The Other First Theme Park and the Saving of the Enchanted Forest

In 1950 there was no such thing as a theme park. Those words in that combination wouldn’t have made any sense to you if you heard them because the concept didn’t exist. All the same, two people on two different coasts were about to invent them. The baby boom at the time was in it’s infancy (yes, pun intended) and maybe the birth of the theme park can be attributed to simple business acumen. After all, the largest generation of children were being born to the most affluent middle class in United States history. This made family friendly activities a potential goldmine. (Also in the 1950’s the good people over in Rock City built their own fairy tale caverns and the original Goofy Golf opened)

It’s a little more fun, and maybe more wholesome feeling, to attribute the invention of the theme park to the phenomenon called Simultaneous Discovery. It seems, sometimes in spite of astronomical odds, that people sometimes make discoveries or inventions totally independently of each other at the same time. I’ve personally experienced this sometimes awkward phenomenon in the arts community. Of course we all share certain societal experiences and are exposed to some of the same stimuli and multiple people are bound to react to that or be inspired by in in similar ways. This is so much easier to explain away in our current media saturated, hyper stimulating, hyper connected world, but it’s a lot harder to explain how Edison and Tesla conceived of using electricity before, well, widespread electricity.

Whatever planetary alignments led to it, while Walt Disney was in California conceiving and planning Disney Land, Howard Harrison was in Maryland inventing an immersive children’s landscape where their favorite storybook characters came to life; The Enchanted Forest. The park opened in 1955, just months after Disney’s Park opened it’s doors on the West Coast.

Harrison’s idea had seemed so far fetched at the time that no banks would agree to finance the project and the family financed the park on their own by selling the motel they owned. They enlisted the help of Baltimore based artist Howard Adler and his studio who’s experience had been primarily in Department Store windows to create something that essentially had never been done before.  A man in the palatte business who had bought most of the lumber when the land for the park had been cleared, Joey Selby, ended up becoming the manager and one of the primary attraction designers over much of the park’s life. There is no such thing as having job experience for a job that’s never been done before.

a fence of dancing gingerbread men surrounded the original park visible from the road

The dreamed up, self made and self financed park found immediate success. The parking lot was expanded in the very first year. Snackbars and giftshops were added. Enchanted Forest continued to expand adding attractions and facilities for the next 20 years. The park saw steady decline in visitors in the 80’s when larger, more commercial park Kings Dominion opened in neighboring Virginia and video games and technology began to make the charming park seem quaint and obsolete. Enchanted Forest closed it’s doors after the 1987 season and was sold to developers in 1989. The site was further damaged by fire in 1990.

A shopping center was built on the site in the 90’s. in acknowledgement of the sacred ground it sat upon it originally sat next to the in tact castle gate, and the original Old King Cole from Enchanted Forests roadside still beckons people atop the sign.

the current shopping center sign featuring Old King Cole

The shopping center mainly covers what had been the parking lot and the living quarters of employees of the park. The attractions remained and languished in the woods seemingly forgotten.

photo from Atlas Obscura of the abandoned Three Bears House

Childhood is difficult to forget though. (and lord knows nobody remembers their idyllic childhoods better than baby boomers) They are their own type of fairytale story in a way, because back then we were all princesses and heroes waiting to live happily ever after. And so, people remembered the Enchanted Forest, but as time went on it seemed that the disintegrating buildings would soon pass into legend and the park would become a story itself.

In 2004 Cinderella’s pumpkin coach was rescued from behind petsmart and rehabilitated for a charity auction. Shortly after it wound up on Ebay and its sale and relocation to nearby Clark’s Elioak Farm was negotiated. This began real heroes work. It more than 10 years for everything that could be removed from the Enchanted Forest to be removed, moved, and lovingly restored to the glory occupied in children’s memories. The largest structures like the mountain and Cinderellas Castle were left behind, and some pieces no longer serve their original purpose as rides, but most of the parks pieces were saved

The Prince trying the glass slipper on Cinderella was originally inside the Cinderella’s castle attraction

I spent an hour on google earth trying to tell if i could see cinderella castle on satellite

Although Elioaks Farm doesn’t wish to recreate Enchanted Forest and only to preserve and display the rescued elements, I do. I’m going to attempt to post my photos from my recent trip to the farm in the order in which you would have experienced them at the original park. Unfortunately I never got to visit the Forest (thanks for nothing mom and dad) so this approximation is entirely based off of a cartoon vintage park map.

The entrance to the Enchanted Forest, as if it could have been any other way, was a castle. a pretty proper castle too, which had a moat and drawbridge.

the facade of the original gate castle. Rapunzel hangs her hair off of the tower and an unnamed dragon plays the lute.

