Tammy Marion emailed me on Saturday wondering if I knew our family’s Storyland Bunny had once been beheaded. Yes, I knew well that the rabbit sitting in my yard had been ‘Marie Antoinetted” ….
Apparently the white water rafting ‘kids’ down the road from Storyland on Storyland Road sometimes created acts of sabotage, including at least one beheading suffered by the five-metre-high fibreglass rabbit that welcomed visitors to the park. Storyland was the first man-made major tourist attraction in Renfrew County. The only other major attraction at that time was the Bonnechere Caves.
Storyland was founded in 1966 by Durk and Bonnie Heyda, immigrants from the Netherlands. The first figures were built in their basement; later ones were made by an artist. Berkhout bought Storyland in 1975 when his friend, Durk, grew ill: Raised in Holland during the Second World War, Berkhout had a difficult childhood. He visited the park and fell in love.
But in 1978, tragedy struck when his wife, Maria, was killed in a car accident, leaving him with five children. The business suffered until he remarried in 1983. Together, with a brood of nine children, he and Nancy rebuilt. By 1989, attendance was up to 40,000. When Berkhout retired in 2008, he sold the park to Todd Mattila-Hamilton, an Ottawa businessman who intended to inject new life into it “I saw potential,” says Mattila-Hamilton, 37. “That’s a classic attraction that has a built-in following.” Then the global economy collapsed, investment dollars dried up and he got cancer. “I haven’t had the strength to run the business. Storyland closed at the end of the 2011 season, which saw about 20,000 visitors. He put it on the market but was unsuccessful in finding a buyer interested in storytelling.
Dick Heyda had heard the “legend” of the monster of Muskrat Lake, near Renfrew, and worked all winter making a fibre glass “replica” of it according to a description (second or third hand) given by a Cobden man who claimed to have seen it. The 28-foot Hapyxelor, as he called it, was put on display in a prime spot in Storyland 40 acres of bush laced with trails and huge hand-made fairy tale characters overlooking the Ottawa River at Champlain Point, near Renfrew. read– Lake Monsters–Hapyxelor, Nessie, the Monster of Muskrat Lake
If Hapyxelor was largely a figment of many imaginations, no one seemed to mind. Heyda and his wife Bonnie worked long and hard to make it that way. They made the woods come alive with fairy tales. The fibre glass characters in clusters represented 30 different stories and in the middle of it all is Heyda’s own brainchild, Dr. Goodkind, who cared for all the Storyland inhabitants in Goodkind hospital. Many of the characters talked in both French and English and some, like the Pied Piper, come with sound effects.
In 1990 there were over 200 figures and 40 storyland settings including the wicked witch’s house, Mary’s growing garden, the Madhatter’s tea party and the old lady living in a shoe. Many of the settings had moving parts, activated by pressing a button.
John Berkhout, who died on May 30, 2022 at the age of 81, owned and operated the Storyland theme park near Renfrew for more than three decades, from 1975 until he sold it in 2008. There, more than one million visitors and generations of families came to walk its fairytale paths.
All stories come to an end. After 45 years of delight and imagination, the three-dimensional figures were dispersed at an auction that my son and I attended in the pouring rain. The Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe, Little Miss Muffet and the Pied Piper were are now “chattels” sold to the highest bidder, along with the candy floss machine, picnic tables and inflatable slides. On the auction block: Two 12-foot-high fibre-glass rabbits, Porky’s Bandstand, the Cow Who Jumped Over The Moon, Storyland Windmill, Crooked Man and Crooked House, the Lion and the Mouse and more.
Every day I look out the window and remember that Storyland belonged to children and those that were young at heart like myself. It was the world of books, of summer, of Sunday drives, the family together for a special trip. Anticipation would build during the drive, along a twisting road off Highway 17 west of Ottawa. Giant ice cream cones with child-size alcoves stood as sentry boxes by the path from the parking lot. Once the kids and I got there we never wanted to leave, even though we went there many times. I am sad that my grandchildren will never experience Storyland, but one of the remains still lives in my yard.
The Balderson Cheese Cow- that stood beside the old Balderson Cheese place on HIghway 7 for years in my yard..
As you know the Balderson Cow is nicknamed Baldy Welsh after Carleton Place’s iconic paddler from the Canoe Club. The Storyland Bunny is now named the Storyland Ballygiblin Bunny now he is residing in Carleton Plac
While You Were Sleeping —-The Storyland Bunny Moves to the Hi Diddle Day House
Yes the Storyland Bunnies Are still Alive and Well I might Add…