Once upon a time – as many Howard Countians still recall – Ellicott City's Enchanted Forest shopping center was the site of a fairy-tale theme park.
A tiny East Coast version of Disneyland, the Enchanted Forest opened in 1955 and remained a staple of childhood in the county for more than three decades until it closed in 1989.
Visitors to the park were invited to wander through a wonderland of storybook settings: kids could climb into the little old lady's giant purple shoe and slide out the bottom; peer inside the three little pigs' straw, stick and brick houses; or gaze through the windows of Cinderella's pumpkin carriage and pretend they were being whisked away with Prince Charming.
Over the past decade, more than 100 of the Enchanted Forest's structures have been moved four miles away to a new home at Clark's Elioak Farm on Clarksville Pike.
This summer, as the 60th anniversary of the park's opening approaches, the last of the Enchanted Forest's figurines will be removed from the shopping center site, officials from property owner Kimco Realty confirmed.
According to Tom Simmons, president of Kimco's mid-atlantic shopping center region, the only structures that remain from the park's glory days are a castle, dragon and storybook at the entrance to the center, and a gingerbread house and Cinderella's castle farther back on the property.
The storybook, the dragon and its castle will find their happily ever after at Clark's Elioak when they're moved to the farm sometime "early this summer," Simmons said.
They'll arrive just in time for an anniversary celebration that Clark's Elioak owner Martha Clark and fellow Enchanted Forest aficionados are planning for the theme park on Aug. 15.
The other two structures are too dilapidated to be rehabilitated and will be demolished. Simmons said the gingerbread house and Cinderella's castle – which are made of wood and covered in concrete – are rotting on the inside. A tree recently fell on top of the gingerbread house, and the castle's second story is structurally unsound.
"Old King Cole," who watches over the Enchanted Forest from his perch atop the shopping center's sign, will stay in place.
Clark said Tuesday the dragon would likely be taken down "in the next week" for safekeeping. The storybook castle – the largest Enchanted Forest structure ever to be transported to the farm – will have to be dismantled before it can be loaded into a truck. It's bigger and heavier than the little old lady's shoe, which weighs about 30,000 pounds and stands 23 feet tall, Clark said.
Clark already has a replica castle and dragon at the farm, which were custom built by Virginia artist Mark Cline, who visited the Enchanted Forest as a child.
"I never expected to get the castle," Clark said, "so now I'll have two castles and two dragons." The historic structures will be placed at the entrance to the Enchanted Pine Forest on the farm, where many of the other nursery-rhyme characters are located.
Simmons said the decision to remove the rest of the figurines from the shopping center was driven by financial and preservation considerations.
"These are old historical wooden structures; they became very expensive to maintain and very expensive to renovate," he said. "We wanted to make sure they were in the best situation where they could be seen... and maintained properly moving forward."
Vandalism and trespassing were also a concern. Maintaining the structures on Kimco's property could become a liability, said Clark.
"As many fences as you put up, people will find a way," she said. "If you climb up to the second story [of Cinderella's castle], you can fall through the floor or fall off."
"Our biggest concern is people get curious and want to climb around back in there and hurt themselves," Simmons said.
Still, Clark expects that seeing the dragon and castle, which have been icons on the Route 40 landscape for the last 60 years, "will not be without pain for all of us.
"I know that when people see them working on the entrance castle in the next month or so, and see them dismantling that, I'm sure there will be a reaction," she added. But once people find out where the structures are going, "we hope it will be a positive reaction."
Kimco plans to erect a plaque in the shopping center with information about the Enchanted Forest's history and directions to Clark's Elioak Farm, according to Simmons.
"We're happy now that all the pieces can be together and can be enjoyed by kids and families in an appropriate setting," he said.