If Paul Stiffler hadn’t injured his back, the Statue of Liberty might not be where it is today—in the woods in Sangerville, Maine (pop. 1,401). Nor would some two dozen fairy tale figures and characters from comic strips and other sources that spark Stiffler’s imagination.
Stiffler continues a fantasyland begun about 20 years ago by Maine resident Ardell Flanders, who carved figures in the woods to delight his wife. His “Enchanted Forest” ended up charming thousands of visitors, including Stiffler and his two young sons. “I just loved going up there, seeing all the kids playing around,” Stiffler says. Eventually the carvings deteriorated, and when Flanders could no longer maintain the forest, he closed it permanently, putting to rest even its name.
One evening, Stiffler and a friend, Brian Campbell, were lamenting its demise. “We both hated seeing the forest close.” Campbell mentioned a piece of idle land on a farm he and his mother owned in Sangerville as a possible site for a new forest. After broaching the subject to his mother, Shirley, she agreed to let him use the property.
Since liability had become a concern in the original Enchanted Forest, Stiffler asked the Kiwanis Club to help insure the new setting. With assistance from the Kiwanis and the Knights of Columbus, Campbell and Stiffler cleared brush from a two-acre plot. “We rented a chipper so there’s a nice soft wood chip flooring.” Then Stiffler fired up his chain saw and wooden inhabitants began appearing in the “Forest of Dreams and Meadow of Enchantment.”
Such rough sculpting differs from handcrafting toys and furniture for children, a career Stiffler has enjoyed for about 10 years. Before that, he was a truck driver, forced by an injury to find a new line of work. An interest in woodworking led him to Heritage Toys and Collectibles (a business he later bought) where he discovered an aptitude for designing and making toys. One of his creations, a Nutcracker pull toy, was on display a few Christmases ago at the White House. A resident of nearby Dover-Foxcroft (pop. 2,592), Stiffler also has made a wooden castle that was featured in the television show Guiding Light.
He continues to turn out thousands of toys a year and in his spare time carves creatures and characters for the forest. “It’s a lot of fun, and people get a big kick out of it.”
Not knowing what will appear next is part of the attraction for repeat visitors. “I always go back to see what’s been added,” says summer vacationer Dave Maney. His 12-year-old granddaughter, Nicole Reynolds, agrees. “I like to go back every year to see if there’s anything new. It’s also a tradition in our family.”
On their next visit they may see what Stiffler’s now preparing: a pirate ship and a covered bridge across a stream. “The ship will be interactive,” he says. “You can move around the cannons and things.” When the bridge is done, a foot trail will follow the brook through the woods.
The additions will join a mother and baby bear carved on a log, Lucy’s lunch counter with its wooden sandwiches and hot dogs, Santa, benches topped with hand-painted checker boards, Linus, an Indian village, pirates, and a host of other charmers. “The sea serpent is three separate pieces,” Stiffler says. “One is the head, the middle is like the hump coming out of water, and one piece is the tail. It’s right next to the stream,” he adds, suggesting fertile ground for fertile imaginations.
The figures’ heights range from one-foot-tall carved bears to the Statue of Liberty, which stands about five and a half feet. Stiffler doesn’t have a particular favorite, but “I still have ideas galore,” he says, leaving one to wonder who and what will appear next in the Forest of Dreams, the Meadow of Enchantment.