After driving by the abandoned and defunct theme park formerly known as Dogpatch USA for the past twenty plus years, I finally got the opportunity to revisit the property again as one of many guests of the new owner, who opened the grounds to the public this weekend as sort of an experiment. Initially expecting perhaps 1,000 folks over the weekend, the news and excitement of being able to again walk the grounds, even for a few hours, brought hundreds more than expected.
Folks begin arriving about 12:30 PM to visit the park
The unexpected crowds caused parking and transportation issues. We were originally advised in advance to enter the park via the service entrance off State Highway 7 across from a church. However, upon arrival, this parking area was completely full, and guests were being told to turn around and drive back to the top of the hill and then park near the area where patrons would have parked all those years ago when the park was open for business. Mini vans and other vehicles were turned into impromptu "guest transportation" vehicles to haul guests down into the park, but many guests chose to walk the considerable distance down the hill instead. Of course, in the old days of the parks operation, the "funicular" decliner/incliner tram would haul guests from the top-side entrance down into the park below. The funicular tram now sits in ruin behind the dilapidated building that formerly housed Mammy Yokum's Pancake House, ticket sales windows, and a gift shop.
One of the Funicular decliner/incliner trams previously
used to transport guests from the "up top" parking
lot area into the park below.
In sharp contrast to what I remembered from visiting the park in the 1970's and 1980's, the property and all structures are in poor condition, even though some clean-up work had been undertaken recently by the new owner. Gone were the bright colors, the tidy walkways, the landscaping and flower gardens, the clear and rolling stream stocked with rainbow trout, and all of the rides, food, entertainment, and attractions that once beckoned to people far away. Instead, we find crumbling walkways, overgrown vines and wild vegetation, saplings everywhere, moss-covered streams and stagnant water, dilapidated buildings, unsafe bridges, and a general understanding that in time nature would have completely re-claimed everything here had not someone acquired the property with a plan to revitalize it.
Example of general overgrowth found
throughout the park.
Overgrown entrance to the Honey House.
I can remember the first time I ever visited Dogpatch USA. This would have been when I was in the second grade, probably in the Spring of 1971 on a class trip. What an adventure this was. I vividly remember certain aspects of that visit. In particular, I remember having lunch at The Fish House. I remember riding the kiddie helicopter ride, which was my favorite. The Honey House at the town square stood out in my mind because of the faux honeycomb entrance and the real, live honeybee colony on display inside, which mesmerized me. I also remember gazing up at the "Brainrattler" ride, which to a 7 year old looked quite frightening. Walking across the swinging bridge was also something I didn't want to do, but I believe the teacher made us walk across as a group. I can recall desperately wanting to go on the antique car ride, but this was not allowed because you had to pay extra money for this ride for some unknown reason. Of course, the characters of Lil' Abner, Daisy Mae, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, and all the rest walking around the town were memorable as well.
The Fish House Restaurant, where I first had
lunch as a second grader.
This initial trip planted to seed in my mind that I "must" be allowed to go back to Dogpatch as many times as possible. Living in a small town of only 350 people, there wasn't much of anything to do. A ride over to Dogpatch was certainly something for my brothers and I to look forward to, even if just once or maybe twice per year. As I grew older, I was braver and began to ride the more thrilling rides. These included the monster mouse roller coaster, the barrel ride, scrambler, and the previously feared brainrattler. The paddle boats and the Dogpatch train, known as the West Po'k Chop Speshul, also became favorites.
Loading platform to the paddle boat ride.
Water slide tower.
Train Depot for the West Po'k Chop Speshul.
To the best of my recollection, my final trip to Dogpatch USA occurred when I was about 17 years old. The reason I remember this is because I was involved in a traffic accident (rear-ended) on the way back home. Afterwards, I began working full time and the lure of Dogpatch wasn't nearly as strong as it had been when I was a youngster. So probably a good 12-13 years elapsed from my final visit until Dogpatch closed down forever in the early 1990s.
