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The Founders of the Enchanted Forest

The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Howard (Extra)
Thursday, September 9, 2004
| View the Original Article | Newspaper Articles | Promotional Material | Personal Stories |

A Childhood Paradise Lost - Enchanted Early Years

Linda Harrison Gardner grew quiet as the van headed west on Route 40 through the commercial outskirts of Ellicott City , along a stretch of road she first traveled long ago as a young girl.

Back then, Gardner recalled, it seemed the drive from Baltimore with her parents and three siblings took forever. When her father finally pulled up to a run-down farm, Gardner 's mother cried as she spotted the pigpens and rough, unfinished house her husband had purchased.

Howard E. Harrison Jr. assured his unhappy family that he would make the property a nice place to live. But he intended far more.

Gardner could not know then how much she would come to love her new home, and how someday she would long to walk again in the land of make-believe conjured by her family, a place called the Enchanted Forest.

From Conception to Completion

In the months before the storybook theme park opened in August 1955, Gardner and her younger brother would return from parochial school in Baltimore , quickly shed their uni-forms and head for the big barn on the property. Inside, men were shaping wire, wood and thick papier-mache into an immense green dragon.

For nearly a year, the children had seen fantastic creatures come alive inside the barn. "We thought it was just everyday life," said Gardner, 57.

Actually, the Harrison children were witnessing the hard work of a dream come true. Harrison 's father and her grandfather, Howard E. Harrison Sr., had launched an improbable scheme to build a major tourist attraction for children in the Nowheresville of Howard County.

The Harrisons were a close-knit Baltimore , family, with a tradition of the son following the father in business. After World Warn, Howard E. Harrison Sr. and his son had developed a resort-style motel, the Belgian Village , along Route 40 in eastern Baltimore County . One day, as Harrison Sr.'s grandchildren gathered around to hear him read fairy tales and nursery rhymes, a favorite family pastime, he told them he would make the story's characters real.

The Harrisons embraced a singular 1950's endeavor, joining other entrepreneurs throughout the country who developed parks for children portraying fables and nursery rhymes.

"Suburbia was kind of beginning," said C.J. Hirschfield, executive director of Children's Fairyland in Oakland , Calif. , which at 54 c1ain1s to be the country's oldest operating storybook theme park. "There wasn't the pull of TV that there is now."

Baltimore bank officials, however, were less entranced with the Harrisons ' idea and refused to finance. what they considered a foolhardy venture, Gardner said. So the Harrisons sold the Belgian Village and used their own money.

Then, they attracted Howard Adler, a local designer who had made a name for himself doing displays for downtown Baltimore department stores, banks and other businesses. His imaginative creations of papier-mache, cement and fiberglass would give the Enchanted Forest its whimsical, enduring appeal.

The sturdy brick house of the Three Little Pigs, for example, was decorated with a wolf- skin rug on the floor. The rakish angles of the Crooked House were so odd that one carpenter declared that the structure wouldn't stand and walked off the job. The house of the Three Bears not only had three bowls of porridge and three beds, it also had three chimneys a pipe-shaped chimney for Papa Bear, a purse-shaped chimney for Mama and a bottle-shaped chimney for Baby Bear.

Adler, who died in 1988, would go on to other projects, including the 45-year-old Frontier Town Western Theme Park on the out- skirts of Ocean City and parts of Hershey park in Hershey , Pa. But the Enchanted Forest "Was his favorite, and the one he took the most pride in," said his son Ronald Adler.

The eight-acre Enchanted Forest, with figures and storybook set- tings nestled among woods, a stream and a small pond, was deliberately low-key compared with Disneyland in California, which made a grand, nationally televised debut a month before the Enchanted Forest opened.

"There are no mechanical rides in the park," Howard E. Harrison Jr. told the Baltimore News-Post in an article that ran on the Enchanted Forest 's opening day, Aug. 15, 1955 . "Instead, we hope that the children will enjoy the make-believe figures that are before their eyes."

"I say children, but actually, we think that many grown-ups will enjoy seeing the famous old figures that they knew when they were children," he added.

Harrison was right. This children's park plunked down in the middle of farmland was an immediate attraction on the East Coast. During the summer months, the park was open seven days a week, despite warnings from the county sheriff that operating on Sunday violated the county's blue laws. At a time when many Howard businesses turned away African Americans, the Enchanted Forest welcomed them, although it maintained segregated restrooms in its early years

The Enchanted Forest even drew the attention of NBC's "Today" show, which did a live broadcast with host Dave Garroway from the park two months after it opened. "On Saturdays and Sundays, they had to get the state police out there," Gardner said. ""People started parking up and down Route 40."

Sold and Closed Down

The Enchanted Forest became a workplace and a home for the Harrisons , who remodeled the old farmhouse into gracious brick residence near the drive to the snack bar at Robin Hood's barn. "Dad would walk down there every day with a pad of paper and pencil," Gardner said. "H something was wrong in the park, by the end of the day it better be fixed.

"It was a job, but I think it brought them a lot of enjoyment," she said. "My parents loved children. Every child was 'honey' to my mom, and to my dad, all the little girls were 'honey,' and all the little boys were 'son.' "

Gardner and her three siblings worked, too. When the park first opened, she and her younger brother, Bruce, were Jack and Jill, dressed in costume and walking hand in hand to greet visitor~.

"I couldn't wait to grow up and be Little Red Riding Hood," she said.

Such were the perks of living in a theme park.

Gardner 's younger brother used to hide in the two-story Shoe House when it was time to go to the dentist. At Thanksgiving, Gardner donned a red satin cape and, accompanied by a police escort, rode east on Route 40 in a duck- ling with wheels behind a large, motorized Mother Goose to join Baltimore 's holiday parade. Sleepovers at the Harrison home, not surprisingly, were highly coveted among schoolmates.

