Near Bowie, south of Baltimore, is a green acre of magic. First you see the pirate ship, then you notice the space ship, and finally, you're captivated by the fort, the train and the airplane. Chances are, you'll also see pint-size pirates forcing the enemy to walk the plank. Screams of delight from the children compete with the sounds of the traffic zipping by on Route 301, and mostly conquer it. Scattered here and there, testing the love seats and gliders, peering into the miniature barns and sturdy sheds, are a lot of wistful-looking adults who'd be up on those castle lookout towers in a red-hot minute if their dignity would let them.
Castle? Space ship? These are outdoor things you won't find at your local chain store -- because they're handmade.
More than 80 Amish families make the buildings, swings, play sets, arbors and ornamental iron plant hangers on the Redi Buildings lot. If you want to sit on it, eat on it, play on it or put it away outside, chances are it's here. And you don't need to spend a fortune, either. A capacious settee for bird-watching, with a built-in table between the two seats for books and binoculars, is about $170 -- specialty of the Sam Fisher family. Gazebos, by the Jacob Kauffman family, start at $1,295, with cedar-shake roof and gingerbread trim.
"Each family has a specialty," says Redi Buildings founder, Dave Wayson, in his soft Southern Maryland voice. "They can change the basic plan to suit just what you need, if you want them to. We've got seven families in the blacksmith shop, and they're still making everything the old way -- shepherds' crook hangers, plant stands -- it's all hand-hammered. And the carpenters -- well, we've still got the little red wagon you probably remember from when you were a kid. And of course all kinds of swings and seats."
In fact, if you can draw what you want, Mr. Wayson can find you a family to build it, for the very good reason that that's how the whole business began.
"We started out just building picnic sets and regular swing sets here nine years ago," he says. " 'Course, the kids would be playing on them. And I would listen to them to see what they liked. I'd ask what they wanted, what they wished for. That's how the pirate ship and the castle and all the rest came to be. I drew the plans, and took it up to the Amish and worked alongside during the building."
Each new design meant adding another family of builders. The space ship is made by the Joe Zook family, the wooden horse and buggy by the Amos Stoltzfoos family No. 1. the playhouses by the Jake Stoltzfus family, and the six-car choo-choo train by the Jonathon Fisher, Marvin Beiler and Amos Stoltzfoos No. 2 families.
"It gets kind of confusing around here sometimes," Mr. Wayson smiles. "We've got about 10 Jon Lapp families, and a lot of Stoltzfus and Stoltzfoos and Beilers."
Mr. Wayson clearly loves what he's doing, especially the business of matching a request for a design to the builders who can make it.
One of his more unusual commissions was from a family that wanted two identical playhouses for brother and sister, joined by a swing set. No fighting over turf, and neutral territory on the swings for quality sibling time.
Playhouses start at $1500 for the 6-by-10-foot model, and no wonder they're popular. They look just like miniature versions of Mayberry, RFD. Flower boxes, windows with shutters, a child-sized Dutch door and an ornamental chimney on the cedar-shingle roof are standard equipment. You may find yourself wanting to move in. In fact, there is one version of this playhouse that's adapted for use pool-side, so your guests can change in it when the children aren't having Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail to tea.
All the playhouses come with an adult-sized side door tactfully tucked around the corner from the child's entrance, in case Gulliver wants to visit Lilliput without bending over.
The Bowie Baysox have ordered two structures for pint-sized fans to play on when the national pastime palls -- a pirate ship (by the Jacob Kauffman family), for those whose imagination inclines toward the seven seas, and a tractor-trailer (from the Amos Beiler family) with plenty of room for a cargo of good buddies and the very modern romance of I-95.
The craftsmanship in Mr. Wayson's field is of the old-fashioned variety, but the materials are quite up-to-date. Most structures are available not only in wood, but also in recycled plastic that looks like lumber but doesn't splinter, decay or need periodic painting as wood does.
We live in an interesting universe, when all those plastic milk jugs and grocery bags end up as the castle, a wonder ful 8-by-13-foot, two-story structure with two lookout towers, splinter-free decks, a squiggly slide for daring escapes and plenty of crannies and windows from which to defend Camelot.
All very well, you say, but I'm all thumbs and I don't want to deal with putting together a castle this weekend, thank you. In that case, you can call on one of the nonAmish families whose business it is to deliver and assemble. The day I interviewed Mr. Wayson, the Hilton family had just come in from assembling a gym loft. Tiffany Hilton, who is a recent sixth-grade graduate, has been working with her father since she was old enough to wield a wrench. Her mother, Tony, keeps the family books and puts the packages together, and her father, Eddie, drives the structure to the site and does the heavy work. He and Tiffany are an assembly team.
"I put everything in place, then she helps me tighten the bolts," he says.
"I like it," says Tiffany, with a shy smile and a lot of pride. "Don't forget to tell them about the play set."
"She gets better tips than I do," jokes her father.
And what will you do, while your children set off on those imagined voyages to Camelot or Alpha Centauri? Well, having stowed all the garden equipment in one of the many attractive sheds made by the Gideon Zook and Ben Glick families, and coaxed Rover into his doghouse ($65 and up, Zook relations, from the shed scraps), you might want to sit in your glider love seat (the King family, about $195) and watch the wind twirl the benevolent whale on your weather vane (the Daufit Hill family, $34.)
Of course, if the kids will let you onto the quarterdeck, you might just decide to read them "Treasure Island." If they're good. And if you get to be Long John Silver.
Redi Buildings, David Wayson's field of outdoor dreams, is ope from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week. 3809 N.E. Crain Highway, Mitchellville, next to Rip's Restaurant and just south of the Baysox stadium. The sales office has a brochure for each of the structures, with a specific price and option list, so you'll know exactly what you're getting. For more information, call (800) 249-7334.