I got the thrill of a lifetime and another notch in my Arkansas Experience belt the day I was was able to thoroughly explore Dogpatch USA. It was all happenstance, which makes it even better, and now I finally have my own personal memories at Dogpatch USA.
Growing up, I’d heard of it. The theme park based off the Li’l Abner comic strip, Dogpatch USA operated from 1968-1993. I never went as a child, but the pictures of it in its height of popularity made it clear that this place was amazing. There's tons of footage online, check it out.
I remember being in college back in early 2000s and heading to the Buffalo River for a float trip and seeing signs of the park through the trees off Hwy 7. Hearing the rumors of its demise, the folklore surrounding some of the circumstances; rumors of trespassers and what locals did to protect the park from vandals, and the previous owners involvement in a lawsuit only added to my intrigue. And then finding out from locals that rumors were actually true. Throw in some boobie traps and a near decapitation and my interest was peaked. That’s never stopped. There’s something incredibly spooky about an abandoned theme park in the hills and, like many, I’ve held an odd fascination with Dogpatch and its sordid past.
After running our vintage shop for the past eight years, I’ve seen countless Dogatch souvenirs come through. Everything from cardboard KickAPoo Juice cartons to Schmoo pennants and bumper stickers. These items are highly collectible; they sell fast and always hold value. More often than not, the original owners kept them in pristine condition, indicating how valuable their collection, and the memories attached to their collection, was to them. Every time a customer purchased one of these items, I’d hear more stories of their childhood, happy memories, all trying to have a tangible reminder of their time at Dogpatch USA. All the factors combined over all these years really made me want to see this special place nestled in the northwest corner of the state for myself.
Rumors have swirled in recent years over the intentions of different owners, bold proclamations made to restore and reopen, have been left unanswered or unattended. What really is going on in this ghost town that was once an Arkansas institution?
Enter a gentleman named Bud Pelsor who came along on his white wolf (for real, he has a beautiful pet wolf named Ms. Arkansas Diamond, Dia for short) and saved the day. Bud happened upon Dogpatch when it was open and thriving in its early years as he was traveling through. He was amazed by it. By the time he returned to Arkansas to actually visit the park, it had closed for good. And there it sat.
Then, by wind of his business associate Jim, he found out the park was up for sale. Neither wanted to see it bulldozed and both were given promises of grant money and support if they purchased, so they took a leap of faith and did. In 2014, Dogpatch USA had a new owner! Volunteers came in droves to help clean it up, spending every bit of one hundred days cleaning and doing patchwork repair before opening it on special occasions to the public. They hosted two Riverwalk weekends, folks showed up by the thousands to explore, huge crowds had HWY 7 backed up for miles. Last year they hosted artisan and craft shows, live music. Clearly, the love was still there from the general public and Dogpatch fans.
Unfortunately, those promises of grant monies and big name support were empty ones and it “left me with my pants down and exposed to chiggers,” Bud said. Realizing they were in over their heads, Jim and Bud made the tough decision to sell.
That's when David Hare came along. It was announced in late 2017 that a company called Heritage USA, INC had big plans to renovate, rejuvenate, and protect the park. The public was, once again, delighted. Jim and Bud did their financial due diligence, but not personal. By all appearances, David’s team was well managed with a solid lease to purchase option. No sooner were they in to it, Bud saw the writing on the wall.
Huge promises were made by Heritage. But the only successful thing Mr. Hare managed to do was burn bridges with everyone around him. All his constituents left him. Once his entourage left, he was done. Past due bills piled up, he got further behind on his lease, and never delivered on any of the promises from his YouTube Heritage videos. According to Bud, he left town about a month ago. David Hare is back in California, he no longer has anything to do with Dogpatch USA. Even though, according to Wikipedia, he was continuing to “make videos advertising the park, and vacationers had paid and left deposits on hotel rooms, the hotel was vacant and utilities were cut off, while Hare and Heritage USA had become unreachable”.
