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OPINION | REX NELSON: The Dogpatch saga

by Rex Nelson | August 16, 2020 at 10:09 a.m.

For those of us of a certain age who were raised in Arkansas, we still think of Dogpatch USA when we hear Newton County mentioned. Dogpatch, many believed, would turn this remote, sparsely populated county into the center of tourism for Arkansas.

Newton County hit its population peak in the 1900 census with 12,538 residents. There were just 8,330 residents in the 2010 census.

The first hope for an economic boom occurred when zinc and lead mining operations came to the county early in the 20th century. The community of Ponca, in fact, was named after the Ponca City Mining Co. of Oklahoma.

The mining boom wasn’t quite the godsend that had been expected. There wasn’t even a paved road in the county until 1951, when Arkansas 7 was paved from Harrison to Jasper. Dogpatch would change everything, Newton County residents thought.

Businessman Oscar Snow of Harrison came up with the idea of building an amusement park. He bought a trout farm at Marble Falls from Albert Raney Sr. to serve as the site of what would become Dogpatch.

“Snow and nine other investors formed Recreation Enterprises Inc. and approached Bostonian Al Capp with the idea,” Russell Johnson writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Capp, who had rejected such offers in the past, agreed to be a partner in the enterprise. The partners acquired 1,000 acres. … Capp spoke at the groundbreaking on Oct. 3, 1967.

“The cost of construction was $1,332,000. The park originally featured the trout farm, buggy and horseback rides, an apiary, Ozark arts and crafts, gift shops, entertainment by Dogpatch characters and the park’s trademark railroad, the West Po’k Chop Speshul. Management added amusement rides in subsequent years.

“Many of the buildings in the park were authentic 19th-century log structures, purchased by board member James H. Schermerhorn. The logs in each building were numbered, cataloged, disassembled and reassembled at the park.

“In 1968, the first year of operation, general manager Schermerhorn reported that Dogpatch had 300,000 visitors. Admission was $1.50 for adults, half price for children. Al Capp’s son, Colin C. Capp, worked at the park that year and met and married Vicki Cox, the actress portraying Moonbeam McSwine.”

Real estate investor Jess Odom later bought controlling interest in Dogpatch. He added rides and campsites, and hired former Gov. Orval Faubus as his general manager. Odom’s financial downfall came in the early 1970s when he attempted to build a winter sports complex adjacent to the amusement park. There were warm winters, faulty snowmaking equipment, rising interest rates and a lack of interest in winter sports in the South. Odom had to use Dogpatch assets to secure loans at unfavorable interest rates for the ski resort.

The city of Harrison refused to refinance Odom’s debt with a bond issue. Plans were unveiled at one point to turn Dogpatch into a religious theme park called God’s Patch, but that didn’t happen.

The hot summer of 1980, when daily high temperatures were consistently above 100 degrees, led to an increase in debt as attendance dwindled. The company declared bankruptcy in November 1980. A new entity headed by Wayne Thompson operated the park from 1981-87 before selling it to Melvyn Bell.

Bell, a Fort Smith native with an engineering degree from the University of Arkansas, was flying high in the 1980s. His company, Environmental Systems Co., was known by most Arkansans as Ensco. It had a rare federal permit allowing it to destroy PCBs and other hazardous materials at an incinerator in El Dorado. The permit was obtained in 1981 following three years of public hearings. Only six commercial PCB incinerators were operating in the United States in the 1980s.

Bell had bought out his partners in the company in 1972. Ensco broke even or lost money until obtaining the federal permit. By 1986, though, revenues were $66.5 million.

“I have no reason to do anything in the environment that’s wrong,” Bell told The Associated Press in early 1987. “In a state as small as Arkansas, or in a community as small as El Dorado, where 1 percent of the population works with me, it would be foolish to think that you could do anything wrong and not have that become immediately public.”

Bell gained widespread attention when he leased four of the eight bathhouses at Hot Springs from the National Park Service with plans to convert them into a restaurant, a bed-and-breakfast inn, a museum and a spa.

Other high-profile acquisitions by Bell included the Red Apple Inn near Heber Springs, a lodge on Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, the Market Street Plaza shopping complex in west Little Rock, children’s radio station KPAL in Little Rock, and Little Rock restaurants SOB, Alexander’s and Heights Fish House. He bought the Magic Springs amusement park at Hot Springs and even purchased that city’s famous Belvedere Country Club.

Things went south for Bell following the stock market crash in October 1987. The value of his Ensco holdings fell from $42.3 million to $21.7 million in a two-month period. He had become highly leveraged with his myriad acquisitions. In a 1998 deposition, Bell said he was $5.6 million in debt.

In 1990, I took my wife of less than a year to the Red Apple Inn, remembering it as the grand resort that Little Rock insurance magnate Herbert Thomas had built. I was embarrassed when I saw that it had fallen to Motel 6 status under Bell’s stewardship. Fortunately for Arkansans, Dick and Patti Upton of Heber Springs later returned the Red Apple Inn to its past glory, and it remains one of the state’s top resorts. The final summer at Dogpatch was 1993.

In November 2001, Bell was indicted by a federal grand jury for tax evasion. The trial was delayed repeatedly because of Bell’s health problems. The case was dismissed in May 2006. Bell died of cancer at age 68 in July of that year.

Dogpatch was briefly back in the news in late 2010 when Stewart Nance, Pruett Nance and Brent Baber (the Nances’ attorney) were awarded the Dogpatch property by the courts. The Nances had brought a lawsuit following a 2005 accident in which Pruett Nance struck a steel cable while driving an ATV on the property.

In 2014, a strange character named Charles “Bud” Pelsor bought the park for almost $2 million. He claimed to have made a fortune after having invented a spill-proof dog bowl.

Pelsor said he wanted to create an ecotourism village. In March 2016, Pelsor said his business partner wanted to abandon the property, and he put the park up for sell. Pelsor announced in late 2017 that it had been sold to David Hare, who hoped to turn it into a Christian theme park called Heritage USA Ozarks Resort.

Hare, who was known for posting rambling videos on social media, was later evicted from the site. Last year, Pelsor was served an eviction notice. The property was scheduled for auction in March, but it was called off when a potential buyer came forward.

When it was reported in June that the land had been purchased for $1.12 million by Down By the Falls LLC of Springfield, Mo., there was speculation that nationally known businessmen Johnny Morris was behind the transaction. Speculation intensified when a massive amount of dirt work began to take place.

On Aug. 4, it was announced that the buyer was indeed the founder of Bass Pro Shops. Morris is known for building world-class attractions—among them the 10,000-acre Dogwood Canyon Nature Park on the Arkansas-Missouri border, Big Cedar Lodge near Branson, the nearby Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve and Native American Museum, the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium at Springfield, the renovation of the Pyramid on the banks of the Mississippi River at Memphis.

It appears the long, convoluted, and at times bizarre history of Dogpatch is going to have a happy ending.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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