The hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner made Connecticut-native Al Capp wealthy. I read that at one time the strip was carried in nearly a thousand newspapers worldwide with a daily circulation of 60 million, which spawned a Broadway musical, two movies and a great deal of merchandising.
During its 43-year run, the comic strip also reinforced the hillbilly stereotype to a global audience. Writing in The Ozarks Mountaineer , the late Phyllis Rossiter- Modeland blamed Al Capp for “negatively influencing and ignorantly prejudicing millions of others about hillbillies through his comic strip.”
Perhaps based on my childhood visit to the now defunct Dogpatch amusement park south of Harrison, I wrongly assumed that Li’l Abner had some connection to the Arkansas Ozarks. Instead, the comic strip town of Dogpatch was actually set in Kentucky.
While researching the column on Lena Wilson, I stopped in at the Eureka Springs Historical Museum to see what was in their files. A hand-written note said that Charles Kappen told the story of Al Capp sitting on a bench in Basin Park one day when Lena Wilson traveled down the street. Al Capp asked a young boy who she was and was told, “Oh, that’s Lena the Hyena.” Soon after, “Lena the Hyena” was an off-screen character in the Li’l Abner comic strip. Later, Al Capp staged an art contest for the best design of the character, which was judged by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Boris Karloff and Salvador Dalí. It caused a sensation.
Though Lena Wilson may have had the appearance of what tourists expected a hillbilly to be (overalls or eccentric combinations of clothes), she was actually an only child born in Kansas to a prosperous family. She and her parents moved to Eureka Springs in the 1890s, purchasing and renovating a nice large house on Pivot Rock Road. Before attending college and becoming a school teacher, Lena graduated from Eureka Springs High School in 1900.
As Mary Margaret Torok said, “I never thought of Lena as a hillbilly in any way. She had class, a bit of style and a bit of grace.”