City Paper is not for tourists
Mother Goose is dead.
She lies peacefully in the bare woods of winter. Her head, still crowned by a flowery bonnet, has been crushed and now rests face-down on the cold, leaf-strewn ground. Her arms and legs have been ripped from her body, which rots in its faded petticoat. Her severed limbs—as well as her faithful pet gander—are nowhere to be seen.
There is no sign of struggle, but it is obvious that she has been brutally murdered. Near her smashed head, a fallen fun-house mirror screams “FUCK OFF!” in black spray-painted graffiti.
For a quarter-century, Mother Goose greeted visitors here at Woodbridge, Va.’s Storybook Land, once a popular and beloved tourist attraction. In this self-proclaimed “magic forest of make-believe,” fairy tales came to life for thousands of children, including myself at age 4. When the park closed more than a decade ago, the bucolic site—which boasted more than 100 life-size figures and two dozen storybook buildings—was left virtually intact, as if the owners meant to open it again someday.
I have traveled 25 miles south of Washington to explore the legendary ruins on U.S. Route 1 in Prince William County. But I have not come alone.
My guide, Allan Stevens, nurtures dreams of returning Storybook Land to its former glory. A lanky fellow, Stevens wears wrapped bandages around his long, slender fingers, which—along with his beard and scarf—lend him a Dickensian appearance. In fact, he is a puppeteer recently diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. When he talks, he can’t help moving his hands and fingers as if he’s working invisible puppets; at such moments, his resemblance to the late Muppets creator Jim Henson is uncanny.
Stevens first visited Storybook Land as an awestruck boy four decades ago; now he hopes to turn it into a permanent home for his puppet troupe.
The prospect seems a hopelessly Quixotic venture, at least from where we stand, at the run-down entrance building that slurs the single word “TORY,” all that’s left of the colorful letters that once spelled out the park’s name. The 10-acre property has been spared the bulldozer at least partly because of its status as wetlands, a soggy no-man’s land that scares off would-be developers. For the passing motorist, the site is just a blurry eyesore in between new superstores and malls, such as the monumental Potomac Mills just a mile away, Northern Virginia’s biggest tourist mecca.
In its heyday, Storybook Land was the sole roadside attraction on this once-rural stretch of U.S. 1, known locally as Jefferson Davis Highway; the fantasy park boasted more traffic than a nearby truck-weighing stop. But the only customers to visit lately—besides vandals and teens looking for a place to hang out and drink—have been bums and drifters who squatted in the remaining buildings; the spacious house of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the preferred residence of many. Some now live up the road at a former ’50s-era motel that’s been converted into a homeless shelter; its rooms are always packed. Directly across U.S. 1 from the park is a sprawling auto graveyard, its acres of junked cars stretching toward a horizon hemmed in by tract housing and office parks.
But much more than the local landscape has changed since the era when Storybook Land ruled. American kiddie culture has long been gobbled up by big business, which dishes out consumer products of blandness (Barney, the Care Bears, et al.), video-game wizardry (Super Mario Brothers and the Nintendo empire), and futuristic schlock (the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers). Every shopping season brings a new set of idols and heroes.
The venerable storybook tradition seems besieged, if not already defeated: When Disney cannibalizes the centuries-old Mother Goose and Grimm Brothers legends, its glossy interpretation comes with a blockbuster film, a trademark, and merchandising rights: Why read the nursery rhyme when you can see the movie?
Stevens, however, believes there is still a place for Humpty Dumpty and his coloring-book cohorts. He claims that today’s tykes still recognize and revel in the old tales; 80,000 kids annually attend his old-fashioned puppet shows at Glen Echo Park in suburban Maryland. Why couldn’t he simply move the fun to the hallowed setting of Storybook Land, where children could roam free and meet the characters of their imaginations?
He has no doubts that his dream can be accomplished. Disney notoriously nixed its proposed theme park at the western end of the county; plans for a huge Legoland on the Potomac also fizzled. Stevens figures that his humble project should be declared the winner by default. He gestures dramatically toward the site, his fingers writhing in a cat’s-cradled frenzy of creative urges: “There is something about this place. All we need to do is open the door and people will come.”
