was where Willcockson had once stood, where a man named Samuel Willcockson arrived after the Civil War, where there had once been a bustling community of churches, general stores, a zinc mine, hotel, and a thriving hydro-therapy industry. It’s where, in 1933, Albert Raney Sr. found a parcel of land that was perfectly suited for a trout farm—after dispatching hundreds of water moccasins—and which he called Marble Falls.
As we walked near the falls which gave this place its name, its waters roaring somewhere out of sight, I was struck by the fact that there were virtually no signs of those 19th-century communities to be found at all. I wondered if the same thing could play out with Dogpatch’s history a hundred years from now, if there would be anything left to tell its stories.
NOT FIVE MINUTES later, Eddy found something on the ground: concrete blocks, a piebald iron gate, rusted so thoroughly that it was impossible to say what the original color might have been. On the moss-covered rocks, which ranged in color from evergreen to seafoam, these pieces of industrial raw material looked like tokens on a gameboard made to look like a distant world.
“You ever see that big tall ride called the, uh … Oh, sh*t,” he said. “Can’t remember the damn name of it, man.”
He then described a ride in which cars would start from the top of a column and hurtle down in a corkscrew motion. And those pieces of iron and concrete on the ground? That’s where the line used to form. Had we stood there 27 years before, we might’ve been just about ready to board Earthquake McGoon’s Brain Rattler.
“When you came up to the top of that thing, people said that you thought you were going to go into the drink,” Eddy said, before casting a look around him. “I mean, none of this was here, none of these trees and stuff. And people thought like, Oh sh*t, I’m about to go over the falls, you know, into the frickin water. These had something to do with holding a ride in place, as you can see. … They’re everywhere. … It was right here, man. We’re standing on it.”
A FEW MINUTES AFTER we’d finished looking at the former site of the ride where doubtless many brains had been rattled, Eddy asked if I wanted to go check out the falls. As we stood there, staring into the water charging from the dam, making conversation all but impossible, I thought about how this property had meant so much to so many. I thought about the people who’d spent time in the place when it was operational, how they’d made so many happy memories here, and I thought about the people who’d connected with it after the park had closed, the dreams they’d had of the place and what they wanted for it, and the kindred spirits they’d found in such an odd place.
As we started to leave, Eddy yelled over the roar of the water: “Welcome to Dogpatch!”
Then he asked: “So. … Do you think you get it?”