Dogpatch country: Circa 2014

For Arkansans of a certain age, Dogpatch USA comes to mind when Newton County is mentioned.

Dogpatch, some believed, was the thing that would turn this remote, lightly populated county into the center of tourism for Arkansas.

The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture describes Newton County as “mountainous, rural and isolated. The land, once respected and protected by native Americans, has come full circle with a large portion being protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a wilderness area.”

The Buffalo River and Little Buffalo River flow through the county, which was part of Carroll County when that county was created in 1833 as part of the Arkansas Territory. Arkansas became a state three years later.

In late 1842, the Arkansas Legislature created a new county in the Ozarks and named it after a U.S. marshal, Thomas Willoughby Newton.

“After beginning his career as a mail carrier and serving as U.S. marshal for Arkansas, Newton was elected to serve in Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell,” C.J. Miller writes for the state encyclopedia. “John Belleh’s house on Shop Creek was designated the county seat until the designation was given to Jasper in 1843. The county had 10 post offices by 1856. The terrain made the area unattractive to land speculators, which was encouraging to people who could not afford land in other parts of the state. A school opened at Mount Judea around 1860. Western Grove Academy opened in 1886. Hunting and small farms sustained the residents, and livestock grazed the rugged land. The difficulty in farming the rough terrain resulted in farms being located along the river.”

There were only 24 slaves in the county in the 1860 census. A strong Union sentiment was present in these hills, and that resulted in a base of ancestral Republicans who thrived in Newton County when there were few Republicans elsewhere in Arkansas. Indeed, when I attended the Newton County Elk Festival last month, I saw dozens of Republican lapel stickers being worn and none for Democratic candidates. Long before the rest of Arkansas began to go red politically, Newton County had plenty of people whose loyalties were with the GOP.

The Civil War split families. Guerrilla warfare was common, and some families lived in caves.

“The county produced two famous leaders, fighting for different causes,” Rose Lacy writes for the encyclopedia. “James Vanderpool was a Union hero who returned home in August 1865. John Cecil, the former sheriff of Newton County, was known for showing off his twin pearl-handled pistols he had worn as a guerrilla leader for the Confederacy. Newton County most supported the Union. However, while searching for Cecil in 1863, Union troops burned Jasper to the ground and moved their sympathizers to Springfield, Mo.”

By 1870, there were only seven black residents of Newton County.

Change came slowly.

“Smaller farms were prevalent, while larger farms existed near the rivers,” Miller writes. “Potatoes, apples and peaches supplemented the main crop, corn. Cotton provided the cash crop for the Buffalo River valley. Lumber camps developed. Whether for added income or personal use, the production of moonshine made use of the surplus corn. A legend was born as Beaver Jim Villines became known for his trapping ability. Visitors went to Marble Falls and Tom Thumb Spring for the water’s healing power.”

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

Zinc and lead mining occurred in the county early in the 20th century. The community of Ponca was named after the Ponca City Mining Co. of Oklahoma. There wasn’t a paved road in the county until 1951, when Arkansas Highway 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 for a major amusement park and bought a trout farm at Marble Falls from Albert Raney Sr. to serve as the site of what would become known as Dogpatch USA.

“Snow and nine other investors formed Recreation Enterprises Inc. and approached Bostonian Al Capp with the idea,” Russell Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “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 the original 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 the park. Odom added rides and campsites. He also 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.

“In order to keep the ski resort open, Odom used Dogpatch assets to secure loans at unfavorable interest rates,” Johnson writes. “Although Dogpatch made a profit in all but two years of operation, it could not overcome the burden of the Marble Falls debt. The city of Harrison rejected Odom’s proposals to refinance the debt with a bond issue, and plans to turn Dogpatch into a religious theme park called God’s Patch never advanced. … Dogpatch had its worst summer during the drought of 1980. Dogpatch declared bankruptcy in November 1980.”

A company 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., generally was known 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 after 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. The company broke even or lost money until obtaining the federal permit. By 1986, there were revenues of $66.5 million at Ensco.

“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 that 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 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 the Heights Fish House.

He bought the Magic Springs amusement park at Hot Springs in addition to Dogpatch.

He even purchased the famed Belvedere Country Club at Hot Springs.

It all began going 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.

I took my wife to the Red Apple Inn in 1990, remembering it as the grand resort that Little Rock insurance magnate Herbert Thomas had built. I was shocked to see it had fallen to Motel 6 status under Bell’s ownership. Fortunately, Dick and Patti Upton of Heber Springs later returned the Red Apple Inn to its past glory.

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 at age 68 in July 2006 of cancer.

