Moonbeam McSwine

DOGPATCH opened in 1968, but its history, in the generous sense, begins about a hundred years earlier. The daisy chain of alluded identities begins in 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 on up until the word "hillbilly" first showed up in print in 1900, toting its croker sack full of iconography: squirrel rifles, corn cob pipes, floppy felt hats, feuds, a degraded language, and depraved life.

Out of this crashing surf Li'l Abner was born. Capp's only experience in the South before creating his comic was limited to a hitchhiking trip to Memphis when he was 15. His hillbillies came from the public cultural archive. His wife Catherine Capp later pinpointed the moment in New York City in the early '30s when Li'l Abner was conceived.

"A group of four or five singers/musicians/comedians were playing fiddles and Jews harps and doing a little soft shoe up on stage. They stood in a very wooden way with expressionless deadpan faces, and talked in monotones, with Southern accents. We thought they were just hilarious. We walked back to the apartment that evening, becoming more and more excited with the idea of a hillbilly comic strip. Something like it must have always been in the back of Al's mind, ever since he thumbed his way through the Southern hills as a teenager, but that vaudeville act seemed to crystallize it for him."

Capp's full name was Alfred Gerald Coplin. He was born in 1909 in New Haven, Connecticut, the first of four children. Both of his parents were natives of Latvia. His father was an amateur cartoonist who worked as an industrial oil salesman. When Capp was nine, he lost a leg when he was run over by a streetcar. It was the prevailing opinion among his friends later that Capp's outrageous scorn and satire poured out in the panels of "Li'l Abner" was to a large degree a compensatory response to his disability.

By the time Capp was 11, he was selling cartoons to neighborhood kids for pennies. After a family move to Brooklyn he added genitalia to his drawings and jacked up his price to two-bits a pop. He went to art school in Philadelphia Boston, met and married his wife Catherine, and moved to New York. Capp's first break was drafting a cartoon for the Associated Press in 1932. After that he illustrated for the Boston Post. In 1933, Hal Fisher hired Capp to work on Fisher's popular strip "Joe Palooka." While Fisher was on vacation, Capp introduced a hillbilly character named Big Leviticus, from Mineville, Kentucky, whose parents were runts and lived with a pig. In 1934, Capp left Fisher and took his hillbilly family with him. In August of that year, Li'l Abner Yokum, a six foot three, black-haired proto-Jethro, rose from a pond in the fourth panel of Al Capp's new cartoon and declared in bumpkin dialect his fidelity to nature's unclocked timetable, "Accordin' to the sun, it hain't supper time -- but the way mah stummick feel it must be!"

"Li'l Abner" was the first comic strip to star mountaineers as main characters, but his hillbilly compote was not unique. Capp's version of hillbillies were consolidated forms of a widespread tradition of mountaineer caricatures: there's the voluptuous rag-clad tater sack sexkitten, the grizzled corn-cob smoking visionary matriarch crone, the lay-about, ineffectual anti-patriarch, and the big strong, dumb ox, sixth-grade educated, inadvertent walking phallus -- part Alvin York, Abe Lincoln and Tarzan, a little Sambo in whiteface and Paul Bunyan with a drawl.

For Capp, the hillbillies of Dogpatch were the perfect dramatis personae for his brand of satirical comedy. And for Capp, "All Comedy 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."

"Li'l Abner" first appeared in 1934, and afterward it consistently challenged and trounced such eternal classics as Dick Tracy, Blondie and Little Orphan Annie, as America's number one strip. In the mid-1940s, his syndicate, United Features, reckoned that he had 27 million readers. The population was only about 140 million. Capp's power was enormous. When Capp ridiculed billboards in one strip, he got angry letters from the Outdoor Advertising Association who feared a rampage of anti-billboard violence. Capp had an unpleasant train ride and a half-dozen workers were fired. Li'l Abner was "an American institution."

Capp was compared to Mark Twain, Dostoevski and Rabelais. He drew like Vargas and wrote like Mark Alan Stamaty on corn likker. John Steinbeck said Al Capp deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature. Capp was master of every technique postmodernists celebrate: juxtaposition, parody, satire, irony, intertextual referencing, bricolage, chaos, the surreal, the carnivalesque, the tragicomic slapstick of differences. In "Li'l Abner," systems of logic and morality clashed -- the raw-boned mystical innocents of Dogpatch, virtuous and lean from a unvarying diet of pork and turnips, engaged with the expedient illogics of capitalist cities -- and from the resulting dreamscape of discourses came the satirical comedy. Like all satire, the real and the fictive combined to produce grotesque offspring: the better to fit the panels.

