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Posted December 13, 2008 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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What a doll: Historic collection displayed at Belle Grove remembers toys of past

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By Natalie Austin -- Daily Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN -- In the parlor of Belle Grove Plantation, a Christmas tree stretches to the ceiling, but it's the hundreds of tiny eyes peering from under the big evergreen that create a magical scene.

Dolls and toys seem to occupy every space throughout the historic house, where children -- particularly little girls and older ones, too -- are left wide-eyed at a doll at every turn.

"A Child's Christmas at Belle Grove" is the theme for the holiday season, making iPods, Guitar Hero and Bratz dolls seem futuristic by comparison.

From antique dolls from famed Madame Alexander to older dolls with faces stretched from chicken skin, the collection is as varied as it is enormous.

It's as if the eyes looking back at little museum visitors will transport them back in time, when dolls and simple wooden toys were part of the wonder of Christmas.

Virginia Hedrick Beeler loved children, teaching for nearly half a decade in Shenandoah County -- most of her career spent in elementary classrooms, says her daughter, Laura Ellen Wade, guest curator for the exhibition. Her mother also taught Sunday school for children for more than 60 years.

Beeler died last year at age 97.

"They were just like her children. She loved dolls and she loved children," says Wade.

The dolls are just as beloved to Wade, Beeler's only child, representing more than a century of collecting, with her great-grandmother handing the dolls down to her mother.

Wade immediately goes to a glass display case on a recent morning that holds her mother's seven original childhood dolls, dating back to 1939. A doll in a tiny bed is missing part of its hand, which Beeler chewed off as a child, her daughter says. Another has a shiny porcelain face and is wearing a bright, red dress. It is evident many of these dolls weren't for real play.

"Her grandmother gave them to her and the collection grew," says Wade.

Her grandmother dressed many of the dolls, says Wade, including details like tiny crocheted hats and purses, the latter of which each contain a penny, to doll-sized jewelry.

Because of Beeler's love of dolls and her role in so many children's lives, she was often given dolls by people in the community, who brought them back from places ranging from Bethlehem to Korea. Cards in the exhibit specify who gave her mother the dolls.

Wade points out some larger dolls wearing dresses worn by her mother. Her grandmother would save them for the dolls, and old black-and-white photos are placed near them.

Boy dolls weren't as common, but the exhibit contains some of those, as well.

Baby Grumpy, dressed all blue, doesn't look too happy to be a doll. These dolls were made between 1914 and 1925. There's also a cloth doll, Rastus, whose face adorned Cream of Wheat boxes for decades.

In one bedchamber, a doll stands next to a handcrafted wooden highboy. The detailed reproduction was made in Williamsburg and looks ready to be filled with tiny doll finery. In Belle Grove's nursery, a doll is reclined on a tiny fainting couch. Another looks ready to mount a tiny horse.

The oldest dolls in the collection are grouped together, some 200 years old. English peddler dolls carry their wares with faces made of stretched chicken skin. A French fortune teller doll has tiny paper fortunes hidden under her wide skirt. Frail-looking shell dolls were made off the coast of Britain. French fashion dolls line another area. Made to look like adult women rather than little girls, the dolls don the latest in French fashion of that period, the 1870s to the 1890s.

The first patented doll in America was made in 1858.

A George Washington doll is really a German candy container. Another German bisque doll, dating to 1905, actually has three faces that can be turned to fit a child's mood. Another doll hides a pin cushion under her skirt. Larger dolls have actual hoop skirts under their dresses. The details and the craftsmanship of these toys is unsurpassed, as doll makers worked to shrink down the real to fit the dolls.

Wade estimates that she has 800 dolls produced in various media, including china, bisque, cloth, paper mache, wood, wax and parian.

A doll plays a tiny piano on the dining room table of Belle Grove.

"It's just wonderful for us to have and be able to show these dolls," says Craig Orndorff, program coordinator for Belle Grove. "I understand the attention had to be paid to every little detail and at Belle Grove, we like to highlight craftsmanship."

Up until the time of her death, Beeler would travel with her daughter to national doll shows in larger metropolitan areas, always looking for that special doll to add to her collection.

The first time the dolls were exhibited at Belle Grove was in 1984. This season they are accentuated by a variety of seasonal plants and decorations provided by area garden clubs.

Call Belle Grove Plantation at 869-2028 or go online to www.bellegrove.org for holiday hours and admission.

*Contact Natalie Austin at naustin@nvdaily.com

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