But in the meantime, Mother Goose is dead and forgotten at our feet on the edge of the desolate woods.
We look down at her gargantuan 8-foot-long corpse, her guts (of wood, papier-mâché, and wire) jutting from gashes, and her weighty petticoat leaning against the wind like some petrified picnic-table umbrella. I stoop to touch her Celastic shell, a synthetic (now obsolete) material: Her skin feels as cold and tough as a toboggan left outdoors for a decade. Stevens tells me that the park’s vandals have spared no fairy-tale figure—not even Little Bo Peep—in their midnight raids. “Wait until you see what they’ve done to the others,” he says grimly.
I try to sneak a peek at the fun-house mirror, but it is too grimy to give a reflection. Its “FUCK OFF!” graffiti reads like a warning—maybe even left by Mother Goose’s very murderers—but I take it as an invitation to investigate.
My guide leads on as we approach the entrance to Storybook Land.
There are typically just two ways to cross into any magical realm—over water or through darkness.
Our path into Storybook Land features both: a covered bridge that spans a winding creek. The decaying, wooden bridge appears rickety; a sign above announces “UNSAFE.” Nevertheless, we make our way across the loose floorboards, whose creaking echoes eerily in the dank interior. Near the exit, Stevens warns me of a danger ahead in the walkway, just before I plunge into a troll-size hole.
Reaching the opposite bank, we find ourselves in a swale nestled between two friendly hills that parallel the highway. Above us tower old oaks and hickory trees, a sturdy grove now quite rare in this region of clear-cut suburbia. Though leafless, the myriad branches manage to blot the weak winter sun, giving the place a gloomy appearance. There is not an animal or a bird—not even a slumming crow—in sight.
One could well imagine how much gloomier it would seem here at night, which is appropriate. After all, the deep, dark forest has been the setting for so many fairy tales, from “Hansel and Gretel” to “Little Red Riding Hood.” The fears that fill these storiesweren’t abstract, but rooted in real dangers lurking in the darkness just beyond the flicker of the campfire—wild animals on the prowl or bogeymen behind trees: This was the pre-industrial age, and even the Crooked Man’s Crooked House was way out in the sticks.
Ignoring the dismal scenery, my cheerful guide rhapsodizes about the natural beauty that flourishes here in the warmer months. His diversion actually makes perfect sense; after all, winter would be the off-season once the park is reopened. “There’s a lot of flora and fauna, particularly in the springtime—wild azaleas, mountain laurel, jack-in-the-pulpits are in abundance,” he says. “It’s an extraordinary sight. I’ve seen owls. I was startled one day by a deer running past me.”
While Stevens conjures his green-draped, dappled wonderland, I stare at the devastation before us. Nature has indeed restaked its claim, and with a vengeance: Fallen tree trunks hover precariously in a giant game of Pick-Up-Sticks; brambles and briars—the only thriving cold-weather vegetation—choke the pathways. The man-made structures have fared no better. Small, wooden buildings of all sorts lurch in various stages of ruin. These former fairy-tale abodes—walls and roofs gutted, paint chipped and worn—have taken on the appearance of forlorn mountain shacks.
In fact, from our low vantage point, the scene resembles a miniature version of some poverty-stricken, coal-colored Appalachian village.
At the bottom of the steeper hill, across a brooklet of the creek, stands the charred foundation of what was once a rather large dwelling. This, it turns out, is the ruins of Snow White’s house. “Somebody torched it,” says Stevens sadly, mentioning an unsolved arson. “Why anyone would burn Snow White’s house is beyond me.” Higher up the slope yawns a square, log-framed opening that looks like a mine shaft: Here the Seven Dwarfs tramped off to work each morning.
A burned-down house and an abandoned mine shaft—it seems a sad ending to the Snow White story. Stevens, though, surveys not only the ruinous present circumstances, but Storybook Land’s past and future glory: “Look at the way the house was situated in those trees. It’s no wonder it caught people’s imaginations.” Spellbound, he adds in a whisper, “It’s just beautiful.”
