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To All a Good Night

It's the End of an Era, Says J. Putnam Henck, the Santa's Village Owner, Who Now LooksBack on a Mountain of Memories

February 18, 1998|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

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