For legions of area teens, the Enchanted Forest was summer job headquarters, as the ranks of workers swelled to 150. Among the dozen or so year-round employees, some- snack bar manager Evelyn Myers and general manager Bradley Selby-worked for the Harrisons from the day the park opened until it officially closed in 1988. During the winter, workers painted and patched the storybook figures, repaired vehicles and built new attractions. After they grew up, three of Harrison 's four children lived in houses on the property with their spouses.

Over the years the park grew to 25 acres, with parking for 700 cars. Visitors clambered through Cinderella's castle, rode through the caves of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and' took a teacup ride to the underground scenes from" Alice in Wonderland." On a large excavated pond, they rode the Little Toot tugboat and visited Mount Vesuvius and Jungle Land . In the late 1970s and into the 1980s-when ad- mission prices were as low as $2.10 for children and adult&-the park drew 350,000 to 400,000 visitors from May to October.

But even those numbers weren't enough. "We saw it changing," said Howard E. "Buddy" Harrison III, Gardner 's older brother, who took over the park from their father in 1968. As years passed, the Enchanted Forest faced many competitors, including television, video arcades and bigger, thrill-packed amusement parks such as Paramount 's Kings Dominion. Although the Harrisons advertised more throughout the Baltimore-Washington region, the public's enthusiasm for a low-tech land of fantasy ebbed. Buddy Harrison, who now lives; on Maryland 's Eastern Shore , said the family's I choice was clear. "We made a business decision: to sell the Enchanted Forest ." I

In 1988, Towson developer Jack H. Pechter j of JHP Development purchased the Enchanted Forest and surrounding land for more than $4.5 million. Although Fechter planned to build a new shopping center, he

said he also wanted to keep the park operating. But the Enchanted Forest remained closed in 1989 as its eastern side was bulldozed for the shopping center.

During that time, the Harrisons dealt with more than the loss of the Enchanted Forest . Howard E. Harrison Jr. died of cancer in 1988, and his wife, Geraldine, slipped deeper into the fog of Alzheimer's disease, which eventually claimed her in 2000. One day in 1989, Gardner was driving with her husband along Route 40 when she glanced up at the Enchanted Forest property and saw that her parents' house had been tom down. She shredded her silk dress as she loaded bricks into the car, clutching the remains of the farmhouse and crying all the while.

Revival Efforts Sputter

The Enchanted Forest was re- opened for one season in 1994. Otherwise, the attractions.. a lure for persistent trespassers, long have been fenced off. The white entrance gate and storybook sign have grown increasingly shabby. In the past decade, the park and adjacent Enchanted Forest Shopping Center have been sold several times, most recently to Kimco Realty Corp., one of the country's largest owners and operators of community shopping centers.

Even as advocates and county officials ponder the prospects for the park's restoration, Kimco has refrained from commenting on its plans.

One day recently, with photos of the park spread on a table at her Ellicott City home, Gardner seemed caught between hope and resignation about the possibility of reviving the Enchanted Forest. Her words came slowly.

"If it did happen, it would have to be more of a picnic-type area for small children," she said. "I don't think there are many children who would think this is a cool thing."

It's not clear how youngsters would regard Humpty Dumpty on a wall, or Willie the Whale in a pond, but it's obvious that the Enchanted Forest still exerts a powerful pull on adult..,.

"The Enchanted Forest was my Disneyland ," said Mark K1ine, who visited the park during summer trips to his grandparents in Baltimore . "I never quite outgrew it."

Kline said the place helped in- spire his Enchanted Castle Studio in Natural Bridge , Va. , where he's a fiberglass sculpture artist and muralist.

Monica McNew-Met.zger, a 39- year-i)ld mother, still can remember the thrill she felt as a child when her family drove from Annapolis , and she caught sight of the King Cole figure pointing to the Enchanted Forest parking lot.

"It would be so neat to take my daughter there," she said. "I would love to do that."

A deep vein of nostalgia inspires periodic efforts to reopen the park. Five years ago enthusiasts began gathering financial pledges, but the effort flagged, they say, because of county government's lack of interest.

The restoration this summer of the park's bedraggled pumpkin coach and subsequent attempts to auction it on the internet were closely followed by many local residents. The coach's owners eventually donated it to an Ellicott City petting farm, but the episode stirred fears that the Enchanted Forest would be dismantled piece- meal.

"We want our park back again!" Ellicott City preservation activist Barbara Sieg declared in a recent open letter to County Executive James N. Robey and Kimco region- al director Kevin Allen.

On a recent hot summer morning, Gardner visited the park for the first time in 15 years, though she wasn't granted permission by Kimco to walk on the property. Nevertheless, she brought her cam- era, hoping to take pictures through the metal fence to show her young nieces and nephews.

She stared at the tattered attractions scattered among the brushy undergrowth. Faded cement gingerbread men, which once formed a welcoming border along Route 40, were clumped together like crooked tombstones. The sagging Dish and Spoon, with flaking paint, were propped against the fence.

There was shabby Cinderella's Castle, and Mother Goose, in her pink and blue bonnet, looking forlorn among the weeds. The Ginger- bread House seemed to hide in the shadows. Gardner kept her arms folded tightly about her. "Oh God, this is just so terrible."

"I don't want to take any pictures" she said grimly, walking back to the shopping center parking lot.

Her Enchanted Forest , where Jack climbed his bean stalk and Rapunzel waved from her balcony in a bright, cheerful land of make-be-lieve; was gone.

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