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The wilds of Newton County


The business leaders of tiny Newton County thought Dogpatch USA would change everything.

Albert Raney Sr. listed his trout farm for sale in 1966. A real estate investor in Harrison named Oscar Snow found nine additional investors and went to Al Capp with the idea of a theme park based on Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip. The town of Marble Falls just north of Jasper even changed its name to Dogpatch.

“Capp, who had rejected such offers in the past, agreed to be a partner in the enterprise, ” Russell Johnson writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “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. 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 Schemerhorn. The logs in each building were numbered, catalogued, disassembled and reassembled at the park. In 1968, the first year of operation, general manager Schemerhorn reported that Dogpatch had 300,000 visitors. Admission was $1.50 for adults, half price for children.”

Arkansas businessman Jess Odom purchased a controlling interest in the company in 1968 and hired former Gov. Orval Faubus as the general manager.

“By 1972, Odom had bought out most of the remaining partners and built a winter sports complex called Marble Falls on the hill overlooking Dogpatch in hopes of operating the park year round,” Johnson writes. “A series of unusually warm winters, delays in delivery of snowmaking equipment, rising interest rates, the Arab oil embargo and the end of the ‘Li’l Abner’ comic strip due to Capp’s retirement in 1977 combined to drive expenses up and revenues down. In order to keep the ski resort open, Odom used Dogpatch assets to secure loans at unfavorable interest rates. Although Dogpatch made a profit in all but two years of operation, it could not overcome the burden of the Marble Falls debt.”

Dogpatch declared bankruptcy in November 1980. Wayne Thompson’s Ozark Entertainment Inc. purchased the theme park but not Marble Falls and operated Dogpatch from 1981-87 before selling it to Melvin Bell. The high-flying Bell, who died in 2006 at age 68, was buying up properties across the state at the time — everything from Magic Springs at Hot Springs to the Red Apple Inn at Heber Springs. 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 two months before Bell died.

Business at Dogpatch continued to decline as more and more people elected to go to nearby Branson, Mo. The park’s final season was 1993.

It has since become a ghost town covered with weeds, bushes and trees. In December, an owner of the property, Charles “Bud” Pelsor, said it had been leased to a new group headed by David Hare, who announced in a video posted on social media outlets that he would create the Heritage USA Ozarks Resort.

Pelsor told The Associated Press: “They don’t want to destroy the image of Dogpatch and piss people off. It will be a theme park. It will not be a thrill park. And it will be family friendly.”

Pelsor and a business partner had hoped to turn the site into what they termed an “ecotourism village” with artists, restaurants and a creek stocked with trout.

The new Heritage USA isn’t connected with the theme park of the same name that televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker once operated at Fort Mill, S.C., just south of Charlotte, N.C.

In the video, Hare said: “We’re your conservative entertainment company. Really, we’re your American entertainment company.”

With the park having been closed for so long, locals understandably are wary. But the Heritage USA Facebook page is filled with photos of improvements that have taken place lately.

Dogpatch faded from the scene, but the designation of the Buffalo National River and the reintroduction of elk to the county did more than the continued existence of the theme park could have ever done. Neither the national river designation nor the reintroduction of elk came without lots of criticism in a county where private property rights are considered sacred.

The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed what became known as Buffalo River State Park along the river in 1938, and Lost Valley State Park was added in 1966. The National Park Service later would take over those areas.

“The river’s hydroelectric potential was also appreciated,” Suzie Rogers of the National Park Service writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “With the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers included the Buffalo River in its planning for a system of dams on the White River. Two potential dam sites eventually were selected on the Buffalo, one on the lower portion of the river near its mouth and one at its middle just upstream from the town of Gilbert in Searcy County.

“The continual threat of a dam on the Buffalo caught the attention of Arkansas conservation groups and those who had begun using the river for recreation or simply appreciated the free-flowing river as a spectacular natural resource for the state. In the early 1960s, advocates for the dams and advocates for a free-flowing stream formed opposing organizations. The pro-dam Buffalo River Improvement Association, established by James Tudor of Marshall, and the anti-dam Ozark Society, which included environmentalist Neil Compton, emerged as the leading players in the drama.

“The dam proponents worked with the Corps of Engineers and 3rd District Congressman James Trimble. The free-flowing stream advocates made overtures to the Department of the Interior. In 1961, a National Park Service planning team undertook a site survey of the Buffalo River area. The team was favorably impressed and recommended the establishment of a park on the Buffalo River to be called a ‘national river.’ A decade of political maneuverings, speeches and media attention — including a canoe trip on the Buffalo by Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas — came to a head in December 1965 when Gov. Orval Faubus wrote the Corps of Engineers that he could not support the idea of a dam on the Buffalo River. The Corps withdrew its proposal for a dam.”

Proponents of obtaining a National Park Service designation received an unexpected gift in the fall of 1966 when John Paul Hammerschmidt, a Republican business owner from Harrison, defeated Trimble. Hammerschmidt joined forces with the state’s two Democratic senators, J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan, to introduce legislation in 1967. Final legislation was introduced in 1971, and hearings took place that fall. Congress approved the bill in February 1972, and the Buffalo National River became a reality.

