by Tim Gilmore, 1/15/2023
Storyland U.S.A. birthed Marc Suttle’s earliest remembered dreams. He can’t recall his own memories of Storyland apart from the photographs his father took in 1958 or ’59. Photos preserve memory, but they also taint, confuse or even replace it. Then again, he couldn’t have been more than three years old.
The dreams recurred several times. “The character in my dreams wasn’t exactly like any one of the characters in the photos,” he says. He remembers that the character “was female and had a stiff, larger-than-life cartoon-like quality.” Marc doesn’t recall any interaction with the figure. She just made herself present. In some ways, maybe she never really left.
More than a decade before Disney came to Florida, before theme parks transformed the state geographically, economically and culturally, roadside attractions and private zoos and strange little enterprises like Storyland popped up along the highways and byways.
In April 1957, three paragraphs appeared in newspapers around Florida, announcing, “Storyland USA, an exciting exhibit of children’s fairytales, has opened at Jacksonville.” The news brief located Storyland between “the Jacksonville Expressway on U.S. 1 Alternate” and the Arlington River. “Children will wander through the wonderful familiar world of storybooks along a wooded trail of moss-hung giant oaks, magnolia, dogwood, palms and pines.”
Indeed, Marc Suttle has known these images of Little Miss Muffett and Little Bo Peep all his remembered life, but it’s the Spanish moss in the oak trees that signifies most to him now. “You could name 101 things that made Storyland unique in its time and compared with theme parks today,” he says, “but what really stands out to me is the moss, actual Spanish moss growing in live oaks! It’s so natural and non-intrusive that anyone who’s local wouldn’t notice it.”
Cheryl Joseph laughs when she remembers going into the Cake House, a giant wooden cake beneath the oak canopy, inside which she would run in circles and scream and listen to the echoes. She was five or six years old. “There was nothing inside the big cake,” she says. “It was just a big empty shell.”
The billboard out front promised “10 acres of exhibits,” with rides, souvenirs and food, but Cheryl remembers only the trail and the staged depictions of nursery rhymes. “Each exhibit was inside this little white picket fence. You couldn’t even go up to it. There weren’t even sidewalks. Just dirt. You’d just follow the path and stop and look at each exhibit.”
So “The Three Little Pigs” stood unmoving outside their houses, each house the height of a child, while the fencing featured the repeated silhouette of the “Big Bad Wolf.”
Meanwhile, “Little Boy Blue” – “Come blow your horn. / The cow’s in the meadow, the sheep’s in the corn.” – lay asleep beside a bundle of hay, a few wooden stands of corn standing lonely beside the wooden cow and sheep. And in a tiny fenced triangle, “Little Jack Horner” sat unmoving in his corner of a backdrop painted like a brick wall.
Cheryl would repeat the nursery rhymes to herself from memory. She’d compare the wooden figures in each exhibit to how the characters looked in her “picture books” at home. She thought Humpty Dumpty looked “out of sorts,” like he needed a sandwich. Not only was he too skinny, but he wasn’t an egg per se, but a man with an egg head.
She remembers the big two-story shoe. The nursery rhyme said the old woman who lived in it “had so many children she didn’t know what to do,” so Cheryl wondered why there were only four children in the exhibit. Cheryl had friends with three siblings; it didn’t seem so unusual. “I didn’t understand why she didn’t have more children,” she says with a laugh.
Whereas the slides of Marc’s father’s photos have replaced any images in Marc’s actual memories, Cheryl says, “I can still close my eyes and see that stupid witch from Hansel and Gretel! She had her cauldron and a light shone up toward her face and illuminated it. She had this ugly nose and bulging eyes and you could just picture yourself in her cauldron.”
In one of Marc’s photos, you can just see the legs of Jack at the top of the beanstalk, the highest structure in the park. In another, the spiderweb is barely visible in the trees beside Little Miss Muffet. The sheep behind the wire fence in the Baa Baa Black Sheep exhibit just looks like he stomped through a puddle. Cinderella’s pumpkin coach is clear in the exposed daylight of more than 60 years ago, while Jack who “fell down and broke his crown” and Jill who “came tumbling after” are hidden in yesteryear’s deep shade.
Storyland was the work of Arthur S. Cobb, an insurance executive and editor for The Pensacola News-Journal and Playground News in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. He also served as executive assistant to Governor Charley Johns, most remembered for chairing the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, or the Johns Committee, as a senator.
The Johns Committee tried unsuccessfully to find Communist connections to Civil Rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, then shifted their focus to outing and firing gay students and faculty from Florida universities. Johns, a leader of a cartel of rural Florida politicians called “the Pork Chop Gang,” shared the same neverending “Culture War” agenda items as other Florida politicians like Haydon Burns, mayor of Jacksonville and Florida governor, and current Governor Ron DeSantis.