The day I got to explore Dogpatch, we started out early morning in the portion of the park that is currently back up for sale. In person, it was obvious Heritage USA, INC had folded on its leased portion of the park; their plans to revitalize at a devastating standstill. It is maintained for walkability in landscaping but otherwise neglected. You could still follow some of the tracks of the West Po'k Chop Speshul Railroad guiding you around the park, the abandoned water slide looming at the center of it all. We toured each building, combing through cobwebs, shattered glass, the dusty remnants left behind. It was fun piecing together what was left in the buildings, trying to determine what its original purpose was. We saw evidence of the trout fishing area and the restaurant that would cook what you caught. The River Bend theater still with original theater seats inside; I wanted to purchase all of them, they were amazing. The giant fiberglass Arkansas Razorback nestled in the trees. In the four hours we were there, we covered a large majority of the park. The place has been picked completely clean of all signage, anything Dogpatch related has been stolen or vandalized. On top of that, when left in the elements, there were areas not safe to traverse. Seeing missing wooden planks on the swinging bridge and gaps of stairs climbing the tower of the slide made it clear some boundaries were not made to be pushed. Still, the iconic Dogpatch shone through the dilapidated conditions. The moment we stumbled across the iconic kissing stones, I was like a kid in a candy store.
And what did shine through, despite all the dusty dirt, the smildew, the neglect, was the attention to detail. If you wiped through layers of dust, you found beautiful textured Victorian style wallpaper peeking behind the old shooting range arcade game. The fiberglass comb as an entrance to the honey hut. The amazing rough cut lumber and log beams still with bark attached. You could see the details everywhere in creating this authentic rustic vibe for the fictional town in the hills. What surprised us most was how structurally sound many of the buildings were, including some that preexist Dogpatch. For example, the water wheel powered Grist Mill that dates to the 1840's and Ozark mountain sourced cabins with hand hewn logs. In my mind’s eye I began to imagine it in pristine condition, full of people and laughter and chatter, food and cheer. I wish I could have seen this place in the seventies. In spite of the vandals and thieves, in spite of the ravages of time and elements, the buildings that remain stand strong and proud as a testimony to the craftsmanship and materials used to create Dogpatch.
As eerie as it was strolling through empty streets, you really could feel the magic this place once held. Surrounded by the natural beauty of Newton County, it came from a simpler time. Comic strips of days gone by may not have the staying power of Disney, but it did for this part of the country during its time. The simplicity of that is something that is lost on today's population. The thrills of Dogpatch wouldn’t hold a candle to today’s theme parks, but that’s the beauty of it. It was never meant to. It truly is a one of a kind kind of place.
Now Dogpatch USA is 100% back in Bud’s hands; the park itself is back up for sale. Bud welcomes patrons to Dogpatch. He has asked for folks to reach out to him via Facebook to make arrangements at the Dogpatch Official Event Page. All he asks is for patrons to sign a waiver and pay him a $5 fee per person. This allows visitors to explore the park, fish, (catch and release) bring a picnic, that simplicity tickles him, “Anything plus is a plus. Little adds up to big.” He’s even planning a Halloween party on Oct 26th with live music, food trucks, and ghost tours with local paranormal groups.
Tell your friends.
Until the park finds a new owner, Bud plans to “clean it up, turn the lights on, the music up loud and party until it says SOLD on the sign.”
“Nothing in my life has ever been mediocre, nothing has ever been easy.” Bud is the right man for the job. His heart is in the right place, further encouraging the spirit of Dogpatch through his dedication to the park and now finding the new owner to carry the torch. It’s been an absolute pleasure getting to meet him through this process. To say he’s now a friend is very awesome. I’m already planning a return trip to see him and check out his collections. And meet Dia.
The history of Dogpatch is a fascinating one. From it originally drawing audiences with its fictional world of Li’L Abner, to its rumors and unfortunate demise, there is no denying Dogpatch USA still holds us all captive. I highly encourage you to go and explore the beauty of Newton County and make your own new memories in Dogpatch USA. I did and it was the best day I’ve had in a long, long time.