Dogpatch, USA: The Road to HokumBy Rodger Brown
Vol. 15, No. 3, 1993, pp. 18-26
In May of 1968 cartoonist Al Capp motored into the Ozarks of north Arkansas smoking custom-rolled cigarettes, wearing dark glasses and a tailored English suit, and glibly dissembling for a pack of reporters. Capp's trip to the Ozarks was national news. Dogpatch USA, the first theme park based on his wildly successful comic strip Li'l Abner, was finally open for the tourist trade. The Lt. Governor was there. Miss Arkansas was there. With the snip of a ribbon and a slug of Kickapoo Joy Juice, Al Capp declared Dogpatch finally "real," and began welcoming the first of an expected torrent of tourists.
The boom was even bigger than anticipated. "Tourists here in Droves; 'No Vacancy' signs go up," the Harrison Daily Times declared. Local motel owners held a "council of war" to find a way to accommodate the tourists who were flocking into the rugged landscape of The Dogpatch Zone at a rate of five thousand a day, coming to see blacksmiths, beekeepers, shinglemakers, and the surreal hillbillies of Al Capp's world famous comic strip come to life. What most of the visitors didn't fully realize, however, was that they were participating in a moment rich with a sort of postmodern poetics which has since become commonplace: The Arkansas syndicate that built Dogpatch USA was peddling colonial stereotypes as family entertainment, and at the core of the park's attraction was a complex melody conjured by the dueling banjos of simulation and authenticity.
Today, Dogpatch USA's place in American cultural history has been forgotten. A year or two ago I heard there was a theme park based on the Li'l Abner comic strip where area residents dress up like Capp's hillbilly burlesques. With an Arkansan now sitting in the White House and hillbilly motifs being revived in editorial cartoons, I began to wonder why the park hadn't gotten more attention than the few dismissive mentions in Ozark guidebooks. I made some calls, got directions, and at the opening of tourist season this summer I went to visit.
"Nearly everything is going wrong," said Shirley Cooper, Dogpatch USA's general manager. Shirley is from the nearby town of Deer. She used to sell her quilts at Dogpatch. Then park employees began to leave and Shirley was asked to fill in and help with an inventory control system. Then she was made director of accounting. Then director of personnel. Now, after a financial crisis and a crippling exodus by long-time staff, Shirley runs the place.
It was mid-May. Dogpatch was opening two weeks late, and the delay had sparked pessimistic scuttlebutt up and down Arkansas' Scenic Highway 7, along which Dogpatch is located. From 140, north to 76 Country Boulevard in Branson, and across the Ozark Mountain Country from Booger Hollow Trading Post to the seven-story statue of
Page 19Christ at Eureka Springs, the rumors had been rampant in the tourism industry that finally, after all these years, Dogpatch USA is roadkill.
"I don't know why, but every year there's rumors that the park's not going to open," she said."They say it's gone bankrupt or Dolly Parton bought it, or Johnny Cash bought it. But none of it's true. And this year, everyone was sure this was it because we're behind schedule. But we're still here."
Dogpatch USA is a classic American roadside attraction. It's a basket of cornpone and hillbilly hokum in a beautiful Ozark mountain setting. Nearby is a waterfall, limestone caverns, and a spring that flows clear and steadily into a creek that has powered a gristmill for more than 150 years. There are rides and gift shops, and at the heart of the park is a trout farm where visitors can catch and cook rainbow trout, "the gamest of all inland fish." The decor is bumpkin kitsch. The faux-illiterate signs along Dogpatch's macadam footpaths read like a Po' Folks menu: "Onbelievablee delishus Fish Vittles Kooked fo' Sail."
Dogpatch opened in 1968, but its history, in a generous sense, begins about a hundred years earlier. The daisy chain of alluded identities springs from the work of post-Civil War local color writers, weaves through the tumultuous and calamitous periods of industrialization and colonization of the Appalachians, the displacement of mountain populations to the cities, and cataracts up over the turn of the century when, in 1900, the word "hillbilly" first appeared in print, toting on its wiry back a croker sack full of iconography—squirrel rifles, corn cob pipes, floppy felt hats, feuds, a degraded language, and depraved life—stock sufficient to justify the plunder. Out of this crashing surf where industry and the marketplace met the mountains, Li'l Abner was born.
