When the Earth opened up and swallowed part of his Top of the Rock golf course in Ridgedale, Mo., Johnny Morris excavated the sinkhole and turned it into a tourist attraction called “The Cathedral of Nature.”
“If I’d done that, I’d have a big hole in the ground,” said Arkansas state Rep. Keith Slape, R-Compton. “He does it, and here comes the Midas touch.”
Morris is bringing that Midas touch to Arkansas.
Bass Pro Shops announced Tuesday that Morris is the (not so) secret buyer of the abandoned Dogpatch theme park in Newton County.
The Arkansas Democrat- Gazette reported on June 5 that the 400-acre Dogpatch site had sold for $1.12 million. The identity of the buyer wasn’t revealed at that time, but there was a hint: the buyer’s mailing address was Springfield, Mo., the city where Bass Pro is headquartered.
For years, people in north Arkansas have tried to get Morris to buy Dogpatch. But the price was $3 million in 2016. It has been steadily coming down, in more ways than one.
Constructed in 1967 for $1.33 million (about $10 million in today’s dollars), Dogpatch USA originally featured a trout farm, buggy and horseback rides, entertainment by characters from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip, and the park’s trademark railroad, the West Po’k Chop Speshul, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Amusement rides were added later.
Dogpatch USA was a booming theme park in 1968, its first full year of operation. It attracted some 300,000 visitors that year.
Before long, Dogpatch was heading south faster than Earthquake McGoon’s Brain Rattler.
The park closed in 1993.
Since then, it has languished, with buildings deteriorating and memories fading. To many people in Arkansas, a visit to Dogpatch was a cherished childhood memory.
Mary Ann Davis of Pine Bluff got to visit the abandoned theme park in 2016.
“I’ll start crying now,” she said, gathering her composure. “It’s bringing back lots of memories. Remembering back when your kids were young and you had so much fun being with them.”
Misty Smith of Columbus, Kan., and her family got to tour the Dogpatch property in 2018. They reenacted photos from the family scrapbook.
“I got a spanking in the gift shop when I was little, so my sister wanted me to reenact that, but I didn’t,” Smith said. “We laughed so hard we cried several times.”
Since Dogpatch closed, it has had a series of buyers with big plans. But without adequate financing, those plans fell through and at least one buyer disappeared in the dark of night.
But Morris is different.
He has a net worth of $4.1 billion, according to Forbes.com.
“Morris started the company in 1972 by selling fish tackle from the back of his father’s liquor store in Springfield, Mo.,” according to Forbes. “In 2017, he bought rival Cabela’s for $5 billion, nearly doubling the size of Bass Pro Shops.”
Morris has a passion for conservation.
He developed Big Cedar Lodge, billed as “America’s premiere wilderness resort,” and the 10,000-acre Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, both of which are in southern Missouri, only a few miles from the Arkansas state line.
While the details haven’t been determined, Morris plans to preserve the Dogpatch property as “a nature experience for future generations to enjoy,” according to a news release from Bass Pro.
“We are very excited to have the opportunity to restore, preserve and share this crown jewel of Arkansas and the Ozarks so everyone can further enjoy the wonderful region we call home,” Morris said in the news release. “We’re going to take our time to restore the site, dream big and imagine the possibilities to help more families get back to nature through this historic and cherished place.”
The park’s original buildings have been deteriorating for decades.
“Morris and his team are evaluating which buildings can be salvaged and restored while beginning to clear debris and dilapidated structures,” according to the release.
“The property’s next chapter will be an ode to the heritage of the Ozarks and the abundant wildlife and natural beauty found here,” according to the news release. “One top priority is restoration of the large natural spring and bringing back to life the renowned trout hatchery and many future fishing opportunities.”
Morris didn’t respond to a request for a brief telephone interview. A spokesman said Morris was traveling Tuesday and unavailable for comment.
In early June, paperwork filed at the Newton County Circuit Clerk’s office indicated that the buyer was Down By the Falls LLC, which was incorporated in Delaware on May 28 with a Springfield, Mo., residential street address.
Cantrell-Griffin Business Brokers of Springdale announced the sale on June 3, saying the buyer was unnamed and the sale amount was undisclosed.
The previous owners had been trying to sell the property since 2016, initially asking $3 million.
Doing business as Great American Spillproof Products Inc., Charles “Bud” Pelsor and his business partners — James and Susan Robertson of Newbury Park, Calif. — bought the Dogpatch property for $2 million in 2014.
Pelsor envisioned turning Dogpatch into an “ecotourism village,” but those plans soon fell through.
The mortgage holders filed suit in September after Great American Spillproof Products fell behind on lease payments and missed a balloon payment for the total amount due in August 2019.
The mortgage was held by Stewart Nance of Eureka Springs, his son John Pruett Nance of Rogers and their attorney Gregory Brent Baber of Little Rock.
A decree of foreclosure indicated Great American Spillproof Products owed $1,031,885 on the 400-acre property.
Dogpatch was to be sold on the Newton County Courthouse steps in a foreclosure auction March 3, but then a “solid buyer” surfaced, Stewart Nance said in February. The auction was postponed pending contract negotiations.
Nance said he couldn’t reveal the buyer’s name at that time.
Slape said he’s been on Morris’ other properties, so he’s expecting big things for Newton County, which is in his state House district.
“It will be something, especially if we get through the covid,” Slape said. “It will be quite a tourist destination. It’s adjacent to the Buffalo National River. Plenty of wildlife to look at. It’s pretty country.”