Ellicott City was nestled under a layer of snow before dawn Saturday and light flakes fell from a gray sky while Dawn Coolahan hurried to prop a wooden gorilla in front of a house on Dogwood Drive.
Coolahan hustled back to her van for smaller "Happy Birthday" signs and bunches of yellow bananas cut out of wood. The metal spikes on the signs would not pierce the frozen ground, so - glancing occasionally over her shoulder at the dark house - she tucked them in the bushes and leaned them against flowerbeds.
Her stealth mission completed, she hopped in her van and quietly drove away.
As the founder and sole employee of Card in the Yard of Maryland in Ellicott City, Coolahan is often sneaking onto people's property to surprise them with 6-foot wooden cards and other fanciful decorations that say "Happy Birthday," "Congratulations" or "I Love You."
"After doing it for so many years, I'm pretty quick at it," Coolahan said. "I love the element of surprise. ... It's really important to me."
Her sister, Paige Smith, runs a Card in the Yard business from her Eldersburg home, covering Carroll County. She said the hours can be odd, but the reactions are worth it.
"I absolutely love this business," Smith said. "I know I'm going to go do something that people are going to be pleased and happy with."
For $50 (plus mileage in some cases), customers rent a large card with a personalized banner and a variety of smaller decorations for about 24 hours. Baby announcements are usually sold in three-, five- and seven-day increments.
Coolahan's display Saturday morning involved a huge cartoon gorilla with his finger in his nose anchored in front of the Dobbins family's split-level house. She topped it with a sign reading, "Bruce, we picked this for you."
As Coolahan pounded stakes into the ground with a rubber mallet, Bruce Dobbins, an analyst at the Pentagon, was fast asleep inside, ignoring the dawn of his 50th birthday.
A little before 8 a.m., his wife, Victoria, arrived home from her job as a registered nurse on the night shift at Howard County General Hospital and told him to look in the yard.
"He thought it was pretty funny," she said.
She got the idea after seeing Coolahan's cards around Howard County.
"I wanted to, you know, have a bit of a to-do," she said. And she chose the rude gorilla because she "really wanted to rub it in."
Coolahan's business caters to people who want to make a fuss over their friends and family.
Customers can have a clown, a bear, a hippo, a bunch of balloons or about 10 other designs surrounded by packages, baby bottles, stars or smiley faces.
A card with a flamingo in a party hat accompanied by a herd of pink plastic birds is very popular, she said. One time she even set up a wedding proposal, with lovebirds on the card, hearts and a bubble machine.
Coolahan, 41, started her first Card in the Yard business 13 years ago when she was living near Bel Air.
Her daughters were toddlers, and "I was trying to find a small business so I could stay home with the girls," she said.
She had seen a few storks set up in people's yards to announce new babies and thought, "Why not go beyond that and do all occasions?"
A friend put her in contact with a Wisconsin woman who not only had a card business, but also had written a manual with ideas to get started. Coolahan was off and running.
Her husband, Jim, is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force so the family has relocated several times.
She sold her Harford County business and started again in New Mexico. Then she sold that one and started over when the family moved to Ellicott City five years ago.
Her husband helps her make the cards, and she chooses designs and paints them. Her daughters, now 16, 14 and 9, often earn money helping her clean the banners to get them ready for new messages.
Smith, 37, also relies on her family to help her, including her two sons, ages 7 and 8, and her husband, Frank, who sometimes retrieves the displays for her.
Some customers let the women know when the recipient will be out of the house during the day, but other times odd hours are necessary to make the surprise work.
"I have to work according to my customer," Smith said.
The cards themselves are the best advertising, Coolahan said. She includes a small sign with her phone number and Web site, www.cardintheyardmd.com.
The women say they average about 10 orders a week. Winter is usually a slower time, and there is a rush in May and June, when graduation displays are popular.
Victoria Dobbins thought the service was perfect for her husband's milestone birthday.
"It seemed like such a cute idea," she said, "and it really got everyone's attention."