Capp's creations linked him permanently to the history of the Southern mountains, even though his only experience in the South before creating his cartoon was limited to a hitchhiking trip to Memphis when he was fifteen. Born in New Haven, Connecticut to Latvian parents, Capp had lived his entire life in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. Instead of being grounded in experience or research, Capp's hillbillies came from the public cultural archive. Li'l Abner was inspired, Capp's wife Catherine once said, by a hillbilly band they saw in Manhattan.
Li'l Abner was the first comic strip to star mountaineers as main characters, but Capp's hillbilly compote was certainly not unique. His versions of hillbillies were consolidated forms drawn from a widespread tradition of mountaineer caricatures: there's the voluptuous rag-clad 'tater sack sexkitten; the grizzled corn-cob pipe smoking visionary crone matriarch; the lay-about ineffectual pappy; and the clodhopping oblivious proto-Jethro Li'l Abner, the all-American country boy—part Alvin York and Abe Lincoln, a little Sambo in whiteface, and Paul Bunyan with a drawl.
Li'l Abner first appeared in 1934, two years after the publication of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, and within a few years the cartoon was a contender with Dick Tracy, Blondie and Little Orphan Annie, as America's number one comic strip. In the mid-1940s, the United Feature Syndicate reckoned that Capp had 27 million readers. The U.S. population at the time was only about 140 million. By the late 1940s, Capp was something of a hero to intellectuals and artists. Capp's writing had been compared to Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Dickens, Dostoevski and Rabelais, and his artwork was compared to Hogarth and Daumier. John Steinbeck said Al Capp deserved the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1951, Marshall McLuhan
Page 20wrote in The Mechanical Bride that "[Capp's] keen eye for political, commercial, and social humbug is the result of a critical intelligence which is notably lacking at the more respected levels of writing . . . . The criticism which is embedded in his highly parabolic entertainment therefore, has a complexity which is the mark of vision [Cited in Asa Berger, Lil Abner: A Study in American Satire. Twayne Publishers, Inc.; New York. p. 167.].
Al Capp definitely had a vision, but it was a twisted one. "All comedy," Capp once said, "is based on man's delight in man's inhumanity to man. I know that is so, because I have made forty million people laugh more or less every day for sixteen years, and this has been the basis of all the comedy I have created. I think it is the basis of all comedy."
For the first decade and a half of Li'l Abner's existence, Capp was rarely aggressively political; instead, his satire was of the order of high-powered social spoofing. Capp, who grew up poor, set up a productive formula for a seemingly endless series of quasi-class comedies by pitting his Dogpatchers, whom he called his "family of innocents," against the businesspeople, gangsters and high society bourgeoisie of urban, capitalist America. Politicians were lampooned through blowhards like Senator Jack S. Phogbound ("Good old Jack S."), and businessmen were mocked through characters like the piggish J. Roaringham Fatback, whose achievements were listed in Who's Who in American Pork. Capp was antagonistic to cityfolk, but Capp's agrarian rustics fared no better. Capp's characters occasionally expressed utopian longings for happiness and peace, but, ultimately, their desires went unfulfilled, nobody was redeemed. Capp's nihilism, his pessimistic realpolitik, never provided any answers. His world had no stable center; both oppressors and the victims of oppression were equally degraded.
In addition to his more pointed social satire, Capp
Page 21was also a ribald, lascivious, one-man carnival society. Puns and sexual allusions showed up consistently in the strip. Li'l Abner was full of jugs and shithouses and boners and melons, enough phallic shadows and labial knotholes to earn him a condemning eight pages in the report from a 1951 New York State Joint Legislative committee investigating the comics, and an expose in Confidential magazine: "Al Capp Exposed: The Secret Sex life of Li'l Abner."
Capp's social satire through the 1940s and early 1950s was considered a bracing corrective to the bourgeois domesticism and the Bam-Zowie! action strips that dominated the comic pages. In the late 1940s, Capp was branded a radical after he introduced shmoos, little blobular creatures that willingly, gleefully, sacrificed themselves for the good of humanity, solving all the problems of want and need which, in Capp's view, are the root causes of war and social injustice. The shmoos, weirdly, helped solidify Capp's public image as a liberal: "[A]ll the McCarthyites were down on me," Capp explained to The New Yorker, in 1963. "Shmoos were Socialistic, they said. Shmoos were a blatant and treacherous attack on capitalism."
