Robyn Frampton walked briskly along Overland Park’s Tomahawk Creek Trail until she spotted it: a tall tree with a teardrop-shaped hollow at its base.
She veered off the sidewalk, knelt in the grass and unzipped her backpack. Inside was a small red door that matched the hole in the tree like a puzzle piece. As cardinals sang overhead and cyclists whizzed by, Frampton used a battery-powered drill to affix the door’s tiny hinges to the thick bark.
When her work was done, the tree looked as though it might be occupied by gnomes or fairies. For Frampton, Tomahawk Creek is more than a trail. It’s Firefly Forest, a magical refuge — and a reminder that despite the horror Kansas City has witnessed, these paths can be an oasis of hope and healing.
In 2013, the now 42-year-old mom of two teenage boys started anonymously installing tiny doors and homes along the trail during the night. Those who took a break from walking, jogging or biking could peer inside and see tiny beds, wooden clogs on the floor — even a table and chairs set with a teakettle overflowing with “steam” produced by dry ice.
The homes captivated the community and inspired an award-winning 2015 short film called “The Gnomist” by Overland Park filmmaker Sharon Liese. The film, which revealed Frampton’s identity for the first time, has more than 6 million views on YouTube.
In 2014, Frampton moved to Utah and made a deal with the city to remove many of the doors and homes, but local residents kept the spirit of Firefly Forest aglow by leaving fairy dolls, birdhouses and rocks painted with inspirational messages (“You can do it!” “Be confident!”) in the woods. And last summer, a group of Johnson County artists installed similar gnome homes along nature trails in “The Enchanted Forest” at Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Seven of those homes and an eighth “castle” are now on display through Labor Day.
On Thursday, while visiting the Kansas City area to work on an unrelated carpentry project, Frampton decided to sprinkle a little more magic in Firefly Forest by secretly replacing or reinstalling four doors.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” she said.
Three of the doors are on the stretch of trail between Switzer and Antioch roads, just east of Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead off 135th Street. The red door is west of Switzer, bordering St. Andrews Golf Club.
“If you’re walking the trail, just keep your eyes open,” Frampton said. “They’re supposed to be discovered almost accidentally, magically.”
The smallest door she replaced is bright yellow and roughly the size of a deck of cards.
“This is one of my favorites because it’s very, very tiny,” Frampton said, kneeling beside it. “When I discovered this little hollow in the tree, I ran home and made the door really quickly. I knew it needed to be there.”
Open the door and you’ll see Frampton’s mantra: “Dream big,” which she also wore on her T-shirt.
A few years ago, she opened the door and found a handwritten note inside that read “You’re as big as you think you are.” Children left notes that said things like, “I believe in fairies,” “I love you,” and “What are you?” Other messages revealed personal struggles with drugs or religion, or sacred wishes: “My mom’s in the hospital. Can you please make her better?”
Frampton treasured each one. To her, the doors were so much more than whimsical decorations. They were gateways to connection with others and a way to heal from the emotional pain and isolation of divorce.
One of her most meaningful connections was with Kelly Fisher of Overland Park, whose 3-year-old daughter, Allie, her “Little Owl,” died of brain cancer in 2013. After Fisher left a note in Allie’s honor, Frampton crafted a turquoise Little Owl door and installed it along the trail as a tribute. The magical moment when the Fisher family discovered the door was captured in “The Gnomist.”
When Frampton left for Utah, the Little Owl door stayed. After “The Gnomist” premiered, passersby would often leave trinkets and notes for Kelly and Allie: “Praying for you. Hugs.”
“There’s something amazing going on here,” Frampton said.
Her latest act of kindness was partly a response to recent slayings along trails in nearby south Kansas City. Since August, four men have been killed near popular paths along Indian Creek, Minor Park and Blue River. Their deaths are still under investigation, and by some accounts, foot traffic on the trails is down.
Frampton says her heart aches for the families who lost loved ones.
“I also want to reinforce what I learned in this forest,” Frampton said. “There are people in the world who are bent on destruction, but there are so many more good people.”
Our community parks and trails, she added, should not be places of fear.
As Frampton tended to the Little Owl door on Thursday evening, Jenny Huang and Dante DeCicco strolled by. When the friends from Overland Park were a few paces down the trail, they spotted a new hinged purple door on a tree bordering the creek.
“It’s adorable!” Huang exclaimed. “Oh, that’s too much.”
She knelt in front of the gnome home so DeCicco could capture video for her Snapchat story.
“I think it’s really nice,” Huang said when she found out what Frampton was doing. “It kinda makes it more magical out here.”
At home in Utah, Frampton builds elaborate gnome homes and installs them on private property, where caretakers can tend to them and make sure they don’t fall into disrepair. She documents each project on her YouTube channel and her blog, fireflyforestdoors.com, where she also sells handmade doors that look like those in Firefly Forest.
There’s a “Dream Big” door for $14.99, larger red and purple doors for $89, and a replica of the Little Owl door for $150. Half of the proceeds from the owl door go to Team Little Owl, a nonprofit founded by the Fisher family to raise awareness and money to research treatment for children with brain cancer.
Frampton’s whimsical carpentry projects have helped her build community in Utah. But after three years away, Firefly Forest still feels like home.
“My hope is that folks who still live here will continue to appreciate and be able to experience what I experienced when I was here,” she says. “This experience changed me forever.”