Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Where all the king's horses and all the king's men failed, Martha Clark succeeded. The owner of Clark's Elioak Farm, in Ellicott City, Maryland, saved Humpty Dumpty.

The nattily dressed egg man perches precariously atop his brick wall near the petting zoo on this 540-acre property. Humpty is one of roughly 100 large storybook artifacts that Clark has been spiriting, piece by piece over 11 years, from the graveyard of the Enchanted Forest, an abandoned amusement park behind a shopping center on Route 40. For 35 years the sweetly low-tech attraction, which opened a month after Disneyland in 1955, delighted the very young and their parents, attracting visitors from around the Mid-Atlantic.

Those children now have children and grandchildren, and all make the pilgrimage to Clark's Elioak Farm together. "We will get three generations taking pictures of themselves sitting in Willy the Whale's mouth," says Clark. "And then the parents will post them on Facebook with an old picture of themselves sitting in Willy the Whale's mouth when they were little."

Roughly 140,000 people visited the farm last year, many of them school groups. "Not all families still read nursery rhyme books to their kids, so it is an opportunity for our early childhood educators to talk about Humpty Dumpty and the dish and the spoon," says Amy Schroeder, director of Mt. Hebron Nursery School, which is 10 minutes away from the farm. In addition to the Enchanted Forest structures, "there is a guided tour of the animals and a corn maze and a playground," says Schroeder. "Even if it's raining, it's a good day to go. Just wear your boots."

The Enchanted Forest is not all the Clark family has sought to preserve since it settled in this fertile region in 1797. In response to encroaching urbanization, Martha Clark's father, a former speaker of the state senate, helped enact a land preservation program to buy development rights from farmers. Over three decades that program has protected close to 300,000 agricultural acres across Maryland.

"Never sell the land," reads the inscription carved into a memorial stone, which stands at the entrance to the farm. "That was the message my father wanted to leave us with," says Clark.

In the senator's footsteps

Elioak Farm is located on Clarksville Pike, which was named for the family of Martha Clark's father; Ellicott City was named for the family of her mother. Clark's paternal grandfather, a circuit court judge, raised Angus cattle on 330 acres here. Her father, James Clark Jr., took over the farm after returning from World War II. He and his new bride, Lillian, lived in a former slave cabin on the property.

James Clark Jr. expanded the farm and added a dairy. Between 1959 and 1983 he served in the Maryland House of Delegates and then the state senate.

While her brother eventually took over the farm, Clark followed her father into government service. As a child she often traveled with him to Annapolis, where she watched him speak from the floor of the senate. After graduating from Duke with a degree in public policy, Clark returned to Annapolis full-time, working on children's issues and serving five years as executive director of the Maryland Commission for Women.

In 1986 Clark married the owner of the local farm-supply store and left government to help him run it. When he died in 2000, she moved with her two children back to Clark's Elioak Farm. By that time her brother had relocated himself and the dairy operation to Georgia, where it was easier to find acreage for grazing. Her father remained. But he was aging and rented out most of the land to other farmers.

"I had to figure out what to do to make a living," says Clark. "I was not going to start another dairy." Traditional agriculture no longer made sense because all the support services, which used to be down the road, were now an hour away.

"I realized there are three million people in a 30-mile radius," says Clark. "There are all these kids who know that cows moo and pigs oink and horses neigh, but in many cases may never have seen a real farm animal. And I thought, what about a petting farm?"

A rocky beginning

Launching a petting farm is less trouble than you'd think, especially when you've already got a farm full of animals and a pumpkin patch. Clark set up pens and bought some little sheds. She built a stall for selling tickets and vegetables. Another local petting farm had recently closed; Clark acquired a few of its pygmy goats. She also hired its former manager, who brought with her contact information for all the school groups that had visited.

Clark set the price of admission at $4, plus $2 for a pony ride and $2 for a hayride. Fifteen years later admission is just $2 more. Pony and hayride prices haven't budged.