Once inside the original gate visitors would see a Sleeping Beauty tableau of the princess asleep in her bed and the prince only moments from waking her from her sleep

Just for the record, if you see a sleeping stranger, don’t kiss them.

Let’s imagine that you turn right once you enter the park. You’ll enter the original portion of the park  which Ive been calling bedtime story lane in my notes. Many recognizable characters are around, the oldest in the park.

The dish and spoon have an interspecies love affair

Miss Moffet’s Spider now resides under the rainbow bridge which was originally near the park’s center

The original figures were made like any paper mâché figure on a frame of wood or metal, then covered with paper mâché. They were then coated with a fabric called Celastic which dries hard and waterproof. Oil based paints also helped protect them from the elements and many tiny fingers.

Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s house. Many attractions told stories when you called from a phone or stepped on certain areas. The original door had shamrock shaped windows all the way down the bottom so small children could look in from any height.

Larger attractions were built on site instead of in the Alder Baltimore studio. Some pieces were coated with or incorperated cement for weight.  Fiberglass didn’t come to the forest until the 1960’s.

The old woman’s shoe had to be cut in half horizontally to be moved from the originally location

Many nursery rhymes that we’ve come to think of as wholesome stories seem to be a result of them softening in our memory.  The old woman in the shoe rhyme was originally

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
…Jeez, old woman.

Peters house is now part of a woods maze on the farm leading to various attractions

Peter Pumpkin Eater’s rhyme is also more problematic than I remember.
Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife but couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

Towards the top of this avenue of story book characters rested the home of Goldilocks and the three bears. This is the structure from Atlas obscura crumbling in the woods and the one on the farm you can get the best look inside of because of its multiple doors. In its original state it would have been fully wall through and the papa outside would have told the story as you sat in his lap.

The new and improved Three Bears house.

My Dad pops in on the Three Bears

Bears mount hunters over their fireplaces

Goldilocks wakes up in Baby Bear’s room

Enchanted Forest had no thrill rides in it’s entire run. Coney Island and other similar amusement parks were popular by the time it was built, so there was certainly precedent, but the park remained entirely child friendly. Mother goose was the parks first motorized ride. Over time they added the attractions which populated the rear section of the park including Ali Babas arabian nights mountain structure, a go cart track for tiny antique cars, and a train of teacups which took riders through a subterranean Alice in Wonderland experience.

Mother Goose. The chocolate Easter egg behind was originally on the other side of the park and houses live rabbits for petting. It’s now full of stuffed rabbits, but there are rabbits at Clark’s Elioak Farm

Mother Goose, pulled the swan, and the ugly duckling in a motorized ride with benches and wheels

figures saved from the Alice in Wonderland Ride and Robin Hood figures that adorned the chandelier in the gift shop barn

On the lake in the rear of the property was Mount Vesuvius and Robinson Crusoes Island with a boat to take you around the lake and through the mountain. A jungle safari ride took up the back left corner of the property, which apparently involved a jeep track and choreographed animatronic safari animals leaping at the safari riders. I spend quite some time studying the satellite view of the shopping center to try to see evidence of the safari park in the woods off the lake. None of its elements seem to have been saved and I just find the concept of an animatronic safari ride instead of a roadside safari with real animals when they certainly could have gone that route to be wonderful and moral and sweet.

this kind of terrifying boat was named Little Toot and took visitors from the shore to Robinson Crusoe’s Island

In the center of the whole park was Cinderella’s castle. Built in 1967, the ride carried park goers to the castle by way of Cinderella’s pumpkin coach pulled by a team of 6 motorized white mice. The interior of the castle was filled with tableaus from the story of Cinderella. Cinderella’s castle is apparently still in the woods along with the nearby chapel and the Gingerbread house that was used for birthday parties.  These were structures I strained my eyes for on google earth.

This giant fake birthday cake was rescued from the Gingerbread House

Adjacent to Cinderellas castle was another small pond inhabited by three men in a tub and Willy The Whale. In his original iteration apparently you could tickle Willy under the chin and he would giggle. At the back of his throat was a window so you should a bearded fishing Jonah in his gullet. The story of Jonah and the whale is not of course, a fairy tale in the traditional sense, all though I guess that depends some on what you believe, but the story of his reconstruction is a bit of one, as he was repaired by Mark Cline.

if you tickled Willy under the chin he would laugh. He’s a friendly man eating whale.

Jonah fishing in Willy’s belly

Mark Cline is sort of the dude in the world of roadside attractions. He’s one of the only currently working large scale fiberglass artists, and works for set companies and amusement parks. He also built the Lady of the Lake in Alabama and Foamhenge and many wonderful roadside attractions around Natural Bridge, Virginia. Mark Cline, having grown up in neighboring Virginia, visited the Enchanted Forest as a child.  One can only imagine that this experience influenced his eventual career path, and his studio in Natural Bridge was called Enchanted Studios. When the pieces rescued from Enchanted Forest needed rehabilitation, they called the expert, hometown hero, Mark Cline.  Many of the figures he repaired he did from memory and his own family photos from childhood trips to the park. A paper at the time called him a knight that had returned from a quest to save the kingdom that had spawned him and since fallen into ruin.

