Project Description

A Dogpatch Journey – Eddy Sisson

When I was a small boy, the home I grew up in was right next door to six abandoned houses. They were moved from the main highway to my street due to the city pressuring the build-ing’s owner to get them off the main highway. I remember them originally scaring me—I was afraid to walk past them after dark. Once I got older, I explored them several times and my love for forgotten places began (though video games and comics won me over more as I grew older, and I wouldn’t think about abandoned places for a long time after).

Fast forward to 2011—I was an overnight auditor at a hotel, and needless to say, the job was boring. My mind wandered often, and I remembered exploring those houses so long ago. They had been destroyed in a planned burn many years before, but I thought there had to be other places just like them. Or maybe something even better, perhaps? I hopped online to search for other locations that might be interesting to look at that were in the state. It was then I fell in love. The results of my search led me to a very tall, rickety looking waterslide in what looked to be in an overgrown field. My eyes popped out looking at the photo, seeing the weeds growing almost half of its height and vines wrapping around, climbing all the way to the top. It was literally quite amazing. How had this happened? Why was it still there? There were so many questions and I had to find out more.

Dogpatch was a theme park that operated from 1968 to 1993. The theme was Al Capp’s “Lil’ Aber,” a hillbilly yet very political comic. Before Dogpatch was built, the land belonged to Albert Rainey and his trout farm, which sold to O. J. Snow and REI Enterprises, who would develop it into an amusement park. Before even that, the area was actually a small town called Marble City. The park was very profitable up until the late 70s. It was at that time Jess Odom, the owner of the park, decided to take the park’s earnings and build a ski resort on top of the hill above Dogpatch, calling it Marble Falls Ski Resort. For a time, both “MFSR” and Dogpatch were dubbed “The Twin Parks.” It was short lived. When the ski resort failed due to a multitude of reasons and closed, Dogpatch itself filed for bankruptcy soon after in 1980. The park would limp along for a little over a decade longer until 1993, even booking big name talent such as movie stars and headlining national musical acts throughout the 1980s.[046][047] [048] In the end, many factors attributed to Dogpatch’s downfall. Hillbilly culture popularized by television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies became a quick passing fad. Al Capp stopped drawing Lil’ Abner and over time younger people simply didn’t know who these characters running around in the park were. But mostly, the park just could not recover from the bankruptcy of 1980 and nothing could stop the dwindling attendance no matter who owned it or what they tried.

Once Dogpatch closed in 1993, the large rides were sold to other parks, leaving the immovable funicular trams and immobile waterslide, which of as this writing, are still frozen in place thirty years later. Literally everything else remained—costumes, signs, employee records, and memories. The wooden fence surrounding it would eventually fall, inviting thieves and trespassers, who in the next twenty-five years would vandalize and steal from its structures, leaving nothing but a skeleton behind. When I found images of the park online, they excited me in a way I hadn’t experienced. I explored the land via Google Earth, learning the layout of the structures and pathways. I dug up as much history as I could find. Believe it or not, back then there wasn’t too much out there on the internet as far as history was concerned. I found about thirty historical photos and a few sites with photos years post-closure along with a blog post about the history of Marble Falls.

Nevertheless, I was about to become obsessed by this mysterious abandoned wonderland. However, I realized I had missed something. I had forgotten about Facebook! Everything has a page on Facebook. People make hundreds of pages for celebrities and all kinds of nonsensical things, so surely someone had made a page for Dogpatch. Unfortunately, much like the rest of the internet, Dogpatch wasn’t represented there either. Along with its physical presence, its history and memories were also being forgotten. Thus, I made a page on Facebook called Dogpatch USA. Why not? This way I could potentially learn more about this magical place as people submitted photos and commented. And that’s exactly what happened. The page started growing. People sent photos and I reposted them.

I reached out and asked people to use their post-closure photos so that I had a good mix of “in operation” and “abandoned” images. As people shared my posts, the page grew more followers. As a result, people would comment and tell about their memories or just say that they missed the park. It was this way I slowly learned what each building was used for and the deep history of the area. Although the original images of the park all grown up with vines and weeds initially grabbed me and made me fall in love, it was the people’s memories and stories that they told, either in a comment or simply in the photo, that made me go from seeing the park as “cool” to sad. I had already felt its voice inside my heart: “Help me.”