The final summer season at Dogpatch had been in 1993.

Dogpatch briefly was back in the news in 2011 when Stewart Nance, Pruett Nance and Brent Baber (the Nances’ attorney) were awarded the Dogpatch property in circuit court. The Nances had brought a lawsuit following a 2001 accident in which Pruett Nance struck a steel cable while driving an ATV on the property.

Newton County’s hopes of attracting hundreds of thousands of people to an amusement park each year had ended. But something interesting has happened in a part of our state that some of us still think of as Dogpatch Country.

People ranging from Oklahoma oil and gas executives to Arkansas automobile moguls have built second homes there. Others with money rent cabins. There is, in fact, a bit of an upscale vibe.

Take the Floating Buffalo in Jasper, which can only be described as an upscale boutique. Or the adjacent Arkansas House, where one can purchase buffalo and elk burgers.

People with money to spend can be found in places such as the Nelms Gallery in downtown Jasper and Nick Bottini’s Low Gap Café, which is between Mount Sherman and Ponca.

Last Saturday night, folks crowded onto the large outdoor deck at the Low Cap Café, listening to live music.

“My grandfather and mother were full-blood Sicilian,” Bottini told Arkansas Living magazine. “I learned from them. … I studied five years at culinary school in New York. Then I went back to California, bounced around at various restaurants and resorts and eventually ended up in Arkansas after visiting relatives and falling in love with the state. Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is just up the road, and we are only a few miles from the Buffalo River.”

The restaurant is packed most weekends.

Horseshoe Canyon, the nationally recognized dude ranch operated by Barry and Amy Johnson, is one of those places that attract high-dollar tourists to the county. In addition to the families who spend the week there, the ranch has become a favorite spot for rock climbers from around the world.

Ponca-based Buffalo Outdoor Center also has gained a nationwide reputation. Mike Mills started Buffalo Outdoor Center as a canoe rental operation in 1976. The Buffalo River had been designated a national river just four years earlier. There are now modern log cabins and a lodge, zip lines and more.

There also are various artisanal products that come from Newton County. One example is the honey harvested by Eddie Watkins for his Buffalo River Honey Co. I don’t claim to be a honey connoisseur, but it’s the best I’ve ever tasted.

“We operate only 100 hives,” Watkins says. “Our bees harvest nectar from wildflowers untouched by chemical pesticides. Each year our honey, like fine wine, varies according to the flower blooms and the impact of the seasons. One thing remains constant: The character of our honey is unlike any you have ever tasted. You’ve not tasted pure wild honey until you taste our honey.

“We honor and practice our ancient craft much as beekeepers have through the centuries. Our bees have bred with wild strains. We avoid chemicals and manage pests with essential oils. Tasting is believing. All natural, totally wild honey is a revelation. From the first explosion of the floral scents and tastes to the finishing notes of our honey, it’s an unparalleled experience of complexity and nuance. The key is staying all natural. That’s when the floral gifts of our pristine wilderness areas come through.”

No, tourists aren’t flocking to get on rides at an amusement park in Newton County. That effort couldn’t sustain itself. But wild, wonderful Newton County appears to have found its niche. For those who love mountain scenery, good music, great food and friendly people, there are few better places to spend a weekend or longer.

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5 Responses to “Dogpatch country: Circa 2014”

  1. Tim Stone says:

    Great article. I’m 45 and remember going to Dogpatch as a small child. Just prior to it going out of business for the last time, I took my young son there. It was a shell of its former glory but he enjoyed it.

  2. randy Ensminger says:

    Roy Raney, my great uncle started the trout farm which is still visible at the base of the cave where the cold water comes out. Their home was just where the entrance to the theme park was.
    I was the ring baron in the wedding between Vickie Cox, my cousin, and Al Capps son. I don’t think they stuck together long at all.

  3. frank on the hill says:

    i heard late last week that johnny morris (bass pro shop, big cedar lodge, etc.) has recently purchased the dogpatch property as well as many acres surrounding. if true, what a boost this could be to the newton county economy providing the local government has the good sense to take advantage of such an opportunity.

  4. rexnelson says:

    I hope the rumor about Morris is true. He could do wonderful things with that property.

  5. randy koontz says:

    Growing up poor and ‘country’ in Arkansas meant that when we went ‘all the way to Harrison’ to see my Great Aunt and Great Uncle it was a big time trip. Having a free place to stay meant we could go to Dogpatch. Dogpatch to me was Disney World, or at least my parents told me it was just like Disney World. I didn’t know any different so it was a special place that I wish had stayed open long enough for my kids to experience.

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