Once in awhile during the successive years, I would have occasion to travel to Jasper on State Highway 7, which meant driving past the old theme park. For awhile, you could still see that some of the rides were in place. In particular, I remember seeing the train parked inside the depot for quite a long time afterwards. Then, with each passing year, the park began to appear more and more run down. Around 2004 or 2005, somebody put new tin roofs on a number of the buildings in an effort to deter further deterioration of the structures. This prompted some people, me included, to speculate that the park might reopen in some capacity, but it wasn't to be.
Urban explorers would sneak into the park, even though it was posted for no trespassing, and post pictures of their visits online. During those years, even though the park was greatly run down, there were still some signs and some unique objects like the "trasheaters" that could be found within the park. When visiting today, I found virtually nothing identifiable. There were just empty, gutted buildings.
The highlight of today's visit without a doubt was crossing the railroad trestle and walking out the tracks on the opposite side. While the trestle is supported by steal beams, the wooden ties upon which the tracks are mounted are rotten and crumbling. I was actually surprised that it wasn't barricaded off to keep people from walking across. I made it across, but it was a little scary to be truthful. The tracks on the opposite side are still in good shape, but grown up with cedar saplings and covered in places with fallen tree limbs. The tunnel, however, looked surprisingly pristine and in great condition, much to my surprise. The tracks go through the tunnel, then make a loop back around and go back across the trestle by the same route. How thrilling it used to be to cross that trestle as a passenger on the train, which would stop briefly to allow you to enjoy the view over the canyon and take photos.
The railroad trestle that crosses the Mill Creek
Gorge, called "The Bottomless Canyon" in
Walking across the trestle.
Evidence of the rotten and crumbling railroad
ties supporting the train tracks.
Entrance to the railroad tunnel.
Condition of the railroad tracks.
So, after witnessing today's crowd, it is obvious that there is still significant interest in the old Dogpatch theme park. Whether this is just a result of nostalgia or a real ongoing interest is as of yet unclear. According to online sources, the current owner shelled out $2 million bucks to obtain possession of approximately 400 acres. I understand the original park area was closer to 800 acres, so it's not clear what parcels are currently under consideration for redevelopment.
Big Red !
The only bridge crossing currently useable.
The old grist mill, waterwheel falling apart.
While people will undoubtedly come up with several ideas to reinvent the park, it will unquestionably require the appropriation of hundreds of thousands of dollars more, if not millions, to restore the park or convert it into something useable that will attract paying crowds to travel to this somewhat isolated location. Where to start?
Rebuilding and repairing the infrastructure would have to take place. By that, I mean:
1. Installing new electrical wiring and fixtures throughout the park to code and arranging for electric service to be turned on.
2. Installing new water and plumbing fixtures throughout the park to code. Arranging for potable water and wastewater services.
3. Restoring the structural integrity of all existing buildings that are deemed to be reparable and removing those structures that cannot be repaired for reuse. Carpentry work, new doors, windows, tiles, etc.
4. Repairs and overlays to existing roadways, walkways, pathways throughout the park.
5. Repair or replace several dilapidated bridges that cross the stream.
6. Remove and clear all debris and growth from the stream and small lake and from against dams, embankments, and spillways.
7. General chainsaw work and clearing to remove saplings, vines, brush, brambles, fallen limbs, and general overgrowth throughout the park.
All that's just for starters. Quite a substantial additional investment, indeed, would be needed.
I, for one, sincerely hope the new owner follows through with his plans to restore this park to something the community can be proud of. Arts and crafts are popular with a certain segment of the community and tourists, while rides and attractions generally draw the youth. It would seem to me that some combination of both would be needed to attract large enough crowds to make the endeavor worthwhile. Perhaps an old time arts and crafts village in the town square area and maybe a water park with some rides thrown in on the other end of the park. I would think a water park would be very attractive during these hot and humid Ozark summers we have. I would love to see the miniature train restored and again running along the track. The paddle boats were also ideally suited for the location. Perhaps restoring and keeping some of the attractions we loved at the old Dogpatch and supplementing them with new attractions and new ideas might be the way to go !
The dam across Mill Creek.
Another view of the dam.
This is apparently the spring from whence
Mill Creek emerges.
Former administration and office building.
Regardless of which direction the new owner takes, I certainly hope the park is transformed into a successful venture that people will want to visit. Anything at all is better than letting the park continue to sit and rot.