Capp's image as a liberal survived until the 1960s, even though he succumbed to the pressure of McCarthyite conformity, killed off the shmoos and married off Li'l Abner to Daisy Mae. Capp revived the shmoos in 1963, but in his comments to the New Yorker, he revealed the lack of purposeful commitment in his once-iconoclastic strip: "McCarthy was coming to power when I created shmoos, and those were inconceivably terrible times. They got worse and worse, until eventually the only satire possible and permissible in this democracy of ours was broad, weak domestic comedy. That's why I married off Li'l Abner and began to concentrate on him again. I was absolutely sure that to keep on with political satire-with things like shmoos-would be to commit suicide, and I asked myself, seriously, 'Al, what use would you be dead?' I really believe that it's the duty of the satirist to stay alive—to duck—until it's safe to come out and possible to be useful again. Society's finally free for satire now, and that's one reason I brought back shmoos. At present, shmoos can reasonably occur. ["The Shmoo's Return," The New Yorker. October 26, 1963.]
In the 1960s, as he said, Capp returned to pointed satire. By that time, however, the world was a different place and instead of using the revived shmoos to satirize American affluence, he used them to criticize what he called "this insane business of foreign aid we're in—this nonsense of give, give, give, with no strings attached."
THE CLOSEST THING to an official history of Dogpatch USA is a gigantic scrapbook the size of an interstate exit sign which Shirley Cooper hauled out from behind some overstuffed file cabinets. The scrapbook's brown leatherette cover was embossed with small gold letters "DOGPATCH USA." The huge codex swelled with newspaper articles, brochures and telegrams—the public history of the park—meticulously collected, clipped and pasted into the book by the founders of Dogpatch from the first public announcement of their intentions in 1967.
"'Dogpatch USA' Slated for Marble Falls Area," the headline read in the Harrison Daily Times on January 3, 1967. Al Capp 'Excited.'" "Dogpatch Leads Way for Big Boost To Prosperity of Harrison Region." The clippings were faded and yellowed relics of a long-dead enthusiasm. Outside Shirley Cooper's office, the Dogpatch of 1993 was a ragged remnant of its original state: long gone are the surrey rides, the live bear acts, the celebrity visits. But the story told by the scrapbook was of another world, one where Nehru jackets were the edge, the U.S. was rushing troops to South Vietnam, Newton County was the poorest county in Arkansas, the second poorest in the nation, and Li'l Abner Yokum was coming to the rescue.
The idea to build a theme park based on the "Li'l Abner" cartoon came from a couple of Harrison businessmen. One, Jim Schermerhorn, owned a burglar alarm company and was a fanatical spelunker. The other, O.J. Snow, was a real estate appraiser, salesman and developer who had flown B-17 bombers as a pilot with the 91st Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force during World War
Page 22II, who, since the war, had built nearly 300 homes and businesses. The men's inspiration to build a tourist attraction in the Ozarks did not just pop into their heads uninvited. They had watched as the Corps of Engineers in the late 1950s dammed the wild White River forming Table Rock Lake just across the state line in southern Missouri. They had seen the crowds attracted to the nearby outdoor drama Shepherd of the Hills, based on Harold Bell Wright's turn-of-the-century inspirational novel. They'd seen the increasing numbers of fishermen and their families driving into the country. And since 1960, they'd watched a woman named Mary Herschend and her sons, Jack and Peter, turn some clapboard storefronts and a limestone sinkhole called Marvel Cave into a successful tourist attraction: a simulacrum of a nineteenth century mining town called Silver Dollar City.
Snow became the first president of Recreation Enterprises. The group included men involved in a wide range of businesses: asphalt, construction, residential development, timber, cattle and banking. Most of the investors had families that went back at least one generation in Harrison. A few others were from Oklahoma or Kansas, but had lived for many years in the area.
