- Associated Press - Saturday, July 23, 2016

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) - It took a lot more than three clicks of slippered heels to spark the idea and creation of a family-oriented theme park in Aberdeen.

That much is obvious as Storybook Land celebrates its 40th - and, appropriately, ruby - anniversary.

Doug Johnson, director of the Aberdeen Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department, credits Leo Weber, Ben Benson and Bob Gruman with being the wizards behind the popular destination.

After taking some inspiration from Storybook Island in Rapid City, the city put in motion some of the first steps to enhance a portion of the 210-acre Wylie Park. They included a land and conservation grant in 1973, thus turning the area from buffalo pasture to a blank page for a children’s story-themed park.

Gruman doesn’t remember any grand opening to the park, because progress was so slow in the early days. But 1976 saw the installation of its first features - the “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater” house and a water mill added to the creek.

Gruman is chairman of the Storybook Land Committee for Sertoma Club. The organization took the project under its wing in the early 1970s, establishing a close-knit partnership with the city.

“Bob’s been here all 40 (years),” Johnson said, while visiting in his office along with Gruman, late last month. “I’ve been here 36 of the 40.”

Johnson began with the city as a park superintendent and was eventually promoted to director.

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Creative force

Leo Weber, who ran Weber Floral for years, was essentially the illustrator for the early look of Storybook Land. He created many of the fiberglass fairy tale and nursery rhyme figures that inhabit the park. His creative spirit, work ethic and generosity meant the figures were made at a fraction of what they would cost had they been purchased.

“Leo built a lot of those early items, built them over by his floral business. He was kind of self-taught,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have the funding, so without that low cost and those hours of volunteerism,” Storybook Land might not have had the initial momentum to become what it is today.

Weber contributed more than a dozen statues and displays before his death in August 1997, according to American News archives. He was 87. One of his last projects was the “The Cat and the Fiddle” in 1996. It was paired up with “The Cow Jumped Over the Moon” that Weber had created earlier. Weber’s first creation - “Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe” - was done in 1980.

Gruman remembers Weber as being very particular in crafting just the right looks for his projects.

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Lasting legacy

Ben Benson has been a member of the Aberdeen Sertoma Club since 1965 and was its president in 1978-79. He was a member of the Aberdeen Parks and Recreation Board from 1974 through 1980. He was the former chairman of the Sertoma Club’s Storybook Land Committee, prior to Gruman taking the role.

In 2005, when he was 83, he was still volunteering and built the “bad witch’s” legs from mannequin parts donated by Dacotah Prairie Museum. Through the years, he worked with Weber on numerous projects. During a 2005 American News interview, Benson had said of Weber, “He taught me everything I know.”

Benson is still an associate member, but is no longer active with the Sertoma Club.

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Slow, steady growth

In the early days of Storybook Land, growth was steady but slow. The first features, besides the “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” house, were the “Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe,” ”Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” ”The Cow Jumped Over the Moon,” ”The Three Little Pigs” houses, “Old MacDonald’s” farm and a pheasant pair - all to the credit of Weber, community and Sertoma volunteers and area artists.

Once folks started visiting the park more regularly, Sertomans became even more determined in their fundraising efforts. The group, with help from some city funding, was able to work on larger projects, such as the Noah’s Ark visitors’ center. The ark was also built largely by volunteers in 1981 for around $14,000.

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Castle construction

The park’s most momentous leap came in 1987 when it opened the cornerstone of any fairy tale story.

“What really brought this thing together was when we were able to get this castle built,” Gruman said.

“That really provided us with a facility for activities and children’s events,” Johnson said.

The castle cost about $300,000. The Sertoma Club raised $100,000, with the city providing matching funds. The rest of the money was raised through a buy-a-brick campaign and community fundraisers. More than 1,800 commemorative bricks were sold for $25 each, according to “Storybook Land,” a biography of the park put out by the Sertoma Club and the Parks and Recreation Department.

The castle put the park on the map as a prime family destination, and with the attendance spike, it generated more interest, which helped get the attention of more donors.

“We are amazed at the generosity that exists in this community. You go out to solicit for these projects and you rarely get turned down. It brings a lot of traffic to the community in the summer,” Gruman said.

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New visitors’ center

Nearly three decades after the first visitor center was built came a new one, with a gift shop, restrooms and an activity room. It cost roughly $1.3 million and opened in 2009. Much of the money was from Sertoma donations.

While the price tags of features like the carousel, balloon ride, roller coaster and an upgrade to the Storybook Land Express train easily break six figures, there is no admission to the park, in keeping with the Sertoma spirit. Modestly priced tickets to the rides generate revenue that goes back into the park.

“It’s Sertoma who raises the money and the public who contributes to building these projects,” Johnson said. “The city’s role is administering the operation, maintenance and upkeep.”

He estimated that $6 million in private donations have been invested in Storybook Land through the decades.

Currently, the city and Sertoma are finishing off fundraising for their latest projects, like Humpty’s Great Fall gravity coaster that opened last year. The work never really stops, and there is no end in sight for Storybook Land’s growth.

Gruman is hoping more younger people join the Sertoma Club to make it and the park’s future strong for the next generation.

For now, “there’s no retirement plan (with Sertoma), so we have to keep working,” Gruman said. “Seeing all the kids out there playing, that’s payment enough for me.”

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Information from: Aberdeen American News, https://www.aberdeennews.com

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