For precious days, perhaps a week in the spring and fall, a blue heron pauses from migratory flight and settles into Ladybug Pond. J. Putnam Henck doesn’t know whether it’s the same bird that pays a visit each year. But he likes to think that it is.
The graceful creature with sweeping neck and matchstick legs traverses the pond in tiny Skyforest without stirring a ripple and has, for 10 years, symbolized the changing seasons, marking the passage of time in the San Bernardino Mountains and in the life of a 79-year-old man.
Henck’s ties to this land run deep. He came here as a child in 1923 and grew up a young man of the mountains--hiking and riding horseback, skiing on 7-foot hickories as he helped his father repair telephone lines.
Up the road is Heap’s Peak Arboretum, where his mother gathered children on Arbor Day to plant seedlings on fire-charred ground beginning in the 1920s. A small gully winds down from there and is known as Joe Creek, named for his father, who tended the forest like a garden.
Ladybug Pond, on 95 acres, is now for sale. It wraps around Fantasy Forest at Santa’s Village, an amusement park whose final day after 43 years of operation will be March 1.
To close the park and sell this land marks a transition in the history of Skyforest, located near Lake Arrowhead along serpentine Highway 18, the Rim of the World Highway, which rises above San Bernardino. It was not a decision made from the heart.
“The reason for us closing down now--we have a very loyal following, but there’s just not enough to pay the bills,” says Henck. “People, I believe, are over-programming their kids to where they have so much stuff to do now, they don’t have time to come up here. Every McDonald’s, every pizza parlor, every mall has a kiddie place. Most of our people have to plan an eight-hour day, two hours up, two hours back, four hours here.”
So much of life, Henck has learned, has to do with time, its quick passing, the changes it brings. Time ran out on his three sisters, all younger than him. Then last year, time ran out for Pamela, his wife of 42 years. And as time runs out on Santa’s Village, it’s hard to say goodbye.
“It’s just a sadness,” Henck says. “It’s sort of the end of an era because everything’s changing so quickly up here and all over. When you get to be my age, you’ve seen so many things happen and change. This is the end of a certain age of innocence. Most kids and their parents would still love a place like this, but it’s just that they don’t seem to have time these days.”
And, neither, he says, does he.
In 1918, the Henck family bought 440 acres of this mountainous land. Their vision was to develop a resort community, and to do so required beginning from scratch.
Henck’s mother, Mary Putnam Henck, was the first female vice principal at Manual Arts High School in L.A. When she came to the mountains, she had only one demand, that there be running water in their home.
A graduate of UC Berkeley, she participated in the women’s suffrage movement, formed local women’s organizations and opened the area’s first school. She remained active in education throughout her life, and a Lake Arrowhead intermediate school still carries her name.
Her husband, Joe Henck, was the area’s first fire chief. He opened a mercantile offering items ranging from nails to bread, became the area’s first insurance agent and built the first water system in Skyforest.
J. Putnam Henck, oldest of four children, became known as Putty. He remembers his childhood home as an intellectual center for the community. The Hencks attracted guests because they had the first radio in the area. They also had a piano, and often the house was filled with song and conversation.
It was a community of great spirit. At local gatherings, they would close the road, and “Old Man Vail” would bounce and fiddle as residents lined up to dance the Virginia reel. Neighbors celebrated together and helped each other through hard times--the Depression, fires and storms that left 8 feet of snow.
It was a good, rugged life, Henck says, and something inside always told him this would be home. He went to Berkeley and earned a civil engineering degree before returning to become a contractor. His work ranged from libraries and arts centers to sewage treatment plants and reservoirs. In all, he built 475 projects throughout Southern California.
He helped build some of the Skyforest homes and knows the stories behind each of them. There lived in one the illegitimate son of the archduke of Austria, he says, who escaped that country after World War I. He fled first to Argentina, then came here.
He fell in love with a Norwegian ballet dancer, “a toe dancer,” Henck says. Her name was Maria, and she was beautiful and shy. The man found work in Hollywood as a technical consultant, helping to train horses and design movie sets.
Maria never felt comfortable among the Hollywood crowd, so she spent her time here in the mountains. Eventually, her life centered on caring for her husband, who lost both legs to disease.
One foggy night, Maria came to the Henck house. Her husband had sent her there for one reason or another. Henck can’t recall what it was. She stayed briefly, then went home.
Soon after she left, the telephone rang. It was Maria, hysterical. Henck and his father drove through the fog to check on her. Maria was crying as she waved them inside, where Henck found the husband dead.
“He stuck a .22 in his mouth and fired.”
Heartbroken, Maria stayed in the area. She had no money and eventually found kitchen work in San Bernardino.
Not all stories are so tragic. Just down the road is a bed and breakfast. It once was the home of a man who played the piano and had grandiose dreams of fame and fortune, Henck says. But then he found a faster road to riches.
“He married some gal worth $6 million and built this house.”
It is now the Storybook Inn. The 9,000-square-foot building has a 100-mile view, from the mountains near Palm Springs to the ocean. It is vacant, and a for-sale sign hangs in front.
Up the hill is a house where Myrna Loy once lived. When she died, Henck says, the property was sold for taxes.
Memories are everywhere. One of the biggest stories happened on Memorial Day, 1955. Traffic on the highway that day was backed up for miles as people headed to the opening of the amusement park.
It was the day Santa came to town.
In 1953, when H. Glenn Holland proposed the Santa’s Village amusement park and set up a corporation to fund it, the Henck family eagerly leased him the land, and Henck brought in his crew to build the park.
Architectural drawings provided basic structures, but the buildings largely were created from artist sketches. Trees cut to clear the property were used to construct the buildings.