When Snow"s group petitioned Capp in 1966 for permission to use his comic as the park's theme, they got lucky. Capp was in the mood to sell. Just the year before, after being asked for years by beverage makers to let them use the name Kickapoo Joy Juice, Capp had finally cut a deal with the National NuGrape Co. of Atlanta. (A couple years earlier, Pepsi had come out with its hillbilly soft drink, Mountain Dew.) After licensing Kickapoo Joy Juice, Capp then accepted Snow's proposal, again after years of resisting offers by other theme park developers.
Although Dogpatch was originally located in Kentucky, Capp was willing to dissemble for a percentage of the gross. The Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock declared after the park's announcement: "Ozarks of Arkansas Fit Al Capp's Dogpatch Image." The writer said, "Capp has never told the exact location of Dogpatch, the comic strip hillbilly community that is just a notch below a garbage heap and which could be in any backwoods mountain region. But he told newsmen during the weekend that he had once traveled through the Ozarks and this was 'just about the section that I imagined.'"
Not everybody was as delighted as Snow and his partners with Al Capp's imagined region. Arkansas had long suffered under the pens of yankee scribes, and a theme park populated by make-believe barefoot hillbilly morons was not entirely welcome. The day after Snow made his announcement, two officials with Arkansas' Publicity and Parks Commission protested that Dogpatch USA would undermine the image of the state. They said the state would gain more from a project more like the Ozark Folk Center which had then just recently received a million dollar federal grant. The two officials said they thought a display of "indigenous folkways and crafts" might better serve to increase long-term tourist interest and create a more favorable image to attract investment.
The news of Dogpatch USA also inspired an angry and insightful response from a Gazette reader in Little Rock. "Perhaps this will draw many tourists to the state; but it will create a poor image of the state and especially the pioneer—the so called Arkansas hillbilly. This same hillbilly is our ancestor who built a state out of a wilderness. Mr. Snow's project will make Arkansas the laughing stock of the nation. Is this the kind of publicity we want?
"It has taken almost 100 years for the state to 'live down' the image created by 'Three Years in Arkansas' and 'A Slow Train Through Arkansas;' then came Bob Burns with Grandpa Snazzy to bring back the bewhiskered, barefoot, tobacco-chewing, ignorant hillbilly. To further clinch the idea, came the Little Rock Central High School episode of 1957. Now, we have a group of business men who wish to keep this image before the public. Why?
"Where did the Arkansas hillbilly originate? In the mind of a 'back east' writer who knew even less about the natives of Arkansas than this writer knows about the inhabitants of Mars ... These ignorant hillbillies left us the heritage of integrity, independence and pride. Do we want to trade it for a mess of pottage?"
The answer, obviously, was "yes."
Soon after that letter appeared, a Daily Times editorial declared: "The "Li'l Abner comic by Al Capp has been popular over the years, and I think Arkansas would advance its image as a state which can spoof its own foibles by adding a Dogpatch USA." Another editorial in the Harrison daily declared: "Dogpatch is going to draw people like honey draws bears and these people will have money to spend. Let's get them to spend it here!" Still another editorial voice in The Fort Smith Southwest American sided with Dogpatch. "...we think the fears probably are groundless ... [W] e don't think there's much—if any—danger that the state's image will suffer as a result of that sole undertaking."
Al Capp did what he could to finesse the controversy. During one visit to the area when Dogpatch was being built he said, "I'm so glad I never saw all you attractive people before I drew you. All I knew about the Ozarks was what I'd seen in movies made by people who'd never seen anything but Hollywood .... The Ozarks, where the girls are so pretty and the men can speak so well! Dogpatch USA seems to combine the old rustic flavor with the best kind of plumbing and windows that let the sun in."
In The Informer and Newton County Times, published in the county seat of Jasper, a writer said Dogpatch was the best thing to happen to that part of Arkansas. "It will be a shame if this county doesn't prepare itself for the untold millions of people who will be coming to visit Dogpatch. Many a fortune can and will be made over a span of a few years by serving the visitor to Dogpatch. It is going to be the 'fun place' of the South for sure. To coin a hippie phrase, Dogpatch is going to be a 'happening.'"
Indeed. And what was happening was an effort by monied interests in Harrison and Little Rock to take advantage of the poverty and beauty of the region in a gesture of bold cultural politics, taking a set of nationally known hillbilly stereotypes, building a real fantasy hillbilly comic strip village, then charging admission, thereby contributing significantly to a fate predicted in a letter to the Gazette by a woman from Eureka Springs, and fulfilled in the recent spate of hillbilly editorial cartoons aimed at Bill Clinton. The woman despaired: "Is Arkansas doomed to be a caricature state—a Dogpatch state?"
