For many Whitby residents, the mere mention of Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village, brings back a deep sense of nostalgia.
But Wayne White says he viewed the show garden through a less rosy lens.
He visited Cullen Gardens a handful of times with his children but his memory of the property goes back to his childhood.
In 1948, a then two-year-old White, his parents, brother and two sisters moved in to what would later become Cullen Gardens’ gift shop.
The home, which would later become known as the Jones-Puckrin House, was owned by farmer Frank Puckrin, who allowed farm-hands, like White’s father, to live in the house.
“It was kind of sad to go back there because I remember it growing up as a kid. I remember climbing a fence and there was always cows, chickens, pigs and goats around the house,” White says. “Then all of a sudden, it’s commercialized, an attraction – it wasn’t like home anymore.”
The 87 acres of land where Cullen Gardens stood, located north of Taunton Road and Cochrane Street, has transformed over the years: from Indigenous land, to a farm, to the Miniature Village and garden attraction affectionately remembered by visitors.
Whitby Mayor Don Mitchell says it’s fair to say Cullen Gardens put the town of Whitby on the map. It was an integral part of the community for a quarter of a century.
Founder Leonard (Len) Cullen created aesthetically pleasing colourful gardens housing a miniature village based on an imaginary Ontario town; the structures of the life-like village were made to scale, with close attention to intricate details. Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village opened in May of 1980.
The fictional town was surrounded by the natural beauty of the trees, hills, ponds and land, located at 300 Taunton Rd. W. in Whitby. Operational miniature boats floated on water while mechanical trains chugged by the town, which brought imagination to life.
The attraction entertained the masses because the experience was as unique as it was timeless.
Sarah Ferencz, an archivist who works out of the Whitby Public Library, says Cullen Gardens attracted tourists from across Ontario and beyond.
“Many residents remember attending the gardens as a child or they can remember taking their children to the various events held throughout the year,” says the archivist. “Cullen Gardens was open for 26 years so it was able to reach a good portion of the population.”
Whitby’s current mayor, Don Mitchell, remembers delivering lumber to the Miniature Village as part of his first job. He says Cullen was a great supporter of local business. Mitchell later visited the attraction as a father with his kids. He fondly remembers Halloween as his favourite occasion at Cullen Gardens.
Christmas was particularly magical at the Miniature Village. The imaginary town became a winter wonderland, all decked out for the holiday season. Lights were carefully strung from the scaled-down homes and Santa came to visit, while Christmas music filled the air. Visitors also enjoyed carolling, skating and the infamous Festival of Lights, proving even while the garden hibernated, the village was in full bloom.
“It was certainly a source of local pride, it was a beautiful place to visit because Len was such a genius with flowers and horticulture,” says Mitchell.
Cullen’s influence went beyond the trails of gardens in Whitby, he was known as a visionary and pioneer in the horticulture industry. His passion began when he worked as a teenager for a landscape business owned by John Weall. At 22-years-old, Cullen would purchase the business. By 1955, he evolved the business to become a thriving nursery, at a time when garden centres were uncommon.
Ferencz says Cullen was dedicated to making his dream of a landscaped, show garden come true. The landmark allowed Cullen to share his passion of horticulture with the public.
Connecting with guests was a priority for Cullen. He personally responded to each compliment and complaint about visitors’ experiences. Cullen enjoyed the written word and human interaction. He wrote his own speech for the opening day of Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village, including a poem inspired by Whitby.
Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village permanently closed its doors on Jan. 1, 2006.
Eight days later, the Town of Whitby purchased the land from the Cullen family.
The property was designated a municipal park. After the town held a public naming competition, Cullen Central Park was announced, with a plan of open space and parkland.
Later that year, in August, 81-year-old Cullen died of pancreatic cancer. His children say he had dreamed of opening up another attraction for residents to enjoy, even purchasing a Whitby property on a whim. Cullen’s dream died with him because he didn’t want to burden his children to make his vision a reality.
Cullen’s family donated the money from all property sales to charities of his choice – his final thank you to Durham Region residents for supporting him through the years.
As for the actual miniature pieces from the fictional town, the collection was sold to the City of Oshawa. After collecting dust in a warehouse for years, the Niagara Parks Commission (NPC) bought the buildings in 2011. They are now on display at NPC’s Botanical Gardens.
Years passed after the Town of Whitby took over the space and the historical buildings on the lot were left untouched.
White says the buildings, including the Jones-Puckrin House, seemed forgotten.
“The longer it went, the more dishevelled it was, as the buildings started deteriorating, it got even harder to go there to see how things have changed,” recalls White.
A couple in search of a historic home came across White’s childhood house at the former Cullen Gardens site. They saw the potential behind the home’s fragile and weathered state. The residence inherited new residents and a new land to stand, on Coronation Road in Whitby.
White says he is at peace with his old home’s new location and owners, looking as picturesque as a piece belonging in the former miniature village itself.
“I was really pleased with the way it looks now, it fits well with the surrounding area and with everything looking new,” he says, “I am really happy for the new owners.”
For now, the land where Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village’s legacy lives is just property, with some ruins from the buildings left behind.
Part of the terrain is about to undergo a major overhaul. It is slated to become a modern-day tourist destination – Nordik Spa-Nature Whitby.
“I think it’s the most eagerly anticipated thing in Whitby, period,” says Mitchell.
Recently, a poll was conducted on Facebook group Vintage Whitby, asking all 8,390 members if they were looking forward to the spa coming to Whitby. Out of the 157 people who replied, 61 per cent were excited, 24 per cent were indifferent and 15 per cent were dissatisfied about the spa.
Public and press director for the spa, Marianne Trotier says they chose Whitby for the scenery.
“Cullen Central Park offers a beautiful landscape to build such facilities,” she says, “we look for locations close to an important community, as we wish to greet not only tourists, but locals as well.”
Nordik Spa-Nature Whitby projects 135,000 visitors a year, which would significantly impact tourism in Durham Region.
The initial plan for the spa was approved by council in 2011. The original project did not include a hotel, which has slowed down production.
Trotier says the spa is in the process of receiving quotes and scheduling construction. The target to open in the summer of 2019 has shifted, with no tentative timeline set.
Through all of the changes on the surface of these grounds, one thing has remained the same. This piece of property has stunning views and the attractions housed on the land, have focused on the ever-present nature which encapsulates the space.
Cullen penned a book in 1983 called Dig About It … And Dung It: Tales of a Gardener.
“I like to walk in the woods in the fall, see the wildflowers in the spring, I love to create something and see others enjoy it,” he wrote. “I like the challenge of winning a contract and finishing the job on time, at a profit. I like building buildings, old architecture and Canadian antiques. These are some of the things that give me pleasure and fill me with satisfaction.”
Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village and Nordik Spa-Nature Whitby share a field of dreams, united by two key pillars – nature and community.