We slosh upstream to explore Ali Baba’s Cave, whose poured-concrete remains are in such good condition that it would seem to need just a fresh coat of paint to be ready for visitors. But Stevens tells me that this is one of the attractions that will have to be eliminated from the new Storybook Land, which he intends to call Whimsey Woods. “The story is too bloody and too racist,” he says of the saga of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Furthermore, like most of the life-size figures that once populated the place, Ali Baba (instead of counting his stolen treasure) is missing in action.
However, the cave itself, an impressive work of masonry, will be salvaged and probably transformed into an Aladdin attraction.
Through a weather-beaten, rusty playground, we make our way past a fish-shaped water fountain next to a bombed-out snack stand. Between two trees stands a faded yellow, concrete cylinder: This is the candlestick over which a Celastic figure of Jack once hovered in midleap; the nimble and quick nursery-rhyme character is now MIA.
We cross over a fresh dirt-bike trail and finally enter a large clearing. The sloping terrain forms a sort of natural amphitheater; Stevens says this would be the perfect place to present puppet shows.
But I am more interested in a 7-foot-high, gray slab of cinderblocks that looms like a blank tombstone for the unknown fairy-tale dead. “That’s Humpty Dumpty’s wall,” says Stevens, pointing to the spot where the egg man sat since the late ’50s; the park’s largest figure, he was a spherical Celastic wonder. Unfortunately, this Humpty Dumpty lived out his nursery rhyme in a violent modern version: He didn’t fall from the wall, he was pushed. Humpty’s abductors also snatched the spelling blocks that had been stacked decoratively around the wall and tossed them into a nearby pile. Humpty Dumpty’s corpse has never been recovered.
“I don’t know if somebody dragged him away,” says Stevens, a regular visitor to the site for several years, “but I haven’t seen him.”
Apparently, most of the vandalism has stopped since Stevens put up signs announcing, “Mother Goose Is Coming Home.” Before, he says, trespassers figured that the place was going to be bulldozed anyway, so why not grab some fairy-tale collectibles? Now there is hope for Storybook Land’s rebirth, and that hope has apparently inspired respect in would-be thieves.
Nearby, the top halves of two buildings lie toppled next to piles of broken lumber, like doll houses hit by a tornado. One is the remains of Simple Simon’s Pie Shop: Simon himself is nowhere around. This splintered scene is also the handiwork of vandals: “Look at the foundations,” says Stevens, pointing to remarkably pristine, concrete slabs stuck in the forest floor. “There’s not so much as a cut for a bolt or a screw hole, nothing—the buildings were not attached to the foundations—and then somebody got it into their heads that they could push the buildings over.” Despite the destruction, one can still admire the scaled-down, expertly crafted Victorian architecture.
I figure it’s time for a story, or at least a tall tale: Who built this place? It sure as hell wasn’t some Disney lackey, that much is for sure. This place has the feel of real funky Americana—low-budget, homemade, and a little wigged out—a secular cousin to those backyard Biblical theme parks.
“It was the dream of a guy by the name of Delmer Tice, who came down from New Jersey and chose this site,” begins Stevens, his manic fingers sparring in some imaginary Punch and Judy prize fight. “He managed to convince people his dream was viable and he went about his way.”
In the late ’50s, a New Jersey man quit his job, packed up his family, and headed south. He had found the place he’d been looking for—a shady, hilly spot on a heavily traveled highway, where the weather was warm most of the year. For months before the trip, he had been moonlighting on a special project in his basement.
To hell with the 9-to-5 setup. Let some other sap in a gray flannel suit get on the treadmill. Delmer Tice was going down to Virginia to build Storybook Land.
“I think it took real guts to do what he did,” says his daughter, Gail Burda, who eventually ran the park with her husband after Tice’s death.