The boomers of Dogpatch represented their project as harmless tourism, doing nothing but good. But tourism is not so harmless. Tourism isn't simply entertainment a way to spend idle hours and extra cash. The tourist "attractions" are part of a dynamic of cultural iconography. Tourism offers a means by which people
Page 24can assess their world and define their own sense of identity. The ways of the tourist are also the ways of the postmodernist; for both, time has accelerated and space has compressed, making nearly all points on the globe and in history accessible, variable, available to mix and match on an itinerary to suit your taste. The unstable and contingent character of reality in the tourist aesthetic was quickly recognized by the people in the area around Dogpatch USA when it was first being built in 1967-68. A vernacular deconstruction was carried out in the pages of the small town newspapers. The local debate was filled with discussion of the issues of simulation and authenticity.
Just before Dogpatch opened, the Harrison Daily Times reported on construction progress and puzzled over the theme park's weird identity, using a convoluted logic and lay-lit-crit vocabulary: "The layout of the town is a new idea and is completely original. Al Capp has never before drawn the entire town. The stage settings for the musical comedy and motion picture Li'l Abner, were frankly artificial and fragmentary. Hence, Dogpatch USA at Marble Falls, will be a new creation itself, the first Dogpatch to ever exist. Physically, then, the park will originate, not reproduce, Dogpatch."
Another quintessentially postmodern gesture at Dogpatch was a malicious irony that signified on the historical and economic forces behind not only Dogpatch USA, but the history of both Ozark and Appalachian mountaineers: The first railroad to run in Newton County was the one laid in 1968 at Dogpatch. The county was the poorest in the state, but the track didn't link it to the rest of the country. Instead, the railroad ran in a circle around the circumference of Dogpatch USA, a fabulistic hillbilly funland. The irony wasn't lost on the people in the area. The editor of a local paper wrote: Thanks to Dogpatch, Newton County now has a railroad—no train yet, just a railroad. All over the country railroads are diminishing and here in Newton County one is being built for the first time. Can you top that?"
When Dogpatch opened, it featured craftsfolk from the Ozarks
displaying and selling their skills and products. It presented these
"authentic" people in an "inauthentic" stereotyped context of
moonshine, overalls and feudists. For example, they hired W.H. Smith,
the head of the Arkansas Beekeepers Association, to play J. Goodbody
Sweetpants and run the Honey House on Cornpone Square. And not only
was Dogpatch the "authentic" version of the cartoon place, but was
also presented at the same time as a version of a real, historic
place. The issues were so confusing that in another article, a
Dogpatch official said, "the objective of Dogpatch [is] 'to restore
the culture of the days of the past, maintain the culture of today and
provide recreation for all age groups without destroying any of the
natural beauty of the valley.'" The equating of Dogpatch with genuine
mountain culture was also evident in a statement by Capp: "You don't
meet a nicer batch of people than here in the real Dogpatch." The
"real" Dogpatch? In the same breath, Capp added, "Until today I had
thought of Dogpatch as sort of a pleasant re-run of an old Bob Burns
movie. But now—isn't it the most fantastic thing you've ever seen?"
But what were they seeing? The trade magazine Amusement
Page 25Business in 1967 had already picked up on the weirdness. "The Marble Falls setting and some of the old buildings at the site already looked remarkably like the comic strip scene."
Which came first? The Marble Falls setting or the version in the newspaper? And which version makes the other valid? Does Li'l Abner make Marble Falls the "real' Dogpatch? Or does Marble Falls, because it looks like "the comic strip scene" make Li'l Abner a legitimate version of mountaineer culture? Such manufactured confusion is how stereotypes get perpetuated and used as substitutes for the more actual: it's the classic pattern for the flim-flam: there's enough reality to convince someone to accept the genuine fake. This masterful blurring of the lines between the authentic, the replica and the hegemonic lampoon is, to me, Dogpatch's claim to a place on the National Register. Restored to its original condition, it could easily serve as a living classroom, illustrating lessons for schoolkids in the dynamics of cultural politics and internal colonialism.