Henck recalls searching the forest for curved branches suitable for the arched entrance to the chapel. A band saw was placed in the center of the grounds to cut intricate shapes of candles, gingerbread men and candy canes.
It was a departure from anything the crew had ever done. Stored in Henck’s memory are the paths of water lines running through the thick layer of topsoil, 10 feet deep in some areas. He knows every nut and bolt, every log, every tree in the park.
“When the sun’s just right, there’s a set of initials--D.W.--in that oak tree, and they were carved in there in 1920,” he says. “People would camp here when they came up in horse and wagons. This was a nice point to stop before going on to Big Bear.”
When Santa’s Village opened, there was all the more reason to stop here, and while there were days when the parking lots were overflowing, there also were days when they were empty.
In 1978, the corporation went bankrupt, and the Hencks, who owned the land, acquired the business. Henck and his wife were determined to turn the park around.
Henck handled maintenance and finances, while Pamela focused on the purchasing and artistic end, having done some acting on Broadway. She wrote the puppet show, brought in performers. It seemed more fitting, says Henck, that the small, bucolic park be run as a mom-and-pop business.
It was kept a place that did not detract from its mountain setting, with wondrous trees, the sweet, enticing aroma of gingerbread men wafting from the bakery, the jolly frolics of Santa. It was never intended to be Disneyland, Henck says, and the magic of this mountain is not one that could be created by gadgetry.
They added a ride now and then, nothing too fancy, and made subtle changes. There used to be a manzanita decorated with lollipops, one each for the children.
“It turned out that we had people come up, and they paid a dollar to get in and they’d get a hundred lollipops, and we had to keep putting more lollipops up all the time, so we ended that.”
Pamela eventually became the beloved Lollipop Lady. She joined in patter song with the Rainbow Man, a performer who at the peak of his career had sung in Carnegie Hall.
The park brought in revenue to area businesses and provided many local youngsters with their first jobs, many old-timers with their last ones.
“We’ve had some pretty good Santas,” says Henck, “but over the years some of these old guys start to really thinking they’re Santa. We had one guy end up in the booby hatch. One old guy was here for 18 years almost. He had his own beard and was very good, but he got to be in his mid-80s and he’d fall asleep in the chair. Then I had to throw one guy out of the park because he was coming in here and telling the kids that our Santa wasn’t the real Santa, that he was the real Santa.”
The Hencks returned the business to profitability.
“When we took it over, it was about 85,000 people a year coming and only about a $300,000 gross,” Henck says. “We built it up to 190,000 a year and over $2 million gross. That was in ’89-90, and that was the start of the recession, the end of the good times.”
Since then the park has struggled. In 1995, the family brought in Henck’s nephew, Bill Grant, a management consultant and son of the late Jim Grant, who was executive director of Unicef for 15 years.
Grant was an expert in problem solving. His experience ranged from working as a Peace Corps volunteer developing water systems for small African villages to serving as advisor to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development based in Paris.
Before taking over the family businesses, he was working in Morocco as an economic policy advisor on contract to the U.S. government. His priority in Skyforest was to launch an effort to export mountain spring water to bottling companies. That project, which has drawn opposition from environmental groups and some local residents, still awaits government approval.
But by last year, Santa’s Village was drawing more of his attention.
Even with substantial cost-cutting, Santa’s Village continued to lose money. In December 1996, rain forced the park to close for five days during its busiest season.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Grant says. The family, in a conference call the following month, decided it could no longer afford to keep Santa’s Village open. The business, says Grant, was $1 million in the hole entering its final season.
By then, Pamela Henck had turned gravely ill. She had suffered for years from complications from diabetes and became less involved in the business. She clung, however, to her role as the Lollipop Lady. That Christmas, on days when the rain didn’t fall, she continued to sit in her rocking chair handing out candy--one per child. She died last February.
“She always thought there was a way,” Henck says. “She didn’t let anything get her down, and she’d figure out a way to solve every problem, but it got to where she couldn’t do that anymore, and I’m at that stage of life too.”
Henck’s duties at the park are fewer now. It takes longer for him to walk from his apartment in the back of the park to the front entrance. His stride is shorter, less certain.
People from all over the world have come to Skyforest for one last look at the small amusement park, set among towering trees, some more than 300 years old.
There have been rumors about the property. One was that Walt Disney Co. was buying the park, Henck says. Another was that the family had sold out to Wal-Mart, another that a big hotel chain had bought the property.
The truth, however, is that there have been no buyers.
The San Bernardino Mountains Wildlife Society had an option to buy the property for a proposed wildlife park known as Wildhaven. The option has expired, but the group is still working under a “gentleman’s agreement” as it attempts to raise money.
The nonprofit group is working in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service and its agent, the American Land Conservancy, to secure 116 acres for the project. It would include the undeveloped land behind the park, which would remain natural habitat.
Diane Dragotto Williams, Wildlife Society president and executive director, describes Wildhaven as a rehabilitation shelter for injured wildlife. Animals unable to return to the wilds would be housed in a natural and educational environment open to the public.
It also would remain Santa’s home. His house at the park would be preserved under the Wildhaven proposal. That the undeveloped land behind the park would remain undeveloped is a comfort to Henck.
“It’s cost us a million dollars over the years to keep it like this,” Henck says of the pristine land. “We, as a family, don’t want to see it developed. It would look like any other canyon with a lot of houses and stuff. We would like to leave it this way.”
On March 1, Henck will say farewell to another piece of his life. He is not one to be overly sentimental about it. It’s merely the passing of another season, a time to look forward to whatever is next--the coming of spring, the arrival of a heron.