Capp's rabelaisian affinities led him to create an inverted foke fertility ritual -- Sadie Hawkins Day -- where the girls chased the boys. Sadie Hawkins Day dances were held across the country in the 40s, some events lasting weeks, ending with costume contests where they dress Dogpatch style, scanty over the shoulder bare midriff stuff. They held Daisy Mae beauty contests. Capp accepted the invitation to a Sadie Hawkins Day dance in 1946 where, while gazing on an armory filled with 12000 college students dressed in Dogpatch rags, he was overheard saying, "What have I wrought!"

An avowed devotee to Bahktin's "lower bodily strata," Capp was a one-man carnival society. Puns, allusions and borderline coprophilia showed up consistently in the strip. "Li'l Abner was full of jugs and boners and melons and labial knotholes, enough so to earn him a condemning eight pages in the report from a 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."

The episodic walk-ons in "Li'l Abner" had names like Earthquake McGoon, Dave Dogmeat, Clamwinkle McSlop, Hamfat Gooch, Barney Barnsmell, Boar Skarloff, Imogene Coma, Henry Cabbage Cod, Daphine Degradingham, Sir Cecil Cesspool, Peabody Fleabody, Dumpington Van Lump, whose favorite book is "How to Make Lampshades Out of Your Friends," and J. Colossal McGenius, the business consultant who charged $10,000 a word and was aided by his able secretary Miss Pennypacker. They drank soft drinks like Burpsi-Booma and Eleven Urp.

Li'l Abner's marriage to Daisy Mae Scraggs was a Life magazine cover story in the 1950s. By the 1960s, "Li'l Abner" was appearing in more than a thousand newspapers. Capp's strip had already inspired a stage play, a motion picture and "The Beverly Hillbillies."

So, when Capp agreed to license his characters to a group of Arkansas businessmen, flashbulbs popped and typewriters clacked. The Associated Press put the news on the wire that big bucks, a big name and big plans were creating a massive Ozark amusement park "of the Disneyland order."

"Deliberately building a slum for hillbillies might seem an odd way to fight poverty," Time magazine reported. "Except in this case the squalid hollow will be called 'Dogpatch,' and the developers stand to make a pile."

THE closest thing to a history of Dogpatch USA is a gigantic scrapbook the size of an Exit sign along the interstate which Mrs. Cooper hauls out from behind some cabinets. It is embossed with small gold letters "DOGPATCH USA." The massive codex swells 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. "Dogpatch, U.S.A. Comes to Real Life; 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, the Dogpatch of 1993 was a ragged remnant of its original state: long gone were the surrey rides, the live bear acts, the celebrity visits. But inside the scrapbook was another world, one where Newton County was the poorest county in Arkansas, the second poorest in the nation, and Li'l Abner Yokum was coming to the rescue.

O.J. Snow, a Harrison real estate appraiser and salesman, announced on January 3, 1967 that he had persuaded Al Capp to license his characters for a park to be built on 825 acres he had just acquired which included the town of Marble Falls -- which was little more than a store and a post office -- a cavern, a trout farm, the fountainhead of a creek and one of the oldest grist mills in the state. "Real Dogpatch Planned South of Harrison; Al Capp Joins Venture," the Arkansas Gazette ran on page one. The group, calling themselves Recreation Enterprises, explained they were going to blast open the cave, wire it for light and sound, dig more trout ponds, give surrey rides, have a stage coach, burro pack train, paddle boats, restaurant, motel and a restored grist mill that would grind Mammy Yokum corn meal which you could then use to bread the trout you just caught. The park, Snow and associates announced, was going to be a 'tourist magnet.'

Snow was a 46-year-old Arkansas businessman who had flown B-17 bombers as a pilot with the 91st Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force during World War II. During the war, he had been shot down, held prisoner in a German stalag, and was liberated by Patton's Third Army. After he announced the project, Snow explained the origin of the idea to a St. Louis Dispatch reporter. He said he had been thinking about building a tourist attraction in the Ozarks when a man came into his real estate office and listed the Marble Falls acreage for sale.

"Attractive as was the property, it still wasn't the final answer," Mr. Snow said. "I felt there had to be some sort of theme. After taking on option, I went out to the grounds to look around.

"As I sat there, the idea of using Li'l Abner-Dogpatch theme almost suggested itself. As soon as practical, I called Mr. Capp at his office in Boston. He was receptive enough over the phone to agree to an appointment.