Indeed, it couldn’t have been an easy decision: Tice was just a few years from retirement. Nevertheless, he chose to chuck his successful career as a department-store display designer and go into the fairy-tale business. Something was stirring inside him, nudging him to take a chance. He had become obsessed with fantasy theme parks—the small, roadside ventures that had sprung up around the country in the wake of the new Disneyland in California. One that he visited in New Hampshire—Story Land—especially inspired him; he chatted with the owner, who assured him his dream wasn’t so far-fetched. Tice decided to build one himself.
Descended from Ohio stonemasons, Tice possessed designing talents that put him in good stead for his project. “He had been in the creative business all his life,” says Burda. “He was always creative, building tableaux that would feature life-size figures. He had quite a reputation.” She remembers long, slow walks with her father down holiday-festooned Fifth Avenue in New York City; Tice would pause at favorite window displays, brooding and taking mental notes.
But he was tired of the advertising racket; now pushing 60, this late-bloomingdemiurge was ready to create his own vision, Storybook Land. He hired a team of carpenters to construct the buildings at the 10-acre site; meanwhile, he and an Austrian sculptor friend designed and sculpted the life-size figures.
Early on, Tice broke free of Mother Goose’s apron strings, adding all sorts of characters that struck his fancy; he was inspired by a grab-bag of tales from the Grimm Brothers to adventure literature: Ali Baba, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe. Licensing restrictions imposed the only limits; Tice simply stuck with folk stories from the public domain. Disney had already launched the revolution of trademarked childhood icons, but there was no copyright on the Crooked Man (and, in those innocent times, no building inspection code for the Crooked House).
Unlike many of the other parks, whose quaint, nursery-rhyme skylines were often dominated by milk-white castles (Sleeping Beauty, Old King Cole, etc.), Storybook Land never erected any such monarchal, Disneyesque monuments. Thus the park retained the charming appearance of a sleepy hillside village, a mecca for the folks who couldn’t afford to jet cross-country to Disneyland. “It was a place where the peasants could have some fun,” jokes Burda.
Tice added to the ambience by piping classical music (Tchaikovsky was a fave) through loudspeakers high in the trees. Furthermore, the maestro designed everything himself—there were no factory items on display. “Some places bought their figures,” recalls Burda. “We didn’t buy stuff from other people—we made it ourselves.”
This was no park for roller coasters or space-age rides: There was a pony-ride attraction, as well as a miniature race track that featured tiny Corvettes in a mini Grand Prix for the youngsters. (The pit was populated by model houses representing countries of the world.)
Storybook Land opened in 1959 to modest success, attracting locals as well as vacationers on busy U.S. 1. After all, Tice was not simply some wild-eyed visionary; he was also a businessman and wanted to make a living from the park. He knew all about the planned route for Interstate 95 that would bring the Washington suburbs farther south; his park could tap into this transient, burgeoning population.
One of its first visitors was a Fairfax County teen named Allan Stevens. The aspiring puppeteer had already explored a similar park, Enchanted Forest, in Ellicott City near Baltimore. But Storybook Land opened literally right down the road, so when his family went on summer trips to Fredericksburg, Stevens would be dropped off for all-day excursions at the Woodbridge park.
He would hole up on the top floor of Robin Hood’s jail, and, enjoying a bird’s-eye view, make sketches of the scenery. The park’s overall design—the village in the hills, the meandering paths, the whimsical figures—delighted him; he watched the small visitors roam and discover the park in their own ways. No longer a kid himself, Stevens was a future creator hooked by Storybook Land, which presented something altogether unique.
“It was very much the work of a person. It made you feel “Oh, you don’t have to be Walt Disney to do this,’ ” he says. “It was much more of a personal statement—it had much more of a folksy quality. Almost all of the other parks ended up trying to emulate Disney one way or the other.”
But just a few years after Storybook Land opened, Delmer Tice died.
The family carried on. Along with her husband Hank, Gail Burda continued to operate the park, virtually raising their children at Storybook Land. By the late ’60s, the park was one of the most popular sites in Northern Virginia, although Tice couldn’t enjoy the park’s subsequent success: “He never saw it when it was at the peak of its popularity,” says Burda.