Some time went by and my obsession grew. I would routinely search for new photos every week for the page. One night I found a set of new images, this time from a group called Abandoned Arkansas. It was quite the set! I remember being enthralled by the originality of the shots, especially of the waterslide. It was the first shot I had seen from the very top of the slide as someone in the group was brave and/or stupid to climb the thirty-year-old tower. At this time the Dogpatch page had roughly 8-10,000 followers. When I checked out Abandoned Arkansas, it didn’t hold a candle to what the Dogpatch page had amassed so far. So I sent a message to them asking if I could use their images and give full credit, which would bring some much needed traffic to their page. A friendly guy named Michael Schwarz replied and agreed.

We talked a bit about the park and the page I had created for it. He liked the idea of letting me promote his page on mine and I couldn’t wait to get his photos out there to a wider audience. It was a win/win situation. The deal generated well over a thousand new followers to Abandoned Arkansas and Michael and I made another deal—if he ever went back to the park, he’d take me along next time. Months followed and every now and then Michael and I would talk through Facebook. I was really liking him. He offered to let me go on an abandoned excursion; to be honest, I didn’t really want to do anything other than visit Dogpatch but thought that maybe if I did this, it would speed up the process. We met on a scorching summer day in 2013 for a trip to Hot Springs to see the Majestic Hotel, Mountainaire Hotel, and a couple of other spots. I didn’t know what to expect, but Michael was super nice and had a very goofy and non-confrontational attitude. We became fast friends and, unknowingly at the time, over the coming years he would become a brother.

As fall approached, I went on a number of adventures with Michael and the AAR crew. I was having fun tapping into that forgotten part of my youth again exploring forgotten places, but nothing was moving me emotionally. I enjoyed the journeys, but Dogpatch was still waiting. I reminded him that we should go and to my surprise he had the owner’s number on his phone. The owner at the time had no problem with us visiting the property as long as we signed waivers of liability. Was this really happening? Was I finally going to see Dogpatch USA? We set a weekend trip up for November of 2013. We would stay there on top of the hill in the former Marble Falls Resort Hotel that the park once used, but was now called The Hub, now turned into a motorcycle themed hotel.

The days couldn’t go by fast enough. We would be there for the entire weekend. That’s two full days of exploring this mysterious abandoned property and I was beside myself. I was going to be able to take my own photos and post them to the Dogpatch page. At this point, I had unofficially become a part of Abandoned Arkansas and we were going to document the entire trip for both pages. [059] In November, the day finally came. Michael and I hit the road, traveling down scenic Highway #7 from Russellville to Jasper. The fall weather made the trip simply beautiful. With the gorgeous array of brown and orange, the entire trip was beyond belief. So beautiful, in fact, at a certain point near Jasper I literally gasped, losing my breath below and … the waterslide! But it would be getting dark soon and we had to make haste if we wanted to see a lot of the park.

When we got to the bottom of the tracks there was the other tram car. This one was in much better shape. One car would bring the guests into the park and one would take them back to the parking lot. The tracks split in the middle, allowing both cars to pass each other. Michael said that we wouldn’t be able to see everything that day, so we decided to split the park up in sections. To my dismay, the slide would have to wait until the next day, as the trout farm area would be all that we would be able to visit as the sun started its slow descent into the horizon. We saw the famous “Dogpatch Univercity” building, where trained animals from ducks to bears performed, the trout hatchery, and the former home of the Rainey family.

The petting zoo was across the creek, but was so grown up it didn’t look worth it, and the bridge was in terrible condition. After we checked out the trout farm area of the park and before it got too dark, we walked back up the tracks (which was exhausting) to the car where the motel room awaited. That night, I could hardly sleep. The majority of the park and its coolest features I would experience the next day. I think I got only a few hours, and as soon as the sun came up, we headed back down. That next day, we saw everything: the town square with all the buildings and cabins, the train station, the famous Kornvention Hall stage that Three Dog Night and many others played on, the kissing rocks, Big Red Razorback statue, the train trestle and tunnel, and the old waterslide, the “Wild Water Rampage.” It was much larger in person than it appeared in photographs.

