- by Jane Golden
The Long Road to Happily-Ever-After
Bob Morrell remembers his first job (after he didn’t pass his second year of business college) as a private secretary for a fire insurance company. “I was a failure,” he laughed, naming his other early and equally unsuited occupations. “I damned near starved to death.”
He didn’t, In fact, together with his wife Ruth, he built one of the most successful recreation complexes in the Northeast - Story Land and Heritage New Hampshire - and he did it all with the same measure of taste and quality that not only has attracted millions to his doors, but more important, has won him the respect and admiration of his audience, his peers and underlings. Because he did it the hard way. One step at a time and each step very well.
“I guess I’m a fatalist,” he said. “I believe our lives are guided by circumstances, if you’re smart enough to recognize them when they come along and are willing to just plug away. Almost everything that has happened to us has been for a purpose, and somehow it all fits together.”
At 57, Bob enjoys a vantage point he didn’t have when he and Ruth opened their first business, the Eastern Slope Ice Cream Co., on Rte. 16 in North Conway almost 30 years ago. “Our daughter Nancy was still in the crib,” he recalled. “We’d serve ice cream all day and then make it at night. We had 20 flavors.” Aided in part by Phil Robertson, manager of Mt. Cranmore, who secured for them the ice cream concession at the Skimobile, the wholesale and retail operation was doing very well, that is, until 1950 when Bob, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, the ski troops during World War II, was drafted into the Korean War.
What appeared a setback was more accurately a starting point. After they sold the business to Abbott’s Dairy, the two were willing to listen when an old woman in the German community where he was stationed suggested that on their return to America they open a village to showcase her homemade dolls, fashioned after storybook characters. “That’s how it all began, with Frau Von Arps, in Nuremburg,” he said.
Instantly sold on the idea, they soon discovered that the banks were far less enthusiastic. The concept of three-dimensional entertainment for children was yet to be tested or even understood. Disneyland was just opening, and the only other similar facilitiy was in Whiteface, New York. “All we had was $5,000, and couldn’t afford to buy land in North Conway,” he noted, “so we went to Glen,” There, he was able to pick up 1250 feet of road frontage and a 100 acres of backland for $2,500. Financing, however, remained impossible. “We went to every bank in the state, including the Business Development Corporation of New Hampshire, and all we got was no’s.” Finally, they received a six month note from a bank in Concord, N.H., that sent the check together with a long letter explaining why they were such a risk: first, they were new and second, there was no equity in a Three Bears’ House. “We were never able to borrow more than $25,000,” he added. “All we could do was just push ahead as best we could.”
Story Land opened in July of 1954, and by 1957, it finally came into its own. “If I had to decide when I considered myself a success, I would point to then, because we had accomplished more than I had ever thought we could.” Not enough, however, to be financially secure. Bob continued to work winters at the Carroll Reed Shop (“I was the original ski boot salesman”) until 1961. “Every cent we made we plowed back into Story Land.”
It’s still true today. Close to $100,000 of new amusements and attractions are added each year. Convinced of its self-generating popularity by the turn of this decade, Bob started thinking of other ways to maintain and attract the Valley’s high level of clientele. “We had a lot of ideas, some we accepted, most we rejected, but the history of New Hampshire was one that just wouldn’t go away,” he said.
It was soon after the World Fairs in New York and Montreal, and as he explained, these events convinced him that ”of course, you can do it. All you have to do is apply yourself.” Eventually, he met Peter Stone, a designer and history buff who oversaw the operation, and last summer, Heritage New Hampshire, a million dollar project that employs an entirely new concept in experiencing history, opened it doors. Over 50,000 witnessed its presentation of the state’s past in its first year of operation.
Hardly content to rest on his laurels, Bob, a New Hampshire native and Kennett High School graduate, is at his desk every morning, working a 12-hour day, seven days a week. Ruth, who still handles all the bookkeeping and buying for the Story Land gift shops, averages a modest 60. “We’d like to relieve the pressure,” said he, “but not the activity. The fact is I thoroughly enjoy every day, whether it’s a good one or a bad one.” He has, he believes, achieved what every man desires” - the opportunity to earn a decent living by doing what he wants to do. He’d like to have his son Stoney, a senior at Dartmouth, join him in the field, but he knows that decision belongs to Stoney. Nancy prefers to stay away, because, he suggests, she saw all the sacrifices and hard work. “Stoney came along when we were all in better shape.”
Having allocated many of the day-to-day chores to others, Bob concerns himself more now with the long range plans for his own operation, the Valley, and the White Mountains. Most of all, he would like to help younger people in the community get a start the same way Carroll Reed, Bill Levy, Witt Duprey, Arthur Lucy and others of their generation helped him.
“I have the utmost confidence in the value of this Valley,” he continued. “I’ve never seen any area in the world that is more fertile, better strategically located, or more ideally suited for proper development.” He glanced around the room and his intense spirit, the boundless source of his energy, was reflected in his eyes. Bob Morrell has done as much for Mt. Washington Valley as it has done for him. And besides he had work to do.
Editor's Note: Bob Morrell passed away in 1998, Ruth Morrell predeceased him in 1990, and Stoney Morrell passed away in 2006. Story Land is now owned and operated by the company that owns the Pittsburgh, Pa., area's best-known amusement park, Kennywood.