Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Rurality Here and There, Then and Now (Part X): A defunct hillbilly amusement park and its (perhaps) urban namesake

Grounds of what was formerly Dogpatch U.S.A.
2012 Lisa R. Pruitt 
I can't believe I have been living in northern California, just 80 miles from San Francisco, for 15 years, and I just learned that there is a neighborhood in San Francisco called "Dogpatch."  I came across this fact quite by accident a few days ago while looking up a business in the city.  The little map that popped up with it indicated that the area is called Dogpatch.  Wikipedia described the competing theories for how the place got its name, and one of them is that "it was named after Dogpatch, the fictional middle-of-nowhere setting of cartoonist Al Capp's classic comic strip, Li'l Abner (1934–1977). A colloquialism of the time which described an underdeveloped backwater, Dogpatch was a primitive community "nestled in a bleak valley, between two cheap and uninteresting hills somewhere."

And that brings me to another Dogpatch, one from my childhood and youth.  Dogpatch U.S.A. operated for many years as an amusement park just about 10 miles from my home in northwest Arkansas.  I worked there for six summers as I was growing up, through my second year of college, if I recall correctly.  An earlier post about the park is here, indicating that it has been defunct for a number of years.   Another interesting coincidence about Dogpatch U.S.A.:  last month, Slate featured it in the Atlas Obscura, calling it a "hillbilly theme park that lies in ruins."  The excerpt on Slate starts with this back-handed, tongue in cheek compliment:
Though long abandoned, Dogpatch USA was arguably the country's most successful hillbilly-themed amusement park centered on a trout farm.
Sign marking what was formerly Dogpatch U.S.A.,
photo from 2012, by Lisa R. Pruitt
The park's predecessor was "the Raney family trout farm in Marble Falls, Arkansas," an attraction that remained even after Recreation Enterprises bought it and turned it into "a rustic theme park."  Visitors to Dogpatch could catch as much fish as they liked and pay just $1/pound to have it cleaned and packed on ice.

The hick motif was none-too-subtle: attractions included Barney Barnsmell's Skunk-Works, Rotten Ralphie's Rick-O-Shay Rifle Range, and a roller coaster called Earthquake McGoon's Brain Rattler. Instead of garbage cans, the park had "trash eaters"—mechanical pigs, goats, and wild hogs that would suck refuse from the hands of whoever fed them. ("Please feed the trash eaters," read the signs, "they gits hongry, too.")

* * * 

Despite all these delights, by the mid-1970s, the park was beginning to flounder. Rising interest rates, a national energy crisis, and the fading of hillbillies from pop culture all contributed to Dogpatch's financial troubles. 
* * * 
After being sold to new owners in 1981, and again in 1987, Dogpatch USA struggled on until 1993, when it closed for good. The park has since been left to ruin. A 2002 attempt to sell it on eBay for a million-dollar minimum bid drew no buyers.
Both of these finds have been, for me, a blast from the past.

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