STOCKTON — Standing in the doll room of the Frank Walker Museum at the Rooks County Historical Society on Wednesday, Jean Lindsey lifted up the stiff blond hair on a doll she was holding to look at the nape of the neck.
“Right there, see, it says ‘Ideal,’” said Lindsey, pointing to the manufacturer’s name stamped on the plastic, then mentioning other dolls setting in a glass case. “And this one, she’s a Horsman, that’s what it says. He’s a Gerber baby. She’s a General Mills doll.
A volunteer at the museum on U.S. Highway 183 in Stockton, Lindsey is part of a crew working to dismantle a collection of more than 3,000 dolls.
Former Kensington resident Zelma Atherton Rader, who grew up in the Bow Creek area of Rooks County and who is now deceased, donated the collection in 1996.
Now 23 years later, the museum is downsizing the collection, hoping to pare it back to about 500.
“It has been an overwhelming process,” said museum coordinator Sue McFarland, but a necessary one for the museum, which is open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
“That doll room, people kind of shy away from it, because it’s intimidating,” McFarland said. “The historian part of me is screaming up and down about this, but the manager part of me realizes we have a lot of kids come through and the doll room scares them; all those glassy eyes staring at you.”
Lindsey has seen it as well.
“Kids don’t like this room,” she said. “They’ve seen too many movies.”
Rader started collecting the dolls in her mid-20s, and did so until she died in her 80s, said McFarland.
While the museum exhibits every aspect of Rooks County life in the old days, from a grocery store and post office, to a dentist office, farm and school room, ironically, it’s the downsizing of the doll collection that has captured quite a lot of attention.
“We’ve gotten more traffic through here since word got out we’re selling dolls,” said McFarland.
In fact, some were donated to Goodwill and The Arc of Central Plains, both in Hays. Others have been sold to collectors who arrive from Stockton, Hays, Russell, Phillipsburg and elsewhere, lugging big plastic empty totes to fill with dolls.
Hays doll collector Sandy Swob was sorting dolls Tuesday. She’s been collecting since 1990, and has reached the point she doesn’t know exactly how many she has, but certainly more than 1,000. Her collection started years ago when she decided to try and regain the dolls she’d lost as a child.
At the time, a young mom of two small girls, she went halves at an auction with her mom, paying $80 for a Barbie. “I just kind of went crazy from there,” Swob says now. “I had quite a few Barbies as a kid. I realized at one point my parents had really spoiled me with dolls.”
Her first was a Twist ’n Turn Barbie, which she got in 1967 as a seven-year-old growing up in Oakley. “I had Barbie and Ken, Alan and Midge, Francie, Skipper, Scooter, Ricky, Tootie, Todd, Stacy and Casey.”
Swob went off to college, and her younger sister and friends began playing hair dresser with the dolls. With some detective work years later, Swob managed to find at least one of them.
“I did get my original Twist ’n Turn Barbie back,” she said. “Her hair had been cut, cropped just below the ears, she was in pretty rough shape.”
Swob estimates the museum’s doll collection has been whittled down close to the 500 goal. The collection is varied, with everything from tiny dolls no more than 6 inches tall, to ones that are 3 feet tall. There are some that date to the late 1800s while the newest ones are from the 1980s. Some are antique china dolls, made of glazed porcelain, or bisque dolls, made of unglazed porcelain. While newer ones are vinyl and plastic.
“Some of the doll collectors, with dolls that their heads are starting to peel, they take them off and fix them up,” Lindsey said.
“If you look around you can see dolls from your generation,” she said, pointing out a pull-string talking Chatty Cathy doll made by Mattel in the early 1960s.
Lindsey didn’t have dolls herself, being a farm girl who grew up in the country two miles north of Webster. “We had cats, I pushed them around in my doll buggy, dressed them up, and had funerals for them when they died,” she said.
As someone who loves dolls herself, Swob says the museum is keeping the dolls that people can most relate to.
“There are certain dolls,” she said, “when you look at them, they bring back your childhood.”