I’ll admit I was nervous to climb to the top, but I figured it would be my only chance, so we went up. Surprisingly it was a lot sturdier than I thought it would be. The view from the top was incredible, and we both took our time and captured a few shots. In historical photos, there would be a huge umbrella for protection from the sun for an employee who had to run the ride. There was no umbrella anymore—however, the bracket which held it remained frozen in stasis, still there after all those years. The park was surprisingly free of graffiti. Windows were busted and holes in walls were plenty, but these transgressors at least had the decency not to completely deface Dogpatch’s history.

We actually met a few trespassers while we were there, but they were just photographers and no one was looking to destroy anything. I was already in protect mode and figured I’d berate someone if I saw anything happening I didn’t like. We hit the old Dogpatch Jamboree barn and witnessed the stage where many local country artists performed. There was the chapel and a few manual carousels for kids, and I found three bathroom buildings. I was actually on a quest to locate all the bathrooms. As the story goes, when the park was built in 1968, it did not have restrooms and guests were reported relieving themselves wherever they could. Bathrooms were constructed in 1969 after health officials stepped in. I just found it strange and interesting and made it a personal mission while I was there to locate them. I found four sets that weekend and some were so hidden that I wouldn’t even find all six until November 2017!

There was also the building that once housed the miniature cars for the “Antique Auto Drive,” the waterfall, and more shops on the other end of the park. It was a lot to take in. The day was over and ended just as fast as it had begun. It was a truly magical experience to have an entire abandoned theme park to yourself. As we drove off, I promised it that one day I’d come back with a different purpose. [062] After we headed home, I continued to go to different locations with Michael. But by March, I was itching to go back to Dogpatch, and this time I wanted a three-day trip. Luckily for me, Michael was just as excited to do it again as well.

We went back for three days in March 2014 along with a couple others, and again stayed at The Hub. I actually went up early on Friday and invited my sister to join me. She had a blast and as the day was wrapping up, Michael and the crew met me. It was just as magical as the first time, except cold. Really cold. I had a sold three days of exploration wandering the park. When Sunday came around, I still didn’t want to leave. But all good things must come to an end, and I figured that this would probably be my last trip for a long time. Little did I know what the future held for me—that I was actually going to be living my dream of helping Dogpatch out very, very soon. I couldn’t get Dogpatch out of my mind.

When I wasn’t adding photos to my page, I was thinking about it and wondering who was walking around up there. I could only hold out until May. I asked my friend, someone Michael and I had met on our first trip, who also knew the owner at that time if I could come up with him one Saturday. We did just that in May and I had the privilege of taking my friend Sean on a tour, who had been there when he was a kid and wanted to relive his memories.

At that point, I had seen the entire park, knew what the buildings all were and all the hidden surprises that the park held, such as the “staircase to nowhere” hidden in a grown-up area behind where the roller coaster once sat. Although I was comfortable just being there, I was constantly envisioning it cleaned up and cut. Little did I know I was only a few short months away from that dream. In August, the rumor mill was really going. Word was that someone new had just bought Dogpatch and they were the inventors of a spill-proof plastic dog bowl. This initially spread fear into Newton county as the people envisioned the park demolished to make way for factories. The new owner didn’t shy away from doing interviews.

It quickly came out that he had a vision for the park: not to destroy it, but to rebuild it! Even if his intentions were true, I had to meet this guy and convince him what the park meant to me and others. Maybe he’d even let me be a part of this new rebirth. Maybe my dream could become a reality and I could have a hand in saving this precious place. I went up early in September to meet the new owner after contacting them through Facebook. I was alone and did not have Michael as my usual moral support, but I couldn’t wait on him.

It had been since May that I was on the property and it was killing me. It was raining off and on that day. I was hoping that it wouldn’t hinder a trip down to the park. I pulled up to the old ski lodge and the owner’s assistant met and introduced me to everyone there

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