By the end of the ’70s, Storybook Land had survived the energy crisis, but there were other problems. The culture was rapidly changing, and fairy-tales were out-of-date anachronisms, even for many of the toddlers. “When we first opened, every kid knew the nursery rhymes and all the characters—it was instant recognition,” says Burda. “It was something that was part of childhood. We hadn’t gotten into the Barney kind of culture. Towards the end, there were times we felt we had to explain what the characters were.”
By the early ’80s, the Burdas had closed Storybook Land; they were exhausted, and interest seemed to be waning anyway, as crowds flocked to big, thrill-ride parks such as King’s Dominion.
A decade later, Stevens was searching for a new performance site for his troupe, The Puppet Co., one of the few year-round puppet theaters in the country. He found out that the Storybook Land property was for sale; it was a dream come true. His company now has an option on the land that will be finalized upon the opening of the Whimsey Woods children’s park.
But the project will cost at least $1 million. And after four years trying to raise money, the nonprofit Puppet Co. is lacking funds and running out of time.
I discover the second victim by sheer accident.
Following my guide up the second hill toward Granny’s House, I thrash through the leaves and feel something brush my shoes. Spooked by what I take for a rat or possum or something worse, I scissor-kick at the underbrush, exposing the brightly colored Celastic pants of an elf’s legs, still attached to a decapitated Santa’s helper. Or is it one of the Seven Dwarfs?
That’s when the body count really begins.
Ahead are scattered limbs and torsos everywhere—a real massacre, as if the Big Bad Wolf has gone on a killing spree far exceeding the fairy-tale quota of a grandma or two. Like some nursery-rhyme Jonestown, the landscape is littered with corpses and their remnants: oversize clown boots, gaily striped clothes, and severed arms stretched in greeting. There are no heads left here—vandals apparently have snatched them as trophies, in the tradition of temple raiders who decapitate religious icons to strip them of their power. I wonder how Mother Goose managed to keep her noggin.
I call Stevens over to help me ID some of the remains; he arrives, shaking his head sadly: “Don’t ask me. There were something like 140 figures on this place.” But at least one will remain unharmed. He recently found Little Boy Blue—still sleeping all curled up—completely intact. “I’ve hidden him somewhere on the property,” Stevens confides. “No one will find him.”
I am feeling a bit shaken as we finally arrive at the house of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. It is a tiny cottage, its green pastel paint job as faded as a sunburnt salamander. A fallen oak rests on its crushed roof, and the front door’s been torn from its hinges. Poking through the doorway are the legs of a running figure, but it’s only a gag by some prankster—Red Riding Hood didn’t have to flee the house.
Inside, there’s no bed and no wolf in Granny’s nightgown—just some empty pint bottles of Aristocrat vodka, a few anonymous limbs, and chunks of the crumbling house. “Somebody’s thrown an old leg in here,” sighs Stevens, before changing the subject to handicapped accessibility: “Originally, this house had a porch—it was impossible to get a wheelchair up and around.” Whimsey Woods will be user-friendly for everyone, he says.
Up the hill, we duck into the Three Bears’ house, which is in much better condition. The back yard, though, is a dumping ground for empty beer cans and dead fairy-tale characters. Near the chimney (solid brick and still in fine shape) slumps a torso and legs covered by bright, blue-and-white stripes. My guide guesses that, judging by the flamboyant outfit, this was Simple Simon. Under the Celastic, where Simon’s insides have shredded, I grab a loose piece. It is a brittle, yellowed fragment of the Feb. 21, 1959, edition of the Newark Star-Ledger. Letting it float away in the breeze, I head for Mother Hubbard’s house. Her apron is intact, but she too is hideously headless and strewn near her front door. Her house has been ransacked.
More horrors await at the top of the hill.
The Gingerbread House has collapsed under the weight of a thick, delicious roof made of concrete frosting: Hansel, Gretel, and the witch were presumably crushed inside. Outside, though, the miniature Gingerbread Men are paralyzed in expressions of cynical laughter and Mr. Bill terror, as if still warning of the disaster.