Dogpatch USA opened on May 17, 1968. Only a few weeks later, the U.S. Department of Interior's Board of Geographic Names approved "Dogpatch, Arkansas," as the name for the community served by the (former) Marble Falls post office. Dogpatch had been put on the map; its reality was official.
The park opened just as Capp, the one-time anti-McCarthyite hero, was embarking on a public speaking campaign that would permanently bury his reputation as a liberal. In 1967 he lambasted Joan Baez via a Li'l Abner character named Joanie Phoanie. From 1968 to 1970, he was a popular campus lecture guest—a fiery and witty, anti-welfare, anti-hippie, pro-war speaker students loved to hate. On the stump he had solutions for everything—On welfare mothers: "Chastity belts." On the Vietnam war: "I say shoot back." On Kent State: "The real Kent State martyrs were the kids in uniform." Capp even praised former Arkansas segregationist governor Orval Faubus and Dogpatch's first general manager, as being "prematurely right." In 1970 Capp switched parties from Democrat to Republican and contemplated a challenge to Ted Kennedy for the Senate. Capp's campus blitzkrieg came to a humiliating end when, in 1971, he was caught up in a scandal when he pleaded guilty to a Wisconsin student's charge of "attempted adultery."
Capp went into seclusion. By the mid-1970s, newspapers across the country were dropping Li'l Abner as Capp's keen satirical vision grew confused and his once-clever voice became merely bilious. Capp, emphysemic and confined to a wheelchair, finally killed the strip in 1977. Capp himself died two years later. By this time, Dogpatch USA had fallen from its glory days when it was
Page 26run by Faubus and hosted visitors from hit TV shows like Petticoat Junction. By the end of the decade, the park was renting itself out for weddings and hosting such tourist magnets as the regional arm wrestling championship. In 1980, Dogpatch USA went bankrupt.
But today there are indications that the fortunes of Dogpatch are beginning to improve. Forty-five minutes to the north is the throbbing pump of the region's latest tourist boom, the glittering neon capital of neo-country: Branson, Missouri. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as Silver Dollar City became a popular attraction, more and more country music acts were drawn to Branson. In 1983, Roy Clark put his name on a marquee and Branson's retro-rockets ignited. Following Clark were Conway Twitty, Roger Miller, Mel Tillis, Ray Stevens, George Jones, Micky Gilley, Jim Stafford, Johnny and June Cash, Andy Williams, Merle Haggard. Branson by the 1990s has become the Hillbilly Las Vegas, a contender for Nashville's title of Music City USA. The flocking of road-weary stars to Branson prompted Waylon Jennings to say, "This has gotta be country music heaven. Most of the people I thought were dead are up here singing."
Dogpatch USA, located on the out-of-the-way winding Scenic Highway 7, couldn't successfully compete with Silver Dollar City and the country music theaters in Branson. Ironically, however, the thriving country music showcases in Branson and Silver Dollar City's mile-high attendance figures are now contributing to Dogpatch's survival.
"No doubt about it, Branson has been a blessing," said Melvin Bell, who has owned Dogpatch for six years. Mr. Bell bought the park from a group of investors who bought it after the park had been seized in bankruptcy by a Memphis bank in 1980.
"We're on the route to Branson, so we have all the tour buses coming up Scenic 7. Dogpatch is becoming the place to stop."
Mr. Bell said that the fact that the Li'l Abner cartoon no longer runs has had a negative effect on Dogpatch, but its dubious legacy should be good for a more years.
"Most of the people who go to Branson grew up with Li'l Abner," Mr. Bell said. "So from that standpoint and the next ten or fifteen years, I would imagine, you've people who are familiar with it and once they see it they want to stop. Our numbers are looking better. From now on, we're going to be more aggressive."
Such are the vagaries of American tourism. What once simulated life, lives again. "Hillbilly," as a crowd pleaser, still works. To quote a billboard along the approach to fabricated nineteenth century mining town Silver Dollar City, "You've got a great past ahead of you."
Rodger Brown is author of Party Out of Bounds: The B-52s, R.E.M., and The Kids Who Rocked Athens, Georgia. He is completing a Southern travelogue to be published next fall.