GILROY — This tale of trees begins in the 1920s, on a small farm in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. Axel Erlandson had come to California to join a colony of Swedish immigrants in Merced County. At some point he must have become lonely or bored. Or maybe he had too much time on his hands between crop seasons. For whatever reason, Erlandson decided to take up a hobby--tree-shaping.
In the countryside, he'd come across cases of trees naturally grafting themselves to one another. He began to experiment, seeing if he could "train" young trees to grow together in unusual ways. He fused four sycamore saplings to create what he called "the four-legged giant." After that first success, his designs became more elaborate. Over time, Erlandson manipulated trunks and limbs so that they would grow to resemble ladders, hearts, chairs, lightning bolts, bird cages and telephone booths.
As one might imagine, growing weird trees was not exactly an action-filled pastime, yet Erlandson kept at it all his life: "It took a strong desire to attempt something new," his daughter observed in a booklet she wrote about her father, "and patience, patience, patience."
It was Erlandson's wife who suggested that the tree collection might make an excellent roadside attraction. In the mid-1940s, he dug up 60 or 70 trees--he'd been a busy hobbyist--and hauled them off a small lot near Santa Cruz for replanting. He called it the "Tree Circus" and put up a billboard: "See the World's Strangest Trees Here."
Life magazine paid a visit, and there were occasional mentions in "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Sadly though, the world did not come rushing in to see Axel Erlandson's trees. The Tree Circus was not destined to become Disneyland North. It was just another little piece of roadside weirdness, so common in postwar California, and so easily missed.
In 1963, at the age of 79, Erlandson sold his trees. He died a year later without ever telling anybody how he had shaped the trees.
"He considered that his 'trade secret,' " recalled his daughter, Wilma Erlandson.
Sometimes little children visiting the Tree Circus would ask Erlandson how he made the trees grow the way they did, and he would answer:
"Oh, I talk to them."
New owner followed new owner, and none seemed to be able to make the Tree Circus go. At one point the trees kept company with a herd of plaster dinosaurs. There was a failed attempt to sell Erlandson's trees to Disney. And then, in the 1980s, along came Michael Bonfante, a grocery chain mogul with his own dreams of trees and roadside attractions.
Bonfante had come late to his passion for trees. At the age of 35, unable to find some big trees he wanted for a landscaping project, he decided to grow his own. "One thing led to another," he recalled the other day during an interview. "Pretty soon we were in the tree business, and my interest in trees became a passion for trees--not only how pretty they were and what they added to our lives aesthetically, but also how important they were to us, sustaining our lives."
He started a tree nursery outside Gilroy, at the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley. Computers were just beginning to transform the place into what would become known as Silicon Valley. Bonfante skipped that stampede. He stuck with trees. A larger idea had begun to take shape.
"If there was a way I could get young kids interested in trees and what they do for us," he said, "then they would have their lifetimes to enjoy trees, as opposed to my half-lifetime."
But how to open children's eyes to trees?
What he would create, Bonfante decided, was an amusement park, complete with roller coaster, train ride and all the rest, with restaurants and shops and furry mascots--but all of it built around the theme of trees. In his park, the rides and other amusements would serve as a backdrop for the landscaping, and not the other way around.
"We wanted to share trees and get people aware and interested in them," he said. "But that's a tough thing to do. First of all, trees don't talk. It is hard to communicate with a tree--although I can do it."
In the late 1970s, an architect drew up the first set of plans. Bonfante began planting trees for the project and teaching himself the theme park business. And about five years into the effort, Bonfante happened to notice a newspaper article about the Tree Circus.
A Santa Cruz man had been risking arrest to sneak in and water the by-then all-but-forgotten trees. Bonfante figured Erlandson's strange trees would be a perfect fit for his park. He wanted children to notice trees; sycamores shaped to look like oil derricks are sort of hard to miss.
He purchased the healthiest of the trees and moved them to his park site. Let Disneyland have Mickey and Goofy. He would herald his theme park as the "Home of the Circus Trees!"