Likewise, the nearby Crooked House has imploded, and is now a jumbled pile of disjointed beams and impossibly angled 2-by-4s, like the ruins of a Whoville housing project. Is that the Crooked Man’s hyperextended leg sticking out from the rubble? Only Delmer Tice would be able to tell for sure.
Backpedaling from these natural disasters, I nearly trip over a recumbent sheet-metal version of Humpty Dumpty, part of the roadside display that greeted visitors to the park. Though rusting and hollow, Humpty still stares with a slight smile at the indifferent sky. He may be down, but he’s not out. Just give him a wall to sit on—he could go back to work tomorrow.
I follow my guide down Holiday Hill, the steepest incline in the park. I pass by shattered icons—an ivy-covered Peter Pumpkin, a fallen Valentine’s Day treehouse slide. But others along the path could survive another Hurricane Agnes: There stands a 5-foot-tall, concrete Easter egg—as mute and permanent as any Eastern Island statue. Its cavernous bottom is sprinkled with artificial grass that once nestled stuffed bunnies.
I can’t find a single crack on the entire egg.
Nearby, a Fourth of July display is still intact: Giant firecrackers are represented by painted telephone poles that sprout fuses of steel rebarb.
At the bottom of the hill comes a jolt: It’s Santa Claus, exiled in the woods of Virginia. There’s something truly odd, even disturbing, about this statue of St. Nick. The massive figure—as bulky as the Michelin Man—is seated under the sagging roof of what looks like a Buddhist shrine. On closer inspection, Santa’s face isn’t jolly or cheerful at all. His beard has chipped away—its concrete shards are piled in his lap, and his shaven face reveals a stoic, tight-lipped expression.
Stevens tells me that the statue will have to be removed: Muslim parents protested Santa’s presence in a recent Puppet Co. production of “Babes in Toyland”; all the attractions at Whimsey Woods must be inclusive of all ethnic and religious cultures.
We’ve now made nearly a complete circuit around Storybook Land. Across the gurgling creek, in a jungle of underbrush and vines, looms a massive concrete boot, almost as big as a mobile home. This is the former abode of the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe:
“How does that one go?” I ask Stevens, who reels off the old nursery rhyme:
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;
She whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
Nothing like a little corporal punishment for the kiddies. Most of the old fairy tales are chock-full of these sort of modern no-nos. There is always danger—wolves, witches, or whatever—but as Stevens points out, “the children always win.” The very appeal of the stories—as with the parks modeled after them—was precisely that mixture of good and evil.
Not so today, though. Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and schoolmaster William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues hover on the best-seller lists, while forgotten meccas of enchantment such as Storybook Land languish in ruins.
Despite the lack of funds for the project, Stevens says Whimsey Woods will open someday. He cites examples of small-scale, old-fashioned parks that have survived: Story Land in Glen, N.H. (Tice’s inspiration); Storybook Forest in Ligonier, Pa.; and Ellicott City’s Enchanted Forest (now adjoined to a shopping center), among others.
“Barney’s already on the way to extinction,” he says. “It’s like the saying we have in the [children’s theater] business. If you put on “Little Red Riding Hood’ or the “Three Little Pigs,’ the world will beat a path to your door, and it’s true.”
Whimsey Woods will feature all the houses mentioned in the story of the Three Little Pigs—straw, wood, and brick: “Maybe we can get a masonry company to sponsor the brick house for us,” muses Stevens, admitting he’s become desperate: Even philanthropies are no longer willing to give grants to ventures that don’t promise a sound return. Stevens has vowed there will be no modern rides or video-game nonsense at his Whimsey Woods. There will be new fairy-tale figures created and storybook houses built, but all in the folksy, homemade tradition began by Delmer Tice.
As we head back out to U.S. 1, the traffic plows by, oblivious to the ruins in the woods. From the roadside, except for a small “Mother Goose Is Coming Home” sign, all one can see is the run-down facade of some kiddie park from a bygone era: The magic of Storybook Land remains hidden. But Stevens remains undaunted.
“I feel the gray days, too,” he says. “But in my heart of hearts, I know this is the place. We have the history, we have the ideas….Thirty thousand cars a day pass by here. If we open the door, they will come.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.