The petting farm opened on Labor Day 2002. The first school group, from a small nearby elementary, visited on October 3. The children were exploring the animal pens when word arrived--Clark doesn't recall how--of several shootings in Washington, D.C., and nearby Montgomery County, Maryland. "They didn't even get to finish their tour," says Clark. "They got on their buses and went back to the school."

For the next three weeks, during which the "Beltway Snipers" killed or injured seven more people in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., school groups canceled in droves. "Every week they would reschedule," says Clark. "During that time I got to know the teachers personally. They would call, and we would talk about doing it the next week, when--fingers crossed--they would have caught these people." The killers were arrested at a truck stop on October 23, and business picked back up. "We made it through that first season and even made a profit," says Clark. "We figured if we could survive that, we could survive anything."

In 2004, Clark read a newspaper article about someone who'd bought a relic from the Enchanted Forest at a charity auction: Cinderella's pumpkin coach. In 1987 the theme park's owners had sold the attraction--its luster dimmed by larger, louder amusement venues and video games--to a retail developer. The developer left the park intact but fenced it off, using the surrounding land to build (what else?) the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center. Although the farm was just five miles away, Clark hadn't clapped eyes on the Enchanted Forest in more than 15 years. "The only ones who went back there were people who travel around the country looking at derelict amusement parks," she says.

The coach's new owner hoped to sell it. Clark and five or six other local businesses, including a car dealership and a landscaping firm, wanted to buy it. "I made the appeal that we were a children and family venue, that it wouldn't be hidden away somewhere, and that it wouldn't be used for promotional activities," says Clark. Several months later the coach was resting in her pumpkin patch.

Families loved the coach, so Clark approached the shopping center's owner about acquiring some other pieces. "They did their due diligence to make sure I wasn't going to take the things out of there and put them on eBay," says Clark. The shopping center owner agreed to donate the structures--on the condition that Clark take everything. "It didn't do them any good if I just took one or two pieces and left the rest," she says. "It was an attractive nuisance that they wanted gone."

A fairy-tale ending

So Clark began the process of transporting the Enchanted Forest to the family farm. The structures, including the Three Bears' houses, Jack's beanstalk, and the Three Men in a Tub, had all been built onsite. Some weighed tens of thousand of pounds. The site was surrounded by steep slopes and crisscrossed with narrow paths designed for pedestrians, not the giant cranes and trailers Clark hired for the job. "The Old Woman's Shoe was 23 feet tall and weighed 30,000 pounds," says Clark. "We had to cut it in half so it would go under the utility wires on the road."

Back on the farm, Clark and her helpers painted and restored the structures, many of them in disrepair. To replace pieces that had not survived exposure to the elements or the move, she hired a fiberglass artist in Virginia. "I had the dish and I did not have the spoon, so he made the spoon," says Clark. "I had Jack but I did not have Jill, so he made Jill."

In 2015 Clark installed the final structure: the enchanted castle. The massive white palace, which had welcomed children to the original park, came over in three sections and required the pouring of a new foundation to support it. A dragon perched in its ramparts caught fire during repairs. A new Old King Cole had to be built because the original stayed behind atop the shopping center's sign.

Clark estimates that transporting and renovating the Enchanted Forest cost her a quarter to half a million dollars. But every move generated publicity for the business. "Someone would call WBZ and say there's a giant shoe going down the road, and they'd send a helicopter," says Clark. "We'd show up on the 6 o'clock news."

In addition to the attractions, the property remains a working farm that employs as many as 50 people, depending on the season. Clark's daughter Nora Crist oversees the crops and 130 cows, which produce 100 percent grass-fed beef, for sale at an onsite store. The store also sells books, authored by Clark, that tell stories of Trusty the Tractor, who pulls the farm's hayride. There are also books by Clark and others about the Enchanted Forest, as well as a DVD tour of the theme park in its final days.

"There's a lot of history here and a lot of memories, and we do what we can to protect them," says Clark. "There's been so much change. But kids still get to experience some things that were important to our childhoods."

Published on: Mar 20, 2017