“Park acreage, boundaries and special considerations were written into the legislation,” Rogers writes. “Total acreage could not exceed 95,730 acres. Hunting and fishing were allowed as a traditional use. Many permanent residents had an option of use and occupancy up to 25 years. Landowners in the three private-use zones of Boxley Valley, Richland Valley and the Boy Scout camp at Camp Orr could choose to sell easements to the government instead of selling the land outright.

“The first park management staff — the park superintendent, a chief ranger and a secretary — arrived in 1972 and took up temporary office quarters in Harrison. Eventually the park was divided into three management districts with staff in each district. Besides setting up park facilities and developing programs, the staff also had to face the emotional turmoil in the community regarding the disruption of life for the Buffalo River residents, whether they were willing or unwilling sellers.”

Land use battles continue along the river to this day. In April of last year, an organization known as American National Rivers ranked the Buffalo among the country’s 10 most endangered rivers due to the threat of pollution from hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed.

People ranging from Oklahoma oil and gas executives to Arkansas automobile moguls now build second homes in Newton County. Others rent cabins.

Horseshoe Canyon, a nationally recognized dude ranch operated by Barry and Amy Johnson, has become a favorite spot for rock climbers from around the world.

Ponca-based Buffalo Outdoor Center also has gained a reputation. Mike Mills started BOC as a canoe rental operation in 1976, just four years after the national river designation. That business now also has a large store, modern log cabins, a lodge, zip lines and more.

There’s fine dining in the form of Nick Bottini’s Low Gap Cafe, which is between Mount Sherman and Ponca. The restaurant is packed on weekends in the spring, summer and fall.

“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.”

There also are the 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 tasted.

As far as the elk, the U.S. Forest Service brought Rocky Mountain elk to Franklin County’s Black Mountain Refuge in 1933. Three bulls and eight cows were transported from the Wichita National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. These elk were themselves transplants, having come to Oklahoma from Wyoming. The Arkansas herd increased to almost 200 elk by 1950s and then disappeared. Poaching, no doubt, played a role in the herd’s demise.

Elk were native to Arkansas, though the eastern subspecies that roamed the region already was dwindling by the time Arkansas became a state in 1836. There were reminders that Arkansas once had been a state where elk roamed freely. The Elkhorn Tavern was a landmark during the Civil War battle at Pea Ridge. One of the oldest banks in the state was Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in my hometown of Arkadelphia.

In the late 1700s, elk could be found as far south and east as northern Alabama.

Too much hunting and the loss of habitat meant the end of the Arkansas elk herd by the 1840s. The eastern elk is now extinct.

During his first year in the governor’s office in 1979, Bill Clinton named Hilary Jones of Newton County to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Jones, an avid elk hunter who made regular trips to Colorado, thought elk could survive along the Buffalo River. In 1971, the state of Arkansas entered into an agreement with the state of Colorado to trade elk for Arkansas fish. Jones recruited friends to take trailers to Colorado and bring the Rocky Mountain elk back.

In the years that followed, seven elk from Nebraska’s Sand Hills also were brought to Arkansas. The first elk calf was born in the state in 1982. In the winter of 1985, local volunteers raced winter storms to bring back seven loads containing 74 additional elk. They were transported in cattle trailers lined with sheets of plywood.

The elk brought to Arkansas in the early 1980s were released in the Pruitt area near Highway 7. Much of the herd migrated through the years to the Boxley Valley near Ponca.

In 2002, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission established the Ponca Elk Education Center just across the road from the Buffalo Outdoor Center headquarters. Housed in a log building, the center has displays of elk and other wildlife, photographs, a meeting room and a gift shop. There are also picnic tables and restrooms. On Highway 7 in Jasper, just north of the bridge over the Little Buffalo River, the Hilary Jones Wildlife Museum and Elk Information Center also offers a place for visitors to stop.

Arkansas elk now range over about 225,000 acres. In addition to Newton and Searcy counties, elk have been reported through the years in Washington, Carroll, Boone, Marion, Stone, Conway, Pope and even Faulkner counties. Efforts to improve elk habitat have included prescribed burns and the establishment of native grass openings. Unlike the 1950s, the Arkansas elk herd appears here to stay.

Only six Arkansas counties have fewer residents than Newton County. Three are in the pine woods of south Arkansas — Calhoun, Lafayette and Dallas counties. Two are in the Delta — Woodruff and Monroe counties. One is next door in the Ozarks — Searcy County.

The Newton County seat of Jasper had only 466 residents in the 2010 census. Jasper has been the county seat since 1843. Sawmills there employed hundreds of men in the late 1800s and early 1900s as oak was harvested in the surrounding mountains to be used in stave mills and cedar was harvested for pencil mills.

The current courthouse on the Jasper square was completed in 1942 as a Works Progress Administration project. Highway 7 from Harrison to Jasper was finally paved in the 1950s.

The locals still gather for breakfast and lunch at the Ozark Cafe on the square, which has been around since 1909. It’s part of the Jasper Commercial Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The restaurant has expanded through the years to include parts of three buildings.

“This is the kind of place where regulars have their own tables and waitresses know what some patrons are going to order before the customer even sits down,” Julianna Goodwin wrote last year for The News-Leader at Springfield Mo. “The menus are printed on newsprint, and the restaurant is decked out in vintage signs and black-and-white photos. There are photos from all over Newton County representing different founding families and different moments in the town’s history.”

The restaurant has had 14 sets of owners during its 109 years. There’s often live music on Saturday nights. The Ozark Cafe is open from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. seven days a week.

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