Honestly the whole anthropomorphic egg thing has always been weird

By this time in your imaginary walking tour of the park you would have looped around to be walking back towards the front of the park through the original storybook characters. Humpty Dumpty’s wall was the original back boundary of the park. next to him was Jack’s enormous beanstalk.

Jack’s beanstalk was made from a telephone pole

Next to the beanstalk was the crooked house of the crooked man. I’m not sure how much longer nursery rhymes will even be a part of our society, and apparently this particular one didn’t make it’s way to me because I had to look it up. In case you also are unfamiliar with the crooked man rhyme it goes like this

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

apparently several carpenters walked off the job during the building of the crooked house because they claimed it was physically impossible

To your left you’d see the cocky hare sleeping through the tortoise winning his race. Further down the path you’d see the easter bunny’s house housing live rabbits, and the houses of the three little pigs.

there was only one existing photo of the tortoise that Mark Cline used to rebuild him

the big bad wolf attempts to blow down the sturdy brick house after successfully blowing down the one of sticks

At the bottom of the path leading back out through the castle gate was the Merry Miller’s House.

the Merry Miller in his house. He used to tell his story to passerby’s. Many children described his voice as frightening.

The last attraction was the Jack and Jill and the wishing well.

the park donated coins thrown in the wishing well to charity

Now you’ve concluded your walking tour of the saved pieces of the Enchanted Forest. You may have noticed this was the longest and most involved post I’ve ever made. Writing it involved research and time. I’ve been considering what it is about this place and this story that has enamored me so much, that I felt I had to say so much about it. Some of it is the story of the Enchanted Forest Park itself, and how extraordinary the desire to make children happy much have been that it would you to think up and build a theme park. It’s heartwarming.

It’s not just the story of the park though, it’s also the story of the park’s second chance at life. I think that story of the Enchanted Forest fulfills this secret desire many of us feel to somehow go back to our childhoods. We feel tempted to recapture the simplicity and innocence of it. It speaks to the feeling of regret that we didn’t appreciate it as much as we should have when he had it, because no one does. The people at Clark’s Elioak farm and everyone who worked on the relocation project did what we all dream of. They reached back into their childhoods and literally plucked wholesome innocent joyful memories from it, cleaned off the damage and the grime of years of exposure to the stresses of the world, and made them new and innocent again. Bright and whole and just as they remembered them. It’s an extremely, and deeply satisfying story. It’s… a fairy tale.

and they lived happily ever after

P.S. there is also a dinosaur at Clark’s Elioak Farm. I don’t know why it’s there but you know me, I love a good dinosaur

probably named Philip

Public Service Announcement: Rock City is not a Nature Attraction

I live in Atlanta and travel with some frequency to Nashville. The drive is about four and a half hours long through the Tennessee mountains, and passes through Chattanooga , Tennessee. Much of the route (along with roadsides throughout all of Tennessee) is scattered with signs and the famous painted barns instructing driver to “see Rock City”. Tragically, I drove by all of these signs for several years without following their instructions.

Why? Because I had it in my head that Rock City was a nature attraction. Not that there’s anything wrong with a nature attraction, because there isn’t. If I had known the truth though, I would never have wasted so much time passing by Rock City in a rush to get from one place to another.

I thought this for several reasons. Rock City is in an area of Tennessee that has several nature attractions. Ruby Falls and Raccoon Caves are often advertised alongside Rock City. All of Rock City itself’s promotional materials show the famous overlook at the top of Lookout Mountain and it’s rock formations and paths. Even Rock City’s iconic barns mention it’s beauty and the view.

image stolen from google of one of Rock City’s famous advertising barns

Of course the most important reason I didn’t understand the true nature of Rock City is that all of my so-called friends are TRAITORS. Almost everyone who grows up in this area take trips to Rock City at some point in their life and not ONE of my local friends I made after moving to Atlanta including someone I briefly dated in Chattanooga who regularly rode his motorcycle up Lookout Mountain EVER MENTIONED there was a top notch kitsch roadside attraction I should visit. It just goes to show you can’t trust nobody in this world.

The most classic of the Rock City Barns, with the least lying by omission

Eventually I went to Chattanooga for a weekend and in an effort to procrastinate about undertaking the just-long-enough-to-be-annoying drive home, I decided to do as 50 painted barns I’d seen over the years had suggested, and check out Rock City.

