It was a fantasyland created to celebrate innocent storybook tales, yet it was integrated nearly a decade before civil rights laws demanded it. That was the unusual mix of sweetness and humanity that could be found for decades at the Enchanted Forest in Ellicott City.
Their sentimental pull still powerful nearly six decades later, the Ellicott City amusement park's figures and structures, which found a second home eight years ago at Clark's Elioak Farm, will soon enjoy yet another revival in the public's consciousness.
Along with visitors' and employees' memories, the back story of the U.S. 40 theme park that closed in 1989 will unfold in the first-ever book about the beloved attraction, due out this week.
Written by farm owner Martha Anne Clark and Janet Kusterer of Ellicott City, the 128-page softcover book is published by The History Press in Charleston, S.C. It is titled "The Enchanted Forest: Memories of Maryland's Storybook Park."
"Martha brought me a copy, and I cried my eyes out. It's so wonderful," said the daughter of the park's developer, Linda Harrison Gardner, who still lives in Ellicott City with her husband, John.
"It was just my life," she said of her reaction after reading the book three or four times in a matter of days and viewing its 70 photographs. "I don't think I ever realized, though, what it meant to so many people."
The authors will host a book signing Aug. 17 and 18 at the farm off Route 108 in western Ellicott City. The event is timed to coincide with the fifth annual reunion of park employees. The event also marks the 58th anniversary of the park's opening on Aug. 15, 1955. The book will be available to the public on those days.
"Howard Harrison Jr. was a visionary who chose the 20-acre site in Ellicott City for its proximity to Baltimore, and then took his ideas from plans to reality in eight months," Clark said.
Years after the park closed, Clark transported to her petting farm more than 100 of the original amusement park features, including the dragon-topped castle that once marked the entrance to the Enchanted Forest and the ever-popular Willie the Whale and Little Toot the Tugboat.
Harrison wanted to "turn the two-dimensional fantasy world inhabited by storybook characters into a 3-D place that children could visit with their families," Kusterer said. The park's name was taken from the enchanted forest where Hansel and Gretel encounter the child-eating witch of Grimm Brothers fairy tale fame, she added.
Harrison, who had been living with his family in Baltimore, opened Enchanted Forest in 1955, about a month after Walt Disney opened Disneyland in Anaheim Calif.
"Howard wasn't copying Disneyland," Clark said. "A lot of people may think that, but [the timing shows] it wasn't true."
Instead, Harrison drew inspiration from the Belgian Village Motel that he and his father had opened in the 1940s on the eastern end of U.S. 40 near Joppatowne, Kusterer said. Set up as a motor court with rooms facing a courtyard — a new concept at the time — the motel buildings were designed to resemble a quaint town with such room themes as the Shoemaker's House and the Candy Maker's House.
Not everyone rallied around Harrison's vision for an amusement park whose purpose was to provide "fun for youngsters and the young at heart," as an original brochure phrased it. It also stood out because of the features it wouldn't offer, such as roller coasters and thrill rides, a moneymaking staple of most parks.
"When my father tried to borrow money, he was turned down by [bank officers] who were skeptical it could succeed," Gardner recalled.
Undaunted, her father and grandfather sold the Belgian Village Motel and used the proceeds to finance the park, she said.
They encountered more obstacles when workers refused the job of constructing storybook buildings that often weren't designed to be plumb or square, saying they wouldn't "go against their training," Clark said.
But the father-son team finally hooked up with architect Howard Adler, whose firm was responsible for designing a giant fox on the roof of a local car dealership and had worked on a 3-D re-creation of the RCA Victor dog.
Harrison proved to be an exacting taskmaster over the years, insisting all features be repainted their original colors during off-season maintenance, Kusterer said. For instance, a proposal to change a scoop of ice cream atop a two-story cone from vanilla to chocolate — since brown paint would mask wear better than white — "took hours of discussion over many nights" to gain approval, she said.
The characters and buildings are all made of fiberglass now, but they were originally constructed of Celastic, a type of plastic canvas that can be molded with solvent and stretched across a wire frame before painting.