The original name for this cluster of fish-camp cabins built along Broad Run Road and Floyds Fork in the 1930s and 40s was “Gingerbread Village” – and that name made sense, too.
Except for the log house higher up on the hill, the primitive cabins were gingerbread small; three or four tiny rooms to be used in any fashion needed; the bathrooms often outside and well back toward the woods.
The Gingerbread Village name came from Phil Stephan, a West Louisville contractor and wood worker who liked to spend time and go fishing along the Fork. He bought about 100 acres along and near the river, eventually building about ten cabins for family and friends and later rented to people who wanted to linger past the weekends.
In some cases the lure would last a lifetime. The place was a long way from Louisville, remote and quiet. Monstrous Sycamore trees arched out over the river, which ran wide and deep there; the long bluff behind the cabins sealed in the serenity.
Maybe because Stephan was only about 5 feet 8 inches tall his cabins were on the diminutive side; snug rooms, low ceilings and head-banging porches stretched out along the river and tucked away below the big trees. Stephan put up a sign – “Gingerbread Village” – in front of his cabin to acknowledge that feeling.
At the time Broad Run snaked through the middle of his fish camp, crossing an old one-lane metal bridge and making a sharp turn past the cabins and on out into the open farm fields.
Fern Creek teenagers on weekend jaunts – or local residents just passing through – would cross over the narrow bridge and under those arching Sycamore trees and see cabins dwarfed by their surroundings. It was an entry to another world; different, child-like, even a little mysterious. It was part imagination, part perception, but everything in there and under there seemed, well, small.
No one knows for sure who started it, or when – and the popularity of the little people in “The Wizard of Oz” would be a good guess – but it soon became a weekend rite of passage for area teenagers to pay a visit to a place called “Munchkinville.”
“When I met my wife,” said Phillip Bohr, the grandson of Phil Stephan, “she said something about “Do you live near Munchkinville?
“And I told her, my grandfather built it.”
Bohr, now a real estate appraiser who would become involved in some of the 21st Century Parks purchases along Floyds Fork, all but grew up in Munchkinville. His parents, Steve and Doris Bohr, had inherited it and moved there in 1951 when Phil was 10.
“It was great because very few cars ever went by…And after I lived out here about two years I pretty much knew every car and about who it was.
“We were very rural. The Fork was very clear; all kinds of mussel shells crawfish. Now I don’t think you could find a mussel shell…”
Bohr has fond memories of the 1950s family gatherings along Floyds Fork; aunts, uncles and cousins coming out on weekends. The kids walked the river “gigging” frogs or played in the “sawdust area,” a place between the cabins and the river into which his grandfather hauled cedar sawdust to provide soft landings for the children and perhaps keep the mosquitoes at bay. The flowerbeds outside the cabins would be lined with mussel shells taken from Floyds Fork.
Bohr, an only child, would walk for miles along the river, head cross-country to Dawson Hill Road or up Turkey Run. He helped with the family cattle kept in the old barn at the corner of Stout Road and Broad Run. He would later attend Fern Creek High School, where the legend of Munchkinville was a part of life among his peers. He would hear them driving through at night honking car horns and hollering, “Come out, you Munchkins.”
Bohr lived in Munchkinville until 1974 when he built a house nearby. This past May he lead a tour into what’s left of the community, basically the old log cabin and a handful of the original cabins, all of them now enlarged and improved for modern habitation.
“There was a time when my grandfather got tired of people running through here so he decided not to rent his cabins anymore,” said Bohr. “He just didn’t want the traffic.
“And a year or two later the Board of Health demanded he tear them down because they were not rented. So he put a few bales of hay in each and told them they were barns.”
The old iron bridge was taken out about 20 years ago, ending the through traffic and the occasional annoyance of two cars trying to cross in opposite directions at the same time – and one driver refusing to back up.
The removal of the bridge added to the solitude, but increased the numbers of cars pulling into the now dead-end road and having to turn around in very tight quarters. Four of the older cabins along the river had fallen into such ruin they were burned down; one still survives, unoccupied and decrepit well down the Fork. And, yes, there are still a few visitors – teenagers and otherwise – who will drive into the community at night, shouting for the Munchkins to come out and play.
“I know what it’s all about,” said Bill Conder, who has lived in the log house high up the side of the hill for 15 years. “I used to do it myself.”
Conder’s fascination with Munchkinville began when he was eight years old and would ride his bicycle through it. It continued at Fern Creek High School.
“There was nothing like coming through those trees and seeing that iron bridge. When I got older and got married and was looking for a place I used to drive through every Friday night until I saw something for sale pop up – and I grabbed it.”
Conder works for UPS and builds custom cars in his spare time; a 1940 Ford truck he built from an old shell and two steel rails sits in his garage. As with everyone else in Munchkinville he is there for its peace and isolation. He fears what the 21st Century Parks development will do to that – although no firm plans have yet been made for the park-owned land directly across Floyds Fork from Munchkinville.
Some of the intrusion has been funny; parents coming out asking if they can bring out their children Halloween night to light candles, tell stories and jump out of the woods and scare them. There are fewer visitors now. There’s never been a serious incident of vandalism committed by Munchkin seekers…and yet…the new park will be right across the river.
“My thoughts are it might be good for property values, it might be good for a lot of things,” said Conder “but we like our privacy out here and it’s going to bring people.”
Conder writes short stories and epic poems, one of them written beneath a photo of one of the old decrepit cabins that reads, in part…Sleeping among rolling streams…the past lay rotting under frozen screens…forgotten snow-covered trees and simple things…”
“I hate to see change,” he said.
Bonnie Caudill now lives in house where Bohr’s grandfather lived, a low, angular blue structure with an attached cabin called “The Retreat” where Phil Stephan hosted family gatherings. Caudill moved to Munchkinville with her husband, Kelly Caudill – now deceased – about 22 years ago. They added about 400 square feet to the house, including a full bath and a living room before he died.
She first became attached to Munchkinville as a small child when her school bus went through the community.
“I fell in love with the little houses,” she explained.
Her five acres of land give her broad access to the river – which last invaded her home in the 1997 flood, but poses a constant threat in heavy rains. Her property also runs well up the wooded slope behind the cabin, adding to her wanted isolation.
She and her husband collected antiques; specifically “Flow Blue” china made in England in the 1800s and now occupying many shelves on her cabin’s paneled walls. The inside of her home is tidy and comfortable, the long view of Floyds Fork below her long porch a constant source of joy.
“It’s a little bit like maybe living in Gatlinburg,” she said. “I could compare it to that. You’ve heard people say “I live in my dream home” and you expect a big mansion on the hill.
“This is my dream home; this small house with all my collectables…and where it sits along the Fork…It’s just a special feel. I don’t think I could ever find another place that would make me feel this good.”