The trail through Rock City does start out quite normal. The park itself was designed around the areas natural rock formations which form what have been acknowledged as resembling streets and buildings since the first settlers arrived in the area.

walking trails through rock formations

the fat man’s squeeze, a classic

During the walk through the initial trail you walk through natural rock valleys, across bridges, and squeeze through a narrow passageway between two giant boulders. A cavern allows light through colored windows to form rainbows on a wall. The trail ends on the very top of Lookout Mountain at a large outcropping called Lover’s Leap. At the top of the outlook you can see 7 states on the horizon.

The cliff known, as many cliffs are, as Lover’s Leap

The overlook promoted on all the postcards in the gift shop

Scattered throughout the trails are seemingly random groupings of gnomes. They were apparently original to the concept of the Rock City trail, but they definitely appear random. The same way a group of garden gnomes come across in someone’s yard, when there are few more than normal but they’re not really excessive or set up into scenes.

something weird is going on here

These gnomes were the first sign that there was something else going on here beyond mildly interesting natural rock formations. They were also the moment a sense of betrayal began to creep in. But they’re not the real stars of Rock City. It’s not until you reach the Fairy Land Caverns that things really start to get weird. And wonderful.

this looks promising

The underground portion of Rock City is an entirely different place. Rock City was opened in 1932 as the brain child of Frieda Carter who’s husband Garnet Carter had developed some of Lookout Mountain for the nation’s first mini golf course and a residential community which had failed during the depression. After the golf corse closed it was Frieda who marked off and landscaped a trail through the rock formations which her husband thought visitors might pay to see.

Frieda had a lifelong love for European folklore and had placed the first gnomes around the trails, and Fairyland had been meant to be the original name of the development on the mountain.

the gnome game is significantly upped once you walk inside Fairyland Caverns

Everyone I know has betrayed my trust

It wasn’t until the 50’s when World War has caused tourism to plunge that Frieda began working on a plan to revitalize Rock City as a tourist destination, and what a plan it was.

turns out the gnomes are kind of a warm up before the big guns come out

Frieda decided to fill the underground caverns of Rock City with fairytales. She commissioned local artist Jessie Sanders to sculpt scenes from her favorite tales and install them into caves set into the underground pathways walls.

Rip van Winkle and Jack’s beanstalk glowing under black light in the passageway walls

Keep in mind the 50’s were the golden era of Americana and mini golf and fiberglass dinosaurs, so maybe the whole thing seemed less weird at the time, but that honestly seems difficult to imagine, especially under black light

animatronics are the way to my heart

The piece de resistance of Fairy Land is the final cavern called Mother Goose Cavern, which opens up into a large underground room with a pathway around the outside edge filled in the center with a tableau filled with characters from every nursery rhyme you’ve ever heard and several that you haven’t.

scenes from Mother Goose Cavern

I wonder if children growing up now even know nursery rhymes. Do they even hear the fairy tales they were so ubiquitous in my generation and maybe especially in the baby boomer generation when Fairyland was built.

I think it is the lighting that makes everything in the caverns seem slightly grotesque, all though I doubt that was the intention. If you’re familiar with European folklore you might know that the versions we grew up with are quite sterilized. The German versions are quite grotesque and somewhat frightening and it’s difficult to know what the lesson they are teaching is sometimes. The step sisters cut off their toes to try to fit in the glass slipper in Cinderella. While none of the scary versions of tales and rhymes are literally depicted I did find it easy to see that side of them there. In a cave, with strange lighting, Hansel and Gretel being cooked and eaten by a woods witch, Red Riding hood escaping a hungry wolf, and even Humpty Dumpty’s fall do seem a little more what they are: slightly disturbing.

Frieda Carter has now been added to my fantasy dinner party with people alive or dead

Once you pass through the caverns you simply walk back out into the sunlight and have the surreal experience of being back in a normal environment.

There is a cafe at Rock City and multiple gift shops where you can buy the birdhouse version of the iconic red barn and postcards of the trails and the overlook and not one gnome or fairytale scene is to be found anywhere. Everyone acts normal like they weren’t just exposed to a dark room full of slightly insane things. You should visit it over and over. The wonder holds up quite well. Rock City makes itself relevant throughout the seasons by filling the paths with Christmas lights during the holidays and making the waterfall at Lovers Leap run green at Saint Patrick’s Day, and nobody mentions the caverns. It really is the strangest thing.

lovers leap decorated for Christmas

The fairy tales also get Christmas makeovers

So here I am, outing the elephant in the room at Rock City. Here I am to reassure you that it’s not like seeing the “The Thing” where 80 miles of signs work you up to see a cat mummy. The Carters were pioneers or roadside attractions and they built a strange treasure here. So tell your friends. Tell everyone.

seerockcity.com