Cobb called Storyland U.S.A. “a poor man’s Disneyland” and “a village of storybook characters and the quaint little houses they live in.” Disneyland had opened in California in ’55. In a September 23, 1959 letter to the editor of The Pensacola News-Journal, which Cobb stylized as a patriotic letter to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev extolling the Americanness of Storyland, he wrote, “You won’t find the space-age rides you’d see at Disneyland, but you will find a refreshing atmosphere of child-like faith and innocence in contrast to a jittery world of bewilderment and doubt.”
Yet he was already trying to sell Storyland. Unaffiliated parks called Storyland or Story Land preceded the Jacksonville theme park in New Orleans, New Hampshire, and Pompano Beach, Florida. In June 1958, both Florida Storyland owners were negotiating sales to a New York syndicate.
Owners of the South Florida Storyland, which featured larger and more impressive exhibits, said they’d received just under a million visitors since 1955 and were asking $400,000, while Cobb said the Jax park had welcomed just fewer than 100,000 visitors in its first eight months. He was asking $100,000.
Meanwhile, beneath the Spanish moss dripping from old evergreen oaks, tiny white picket fences surrounded “Mistress Mary, quiet contrary” – “How does your garden grow?” – and Mary with her little lamb – “Its fleece was white as snow, / And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go” – and the “crooked man” who “walked a crooked mile” and, with his “crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse,” all “lived together in a little crooked house.” The house leaned and swerved and grew wider toward its third story rooftop.
All by itself, as it zigs and zags against the pines and magnolias and loblolly bay trees, the crooked house looks tall, but with three-year-old Marc Suttle standing in doorways, the old slides indicate some structures a couple stories high, others barely taller than a toddler.
In one image, Marc sits on a round wooden bench with his mother, the Ice Cream House behind them, the wishing well beside them.
Marc smiles at his father’s camera, his legs pointing straight out ahead of him, the soles of his shoes facing his father. His mother Juanita wears a sleeveless blouse and red lipstick, her hair cut a modest length above her shoulders. She might already be pregnant with Wanda, who will write so beautifully of her in her 2019 book Cracker Gothic: A Florida Woman’s Memoir. Juanita’s family, people said, had rolled out from under a log in the Okefenokee Swamp.
Race car driver Jack Ensley bought the southernmost Storyland in the spring of 1961, said it would operate as a “miniature Disneyland” by the summer.
While Disneyland opened in Anaheim in 1955, Disney World wouldn’t open outside Orlando and transform Florida until 1971. Ensley’s project never got off the ground and the Storyland of Pompano Beach was demolished in 1964.
By the time Cheryl Joseph’s family moved from the Northside to Arlington in 1963, Storyland U.S.A. sat abandoned on the side of the expressway. In Marc Suttle’s slides, a yard sign in front of the gateway announces, “Open for Business,” but Cheryl remembers seeing the front castle façade and gateway, now closed, from the back seat of her parents’ car and realizing she’d visited the place.
By 1966, the 10 buildings of the Cimarron Apartments complex had replaced Storyland. On a warm winter afternoon two days after an overnight freeze, I climb a slight hill by the Arlington River just outside the apartments, hoping to see some trace of the nursery rhyme village demolished 60 years ago. The shoe in which lived the old woman with too many children somehow ended up at Bird Emergency Aid and Kare Sanctuary out on Big Talbot Island years ago.
I look for the ghosts of the Three Bears or Goldilocks, or Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, whose wife looked out at him from a window in her pumpkin prison cell on these very hills once.
I ask myself what I’ll say to Little Black Sambo if I see his specter beneath these palms and pines, if it’s my place to introduce to him the politics of race.
Between the gazebo and the swimming pool at the Cimarron Apartments, I look for the grandfather clock, up and down which – “hickory dickory dock” – ran the fabled mouse.
I wonder if “Cimarron” took its name from the river in Oklahoma, the wild sheep with curled horns, or the descendants of Africans who escaped slavery, most notably the Cimarron people of Panama.
Pam Beighley’s first job was at Storyland. She was 13 years old. She dressed up like Little Bo Peep and escorted children’s birthday parties along the paths through the woods, telling them nursery rhymes. The Cake House was the final destination. She earned 50 cents an hour, she says, “and all the birthday cake I could eat.”
Arthur Cobb died at home in his hometown of Pensacola in 1996. The list of achievements in his obituary failed to include Storyland U.S.A., to which he’d once issued Nikita Khrushchev, via a Pensacola News-Ledger letter to the editor, which surely the Soviet Secretary of the Communist Party never saw, “a lifetime pass for your use and for use by Russian children.”
On these hills beside the wetlands along the Arlington River, I look for Russian and Cimarron children, I look for Little Red Riding Hood, I look for the Big Bad Wolf. I find a congregation of white ibis stabbing the swamp with the scimitars of their faces. Worlds within worlds inhabit each smaller and smaller frame of the earth. Arthur Cobb might have forgotten Storyland, but it laid the foundation of Marc Suttle’s childhood imagination, “certainly,” he says, “my longest held dream.”