Sometimes it takes a village to get a charitable project started, but this time it took a village of dolls! Yes, dolls.
The Wilder Memorial Museum in Strawberry Point, Iowa began 45 years ago because a group of over 800 antique dolls needed a home.
Blanche Baldridge and Gladys Keneally were two Strawberry Point sisters who collected dolls; their goal was to donate their collection of rare dolls to the Iowa State Historical Society.
When the citizens of Strawberry Point learned of the sisters’ intention, they realized they would lose a local treasure if they lost their doll collection. They rallied to create a museum to house the dolls.
The town formed a committee and money to build the original museum came from the Mary and Frank Wilder estate, (no relation to Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder). Yet, this is not the end of the story.
During the 1980s and 1990s, more construction was done and the museum expanded. The Alderson Addition and Munter-Knight wings were added. Eventually, toy exhibits of all kinds, local arts, antique musical instruments, antique furniture, antique porcelains and ceramics, and Native American artifact collections were added. In 2014, a complete museum makeover took place, and recently, the dolls themselves were refurbished and placed in settings with appropriate artifacts and decor.
The oldest doll is a wooden doll dating from the 1700s, popularly known as a Queen Anne Doll because many of these dolls were made during the reign of Queen Anne. Yet, similar dolls were made earlier, and some 17th century versions are known as Bartholomew Babies because they were made for sale at the popular Bartholomew Faire, also known for its cookbooks. Later dolls during the reigns of the King George’s were known as Georgian dolls. They are rare today, and to find one in the heart of Iowa is astonishing.
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Some dolls are dressed in traditional Czech costumes, and reflect another aspect of Iowa’s heritage. Rare French bisque dolls in large and small sizes by Bru and other makers are on display, as are fragile dolls with china heads, papier mache dolls, metal headed dolls, and many more. In these dolls, you see a microcosm of the doll and toy industries that thrived in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.
International dolls from Japan, Africa, and elsewhere remind us of other cultures, and of how small the world really is. Compare these small faces to those on the large and unusual Meissen and Dresden figures on display with the Alderson collection of antique glass. The figurines and doll heads are very similar, and some collectors believe the porcelain companies also made the doll heads.
When I visited, I stopped at a few local shops and met two women with local connections. They were miniaturists who attended the Metro Mini Makers show when it was still held here. The pair also had connections with the owner of The Cranny, a store of miniatures and doll houses that operated for many years out of the Village of East Davenport.
Of course, there are several doll houses and several dioramas and farm toy scenes on display. One doll house is over six feet high with more rooms than even I had time to count.
As someone who is trying very hard to open her own doll and toy museum, I can honestly say I was impressed with the layout of all the exhibits. Many albums, books, and photographs are available for visitors who want to read more of the story.
The Wilder Memorial Museum is open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Children are welcome. It’s located at 123 W. Mission Street, Strawberry Point, Iowa and is open from around 1 p.m.-4 p.m.
If I could do my own remake of Night at the Museum at the Wilder Memorial Museum, I’d be a very happy camper.