If you've never heard of the Lincoln County Garden Club, it's because the club exists only in the imagination of Marge Crunkleton, 78, a Westport resident fondly known as "the doll lady."
With distinctive faces sculpted from clay, the dolls represent individuals, mostly women, of a certain age, commonly in their 70s or older. "Old folks have so much character. They have more interesting stories, and they're not afraid to share them," said Crunkleton.
"Young dolls may be pretty, but they don't have a lot of character," said said. "You can't read their faces."
Although she has no formal training as an artist, Crunkleton is adept at gracing each of her dolls with loads of character, suggesting interesting lives, well lived. She refers to them as "senior chicks."
"I spend a fair amount of time playing with the facial characteristics until I have somebody I'd like to get to know. I will create a doll's head out of clay, an old lady, and I look at her face and think, 'She has a lot of stories to tell.'"
The life stories that Crunkleton reads in the dolls' faces come from bits and pieces of folks she has known, as well as from her very fertile imagination. And each in turn is automatically entered into the membership of The Lincoln County Garden Club. There are 16 clubs, representing a total of 125 distinctive dolls.
Each club has its own directory of names and character descriptions. Club 10, for instance, includes Naomi (Has just lost a ton of weight and now appears to have an attitude. ... Self-confidence?), Winifred (Cute as a button, with suitors just hanging everywhere), Parker and Lillian (As much in love as the day they married 50 years ago), Joan (Lost 10 pounds but just found them under that old sweat suit she wears), and Millicent (Won't give up that old blue sweater. ... It's like a second skin and so warm and comfortable).
The dolls, and the clubs to which they belong, are produced in limited numbers, giving rise to a secondary market, in which collectors - Marge calls them Crunkle-ectors - have been able to trade or sell their dolls. Continuing her play on the Crunkleton name, the Garden Club is "plopped in the fictitious Lincoln County town of Crunkleville."
Finally, serious Crunkle-ectors have "stepped into another dimension in their imagination. Diagnosed with Crunkle-itis, they will never be the same."
Besides seeing the dolls on their very own website, www.crunkleton.com, you can visit them when they are on display at the Shanklin Library each year in June.
Marge, born in Milwaukee (her parents were from Armenia) says she enjoyed playing with dolls as a young child, but "I continued until I was 13, old enough to be embarrassed."
She used scraps of fabric given her by an aunt to fashion costumes for celluloid "penny dolls."
She worked briefly as a stewardess, wanted to be a nurse because of her love of children, and went into drafting. Married 55 years, she and her husband Ted, 79, have four children.
Inspired by the Cabbage Patch dolls craze in the early 70s, she began making her own version of soft sculpted dolls. She sold them at her small shop, The Rag Doll, on N.C. 16 in Westport, in the building that now houses Candle Buddies. The shop, open only on weekends, remained for five years, when the market for that type of doll dried up. Not one to be discouraged, she began making clay figurines, which grew into The Lincoln County Garden Club.
The dolls, although produced in limited numbers, were sold for $40 in stores all over the country, including Belks. After about seven years and over a dozen garden clubs, the market for her dolls went the way of the soft sculpted dolls, and they are now available only in the secondary collector's
Now that she is no longer creating new Garden Club members, Marge's creative energies are directed toward running her store. With the help of her son Chris, she operates the Hewitt Country Store, an old-fashioned ice cream and penny candy parlor in Claremont. Open noon-6 p.m. on weekends, the replica of a 1926 general store allows a visitor to "step through the tattered screen door into a simpler time and place."
She is also planning to open an ice cream shop near the Triangle in Denver.
The little girl who loved to play with dolls has not gone away. You'll find her behind the counter of the Country Store or in the ice cream shop. And if you ask, she'll be happy to share stories of the many fascinating folks in the Lincoln County Garden Club in Crunkleville.