CARVER — She was a local kid, just 14 years old and still too young to drive, but she found her way to the local landmark — where a narrow-gauge train famously puffed its way around acres of vast cranberry bogs — and filled out an application.
The next day, the phone rang. There was an opening for a popcorn girl. In 1974, the job paid $1.60 an hour, which sounded like a fortune to young Brenda Johnson.
“I’ll take it,’’ she said.
It was her ticket to a life on the railroad, a job that has propelled Johnson to the top job at Edaville Family Theme Park — a career whose twin mileposts have been enduring nostalgic pleasure and chronic financial peril.
She took tickets at the park’s museum. Served food. Hung lights. Sold trinkets at the gift shop. And, in a pinch, she even drove the train that remains the essential connective tissue that ties Edaville Railroad to its past and helps drive its future.
“When I started, my friends always thought that I had more potential because back then Edaville wasn’t what Edaville is today,’’ the park’s general manager told me the other day in her office at the snow-blanketed park. “They would always say to me: ‘You’re still there?’ But it wasn’t a job to me. I just loved being here. You see tons of happy faces, smiling kids. And it has never been boring.’’
You can say that again.
To trace the history of Brenda Johnson’s career at the amusement park off Route 58 is to trace the biorhythms of America’s wildly altered appetite for family entertainment.
In a way, it’s a miracle this place still exists when you consider the tombstones scattered around the graveyard of New England amusement parks. From Paragon Park on Nantasket Beach in Hull to Whalom Park, constructed by a lake in Lunenburg, a long list of regional playgrounds are now the stuff of local history books.
But not here in Carver. And, in large part, you can thank Brenda Johnson for that.
“Edaville wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Brenda,’’ said Jon Delli Priscoli, the park’s owner. “It wouldn’t have continued. She has the passion, the vision, the willingness to work to follow through. And she’s worked through some really, really dark times.’’
Yes. Dark times. There were bankruptcies and foreclosures. There were tangled ownership disputes that threatened to forever darken the park, which was opened in the late 1940s by Carver bog owner Ellis D. Atwood. His three initials gave the name to the park where he used a 19th-century railroad to help harvest his cranberries.
To survive, Johnson – with Delli Priscoli’s strong support – had to thread an amusement park needle that is deceptively difficult to thread.
“We were very careful here to keep the provincial nature of this place but also take it to another level,’’ Delli Priscoli, seated next to Johnson in the park’s corporate office suite, told me. “So we had to make it a national attraction with a provincial spin. You had to do that. That was the tightrope you had to walk.’’
Johnson knows what she’s seeing when two sets of grandparents accompany a lone little kid through the park’s front gate. The paying customers are here to see the look on that kid’s face — the look they remember from their first visit to Edaville in the 1960s.
“The biggest reason I think that Edaville is still here is memories and tradition,’’ Johnson said. “And it’s a place where people can go with their families and feel safe.’’
The park’s financial nadir came in the early 1990s, when it closed for more than seven years as owners scrambled to resuscitate it.
Johnson and a business partner, Rob Julian, took it over for six years from 2005 to 2011. They owned the place, leasing the property from Delli Priscoli, their landlord. But then Johnson concluded she simply could not do it any longer.
“We increased attendance and awareness,’’ Johnson said. “But it needed a major cash infusion. We just couldn’t do it and we knew if that didn’t happen, it was never going to make it. So we went to Jon.’’
Delli Priscoli, a commercial real estate developer, came close to closing the doors.
“When Brenda and [Julian] came to me in 2011 and said we can’t do it anymore, we thought about selling it,’’ Delli Priscoli said. “And we actually flirted with it for about six months. Brenda and I talked about it and we discussed that if Edaville didn’t reopen, it would never reopen. So that’s a decision that will be made for us if we don’t do something about it.’’ So they did something about it.
Today’s Edaville is not your grandfather’s Edaville. The iconic train is still there. But its 50-minute loop has been shortened to 20 minutes. “It was too long,’’ Johnson explained. “Too boring. And it had no bathrooms. Today, people want bathrooms all over the place.’’
So she supplied more bathrooms.
To satisfy a changing American appetite, the park’s newest restaurant serves hummus and salad — along with all-beef hot dogs and pizza. Fresh fruit has grown increasingly popular.
Thomas Land opened in the summer of 2015, an 11-acre park that is a natural collaboration with the beloved children’s character, Thomas the Tank Engine. At Dino Land, there is a self-guided tour through trails that feature 23 life-size animatronic dinosaurs.
“When we started, everybody’s image was the old Edaville,’’ Johnson said. “But new buildings got built and new rides were added. We were still trying to get people out of their old image of the park. Because it really wasn’t the old Edaville. It was the new Edaville.’’
And that’s what Johnson is busy working on this week. There are repairs to be made that arctic air had made nearly impossible to perform.
The former popcorn girl now directs a staff of 172 employees, 38 of them full time, and manages the park’s $6 million annual budget.
She has an idea for a water feature for the park this summer. A new mercantile store that will roll the clock back to the 1890s is in the works. And Johnson has plans for a new bakery that she’s talking with Delli Priscoli about.
And the owner is listening, because he knows that that little girl from Carver who has watched and learned now for more than 40 years has reshaped the place in her own image. Simply put, she has become the heart of the place.
“Well, Brenda is Edaville,’’ Delli Priscoli said. “I don’t know how else to really put it. At this point, Edaville’s in her DNA.’’
And so Brenda Johnson is where she has been most of her lifetime.
She’s still in Carver.
She’s still working on the railroad.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.