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.
Another firm policy enforced by Enchanted Forest management was that the park be integrated from Day One, Clark said.
"Keep in mind that it was 1955, nine years before the Civil Rights Act" would make segregation illegal, she said. It was a practice that again placed Harrison's thinking ahead of his time.
"Many people wouldn't go to the Enchanted Forest because they didn't want to run into a black person," Clark said. But Harrison stood firm, and his daughter remains proud of her father's principled stance.
Gardner, who considered writing a book herself but shied away from tackling the research involved, said the August employee reunions are wonderful events, and this year's picnic will be the perfect place to introduce the book.
"It's so neat seeing the employees and hearing their stories," she said. She noted that she moved at age 8 with her parents and three siblings to a house on the park property, where they played all day during summer break from Catholic school in Baltimore.
Lisa Peklo, a longtime West Friendship resident and weekly newspaper columnist who visited the park once as a child growing up in Montgomery County and eventually took her two children there, recalled when the park was set to close.
"There was this collective shriek of 'Oh, no!'" said Peklo, who in the book shares her vivid memories of the park being "soft thrills and low tech."
"The Enchanted Forest resonated with adults as being such a lovely excursion and we were reluctant to let it go," she said. "For kids, it truly was magical."
Both Clark and Kusterer are familiar with the park's many fans, some of whom were interviewed for the book and regularly interact on a Friends of the Enchanted Forest page on Facebook.
"A lot of people are very excited for this book to come out," Kusterer said. She and Clark began collaborating on it in December, "putting the pedal to the metal" in order for it to be ready for the reunion, she said.
"It was a lot of fun, but Janet did all the heavy lifting," said Clark, who has also written a children's book and reissued a biography of her father, the late state Sen. James Clark. Kusterer has written two books about Ellicott City.
The early decades after the park opened "were a kinder, gentler time" for kids and families alike, Gardner said. "Children used their imaginations then."
Asked whether the Enchanted Forest could succeed with kids in today's techno-centric world, she said she wasn't sure — but quickly pointed to the immense popularity of the features with younger children visiting Clark's Elioak Farm.
"Martha is my hero" for all she's done to continue the legacy of the Enchanted Forest, she said. "And the book by Martha and Janet is truly, truly wonderful."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun