Storybook Lane remains a tradition in the community

Storybook Lane remains a tradition in the community

Image Credit: Submitted

As New Philadelphia’s Storybook Lane display enters the 2022 Christmas season, condolences are in order to recognize the passing of New Philadelphia’s Mark Watson, who died Oct. 26 at age 75.

Watson was an artist who came from a family of artisans. His dad, Walt, was a well-known home builder, woodworker and cabinet maker responsible for most of the development on New Philadelphia’s south side in the 1960s and 1970s. Other members of the Watson family including son Jeff, who specialized in wallpaper and painting, worked in the family business.

Watson specialized in air-brushing technique, glass etching and stained glass. He was drafted by younger brother Kent Watson, who operates Watson Painting and Watson & Burkey LCC today — both based in New Philadelphia in 2001 — to help restore the original Storybook Lane panels to their original glory. Kent Watson co-chaired the original restoration campaign, a project of the New Philadelphia Rotary, with the help of the late Dick Stewart to assist him, as described in the 2022 update of the Storybook Lane project.

Storybook Lane begins in 1956 on East High Avenue

It was Vic Marsh, one of the founders of Marsh Wall Products Company, along with other neighbors in New Philadelphia’s East High Avenue neighborhood, who launched the Storybook Lane project.

Founded in 1930 by Alvin and Victor Marsh, Marsh Wall Products Co. was noted for its decorative, functional and durable Marsh Tile for bathrooms and kitchens, which became popular during the Great Depression and following World War II.

The product, with grooves resembling tile, was made of hardboard and finished with a tough scratch and moisture-resistant topcoat melamine coating. This created a high-quality surface that could be colorized and textured.

In 1948 Marsh Wall Products Company became a subsidiary of the Masonite Corporation, the supplier of the hardboard substrate used in the panel’s production. Marsh Tile was rebranded to be known as Marlite or Masonite, both locally and nationally, in corporate advertising.

Vic Marsh used Marlite to create 21 original storybook characters beginning in 1955, designed to mimic colorful Christmas department store window displays. Neighbors Herb Bischel, who offered use of his barn, and artist William “Goose” Kniesner, formerly associated with Walt Disney Studios, joined others to build the Storybook Lane panels in the evenings. The construction became a community event on New Philadelphia’s east end with Vic Marsh supervising the work, and his wife, the former Pearl Gladys Snyder, provided refreshments for the crew.

During the 1956 Christmas season, Storybook Lane was launched with lighting for each display, and some displays featured moving animation along the stretch of homes that still line a section of East High Avenue beginning at Beaver Avenue moving eastward.

The event became a success with an estimated 200,000 people viewing Storybook Lane that year, creating traffic jams that would be commonplace in future years.

Storybook Lane on East High Avenue would continue until the early 1970s when the display was discontinued. In 1980 it would be resurrected and moved to New Philadelphia’s Tuscora Park to alleviate the earlier traffic tie-ups.

The New Philadelphia Rotary becomes the Storybook Lane caretaker

It was the City of New Philadelphia that assumed the role of managing and storing the Storybook Lane panels after it moved to Tuscora Park. This was successful for a number of years. However, in the 1990s, age and other priorities led the Storybook Lane panels to fall into disrepair.

In 2001 Vic Marsh’s daughter, the late Ellie Kirk, joined her husband Brenton Kirk to ask the New Philadelphia Rotary to take on restoration of Storybook Lane as a club project. Ellie Kirk married Brenton in 1948. After attending college, both prior to and after WWII and working with his father at the Belmont Copper Enameling Plant from 1949-55, Brenton Kirk started working at Marlite in 1956. Thus, he had an appreciation for the history of the Storybook Lane panels and the Marlite material from which they were made. Brenton Kirk also was a 50-year member of the New Philadelphia Rotary.

Through Mark Watson’s restoration of the images — along with repairing broken or missing pieces, fixing scratches, filling holes and adding new text panels for the nursery rhymes at Ellie Kirk's suggestion — Storybook Lane was relaunched in Tuscora Park on Dec. 14, 2002.

The work of Mark Watson and others continues to be enjoyed by families and older folks who remembered the original display from decades before.

The New Philadelphia Rotary continues to accept sponsorship donations for the Storybook Lane project. Individuals and businesses may donate as a sponsor for $300 or as a friend for $100.

Sponsors will receive two lines on one of the character verse boards, and friends will be recognized with a line on one of the friends boards. These donations cover a three-year period and are renewable.