Monday, March 11, 2019

In the beginning: A history of Howard the Gnome

Howard the Gnome needs a new home, not to mention $15,000 to fix his rotting base. The recent news out of Nanoose Bay, where Howard has lived for more than two decades as one of the last of Vancouver Island's classic roadside attractions, prompts me to dig out my 1999 story on the gnome, who had yet to be named Howard at that time and was in the news for a whole other reason.

When I first wrote about the big guy, Howard had yet to be moved to his current location at a Nanoose gas station, which didn't exist back then. He was a young thing then, and had been built in Ron Hale's garage out of dryer lint from the Alberni pulp mill among other odds and sods.

Herewith, my Oct. 25, 1999 article from the Times Colonist archives on the gnome, who was a fresh fella barely two years old back in those days but already raising eyebrows in the Nanaimo Regional District, where critics thought his roadside presence was distracting to drivers and breaching sign bylaws.

This article references the Hale family's long-standing amusement park, Kiddieland. But like so many of the Island's long-ago roadside attractions - the Glass Castle, Fable Cottage, Rudy's Zoo, that place with all the fairy- and nursery-tale characters at Elk Lake - it's long gone. Onward into Howard's birth story...

I think it was the first giant slide I'd ever seen. I used to drive past it and wonder whether many people stopped for a slide.

They must have, because Kiddieland -- now Gnomemansland -- is 24 years old and still going. Long after the rise and fall of roadside amusement parks, the Hale family park lives on.

Owner Bruce Hale was 14 when his dad Ron opened Kiddieland on their family property beside the Island Highway south of Parksville. These days, it has go-carts, a giant slide, mini-golf, a lovely old merry-go-round, trampolines and a room full of plastic balls; back then, it was solely a go-cart track, the Island's first and one of only a handful still left.

Bruce didn't get into the family business right away, working instead as a faller for several years before buying his father out six years ago. He has big plans over the next few years to rebuild the park around his mother Disa's unpublished book Gnomemansland, and envisages themed areas for each of the 10 chapters, all tied in with gnomes.

The first step was the raising of Gnome, a seven-metre-high elf that would grace the park entrance. Ron Hale crafted Gnome from steel, papier mache, and dryer felts from the Port Alberni pulp mill, building it in his garage. ''He did a damn fine job,'' says Bruce.

The people from Nanaimo Regional District weren't quite as impressed when they first met Gnome one day in the summer of 1997. There he was, unannounced and unapproved, towering over the Hales' driveway and bidding welcome with his enormous hands.

The fight was on. It started with Gnome's location; the figure was initially erected on a concrete block across the driveway from the park, on a panhandle piece of land owned by Bruce's brother. The regional district cited Hale for breaching the third-party signage bylaw, not to mention several others.

So Hale moved Gnome across the driveway and on to his own property. The regional district then wanted certification that it was sturdy enough to withstand the forces of nature. ''There was absolutely no structural engineering to that thing,'' says regional district development services manager Bob Lapham. ''It could have blown onto the highway.''

The issue aroused considerable passions in the community for a few months. Supporters of a man's right to erect whatever the heck he wants on his own land slammed the regional district for its bureaucratic strangling of free enterprise. Detractors lamented the sullying of their fair Island with a tacky giant gnome with glowing green eyes.

Hale and the regional district have declared an uneasy truce of sorts these days, although Lapham says the district is still waiting for official proof that Hale has met requirements. ''He's still deficient on a building permit. He hasn't given us a location survey, the verification of all that was to happen.''

Hale says satisfying the regional district has cost him $10,000 - 10 times as much as it would have cost to leave Gnome at the first site. Nonetheless, there is no question that Gnome is an imposing sight in his new location, his massive hands welcoming travellers in. A passer-by can't help but gape. Maybe it proves Lapham's point: he argued all along that the way those hands are gesturing made the whole figure a sign, and thus subject to the restrictions of the district's sign bylaw.

It's hard to say whether Gnome lured in that family from Texas this summer, but long-time park employee Howard Newall says the number of American visitors is definitely up. In a good year, the amusement park can attract as many as 25,000 people.

Rumours of Hale's expansion plans have already made their way back to the regional district, which anticipates being surprised again one of these days. ''He's the kind of guy who, instead of coming in for the proper approvals, builds it first and then eventually complies,'' says Lapham.

Out here in Gnomemansland, that's the way it's done.


e.a.f. said...

thankfully there are people still around who build Gnomes and Gnomelands and others who write about them. Humans are still part of the game and not all part of a big gog.

Lindsay Ford said...

Hi, Jody - I have turned the story of Howard moving into a children’s book. Let me know if you’d like to share the story.