"We went to Massachusetts to see him; he indicated preliminary approval, which now has been confirmed. He is delighted. Certainly, we are....If [Dogpatch] catches on as we hope we may continue building indefinitely, as is the case at Disneyland in California. There will be no carnival atmosphere at Dogpatch. We are serious in attempting to create something of value to all of Arkansas."

DOGPATCH is located in Newton County in the north Arkansas Ozarks. The area was first settled in the 1830s and named Wilcockson after a prominent family. In 1836, Peter Bellah, who had built a grist mill, two Wilcockson boys and some others quarried out of the mountainside a huge piece of marble. The marble was hauled by oxen out of the Ozarks, carried 60 miles to the Arkansas River, and then shipped to Washington D.C. as Arkansas' contribution to the Washington Monument. After that, they called the place Marble City.

The little town boomed after the Civil War. Houses went up along the banks of Mill Creek. Marble City soon had a church, a school house, livery stable, hotel, blacksmith shop, newspaper, a mine and ore mill, a post office, mason hall, sawmill, general store, a doctor, a grist mill and a cotton gin. But it didn't have a railroad. The nearest the railroad ran to Harrison, just north of Marble City in Boone County.

Ernest Raney runs the Capital Pawn in Harrison. His grandfather, Albert Raney, was the man who sold the property to Mr. Snow and his friends. Mr. Raney had bought the property in 1934. He sold it to Mr. Snow in the fall of 1966. Ernest Raney lived on the property from the time he was born until he was 18. He moved back when he was 22 or 23 and he lived there until 1990, at which time he was running Dogpatch's trout farm. Mr. Raney and a number of other employees all quit the park, frustrated with the ownership's rocky finances.

"Around the early 30s, Marble City started going bankrupt," Ernest Raney told me. "You had Harrison on one side and Jasper on the other. And the railroad came into Harrison, and Harrison started developing, so three towns that close together couldn't really make it. The roads coming into being, and then electricity, it caused Marble City to go bankrupt."

Around that time, Dean MacNeal, an engineer from Chicago, came into the area and bought up close to 600 acres from bankrupt owners. Mr. MacNeal became partners with Albert Raney, and when Mr. MacNeal died, Mr. Raney bought his share from his heirs. The Raney's living came from a general store and the post office and some real estate on the side.

Tourism made its appearance when Albert Raney cleared some land by a picturesque waterfall and started charging admission. In the late 1940s, he ran some lights into a cave and added that to his list of attractions. In the early 1950s, some state agriculture people carried out some trout breeding experiments at Marble City's Mill Creek, and Mr. Raney got an idea. In 1954, he built a trout farm and called his outfit Marble Falls.

"He run that until 1966, when they sold it to Dogpatch," Ernest Raney says. "That's about the picture."

But that's not the whole picture. The Raney's had originally planned to expand the existing Mystic Cave and trout farm, but their plans called for re-routing a few county roads that ran through the 800-plus acres. The Raney's couldn't get permission from the county or the state, so their plans were thwarted. They gave up and sold. "We couldn't expand the business without getting into politics and we didn't want to do that...We got petitions up and got enough signatures, but in Newton County you don't do anything unless you vote right. That may be true anywhere else, but especially in Newton County back in the sixties. The right way to vote was for the right party, and that depended on who was in there. Actually I think the Democrats were in there at the time. And we weren't either party."

ONCE Snow bought the property from the Raney's, he contacted Capp. He got lucky. After decades of withholding merchandising rights, Capp was in the mood to sell. Two years earlier, in 1965, after being asked for years by beverage makers to let them use the name Kickapoo Joy Juice, Capp finally cut a deal with the National NuGrape Co. of Atlanta, which had itself just the year before been bought by an Indiana entrepreneur. For the previous couple years Pepsi had been having success with another tangy yellow soda, Mountain Dew. After selling Kickapoo Joy Juice, Capp then gave in to Snow's proposal after years of resisting offers by other theme parks.

Although Dogpatch was originally located in Kentucky, Capp was willing to dissemble for the sake of tourism. The Arkansas Gazette 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 Mr. Snow and his partners with Al Capp's imagined section. 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.

Capp's comment's about the Ozarks being "just a notch below a garbage heap" brought an angry response from a reader from 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, an 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 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 smooth over any offense. 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 expressed the sense of disbelief and awe felt by many in the area as they saw what was going on. Two months before the grand opening in May of 1968, the paper declared: "It's almost beyond comprehension what Snow and his group are doing." Saying Dogpatch was the best thing to happen to that part of Arkansas, the writer continued, "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.

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