The Times West Virginian

January 4, 2012

A real dollhouse

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Elsie Fancher lives in a real live dollhouse.

She’s been collecting dolls since 1978 and easily has more than 500.

“I’ve got big dolls and little dolls and everything in between,” she said.

Some are as tiny as one inch. Others are life size.

Some have moveable arms and legs. Some have eyes that close. A couple even talk.

Some are wearing the clothing they came in; others are decked out in handmade outfits.

Some have hair that’s painted on. Others have soft curls of blonde or brunette or red.

Some are very old. Others can probably still be found in your local toy store.

Some were given to her. Others were purchased at flea markets and online.

Some are proudly displayed in cases or on shelves or on ponies, at tea party tables or in baby carriages.

Others are stashed away in closets. After all, her house has only so much space.

She has celebrity dolls: Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Mae West, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. She has presidential dolls: JFK, Lincoln, FDR, Washington.

Some have well-known names, like Barbie and Raggedy Ann and Andy, but most have names known only to the little girls who first loved them a long time ago.

And all hold a special place in her heart.

Fancher started collecting dolls in 1978 thanks to her sister. Up to this point, she’d collected Depression Ware. She was visiting her sister in North Carolina, who asked a friend if they had any dolls. Sure, they were in the trash but she was welcome to them. Imagine her sister’s surprise to find there were two of each doll. Elsie could have one if she wanted.

Ever the good grandmother, she picked out a Chatty Cathy for her granddaughter.

“On the way back, Chatty Cathy decided she didn’t want to leave me,” Fancher said with a chuckle.

“So I started collecting Chatty Cathy dolls. And when I was out, they all started following me home.”

She started going to doll shows and sales, and began selling her Chatty dolls as antiques. She soon expanded her family to all kinds of dolls, scouring flea markets and yard sales for the latest find.

She’s found some real bargains over the years, but that’s not why she collects dolls.

“I don’t remember having any dolls when I was little. My sister Jessie said I had a doll. When I buy a doll, I buy to enjoy it. I’m going to enjoy it while I’m here.”

So now she’s got easily 500 or more dolls, “in drawers, under beds, in closets,” she said. “They’re everywhere.”

“If it’s got a head and arms and legs, I’ll collect it,” she said with a laugh.

Like almost any doll collector, Fancher has some Barbies, but not too many.

“They were bringing $600-700 at one time. Now you can’t hardly give them away,” she said.

She earned money to buy dolls by making doll clothing for other people.

She was an active member of the West Virginia Mountaineer Doll Club for a long time.

Her favorite doll is truly one of a kind: a lifelike replica of her mother, Addie Benson.

“This woman made it from a photo of my mother. I’d never seen anything like it,” Fancher said. “You wouldn’t believe the likeness.”

She took it to a national doll convention, where it won first place, she said.

Her oldest doll is a papier maché French walking doll from the mid-19th century that she’d bought for only $19.

“I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “I got it from a yard sale, a flea market, some place. My sister is an expert on dolls. I sent her the doll and material to make a dress, and she called back.

“‘I’ve been looking all over the place for a French doll and here you found one,’ my sister said.”

Remember this when you’re hitting the flea market trail: One person’s cast-off doll is another’s treasure.

“It all depends on what you collect,” she said. “When I did Chatty Cathy, that’s all I looked for. I still have some that I started out with.”

She hasn’t collected new dolls for a while.

“So I’m not looking for any particular one right now. Really, all I have to do is look around the house and it’s probably here,” she said, laughing.

One room is dedicated to older dolls, from mid-19th century to World War I, perched on antique hobby horses or napping in old baby carriages.

A group sits at a small round table, dressed up for their daily tea party in dressy hats, jewelry and cosmetic accessories. Each holds a teddy bear.

They may be dolls but they’re still ladies.

One doll is made of wheat. She has a ballerina frog doll. A large jigsaw puzzle of a Victorian-era doll hangs framed on the wall.

Another room is more contemporary, a home for her Chatty Cathy dolls, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Mork, a Cabbage Patch or two, some Barbies, My Kid Sister, Mickey Mouse, Jerry Mahoney, Ronald McDonald and even a handmade Mr. T.

“They multiply during the night,” she said slyly.

Old stuffed animals line the stairs.

She has a closet full of old dresses someone gave her to cut for doll clothes.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I can’t do that. That’s like cutting up history.

“It’s all junk,” she said jokingly of her treasure trove ... almost like an old-fashioned mom who loves her children dearly but is reluctant to brag on them.

“Take 5” is featuring local residents with interesting hobbies. To be included as a Wednesday “Take 5” feature, contact Debra Minor Wilson at 304-367-2549 or dwilson@timeswv.com.

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.