Helen Shaffer

Helen Shaffer (left) and Peggy Edwards work on a room box. Shaffer is president of the Mountain State Miniature Enthusiasts and Edwards is publicity chair.

Helen Shaffer has a beach house.

She calls it “Wish I Were There” and it’s a really nice vacation house. A nautical lifesaver hangs near the door. You can almost see the palm tree in front swaying in the wind and hear the ocean lapping at the sand that comes right up to the front steps.

Well, almost. Although the house is real, it’s not really big. It’s in her living room and it’s really a dollhouse and just one of many this local artisan has created.

“I made almost everything in it. It looks realistic. It took me a long time,” the Fairmont resident said.

Shaffer is president of the Mountain State Miniature Enthusiasts, a group that creates tiny versions of real-life, really big objects, usually rooms or houses.

She got involved about 16 years ago. The club now meets at 2 p.m. the second Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church with about 25 members age 8-84 attending from five counties and even Pennsylvania.

“As far as we know, we’re the only miniature club in West Virginia,” Shaffer said

She had dollhouses when she was a little girl and still has one in her basement.

“I just never grew up,” she said with a laugh.

The Victorian-style dollhouse in her living room is at least 3 feet high and has six rooms tastefully decorated with countless tiny objects ... from purses and nightgown in the bedrooms to cherry pie and Jell-O in the kitchen. There’s even a blue-and-gold WVU pennant on a wall.

“Doesn’t this just make you salivate?” asked fellow miniature enthusiast Peggy Edwards as she peered into the mansion.

Shaffer said she has no idea how many items it contains. But she knows it’s a lot.

“It takes patience,” she said. “This is hard to do. That’s why we encourage people to start with room boxes to see if they like it and so they won’t get overwhelmed.”

A room box is a tiny version of just one room. Completing one of these will tell if you have the time, energy or patience to tackle a whole dollhouse, she said.

Don’t be deceived: A room box can be quite intricate, like the handsome living room Shaffer created, complete with a fireplace with individually handmade bricks, handmade overstuffed easy chairs, and real maple and walnut paneling.

All it needs is a golden retriever dozing on a rug by the fire.

Room boxes don’t even have to be boxes. They can be gift bags, foam pumpkins ... “anything your imagination tells you,” Shaffer said.

The group offered the popular shadow box class for the “Saturday A.M. Live” programs in the 1990s.

“Some of the children went on to make dollhouses. That was nice because it got families involved,” Shaffer said.

“Children today have TV, computers, dolls that are already programmed. Everything is already done for them. If you give them a dollhouse, they can use their imagination. They can pretend.”

Aside from furniture, the enthusiasts rarely purchase items, although they sometimes use kits. Usually, though, items are hand made, she said. Sometimes old items find a new life.

“I don’t spend much, believe me,” Shaffer said. “This isn’t expensive, but it’s mostly using your imagination, and finding things and saving them.”

For instance, that beach house is really just a broken wicker birdcage.

The sign on the outside of a Coca-Cola shop is really a dollar magnet and the pop vending machine was once a salt shaker, she said.

The Hardway room box, one of several on display at the Marion County Public Library through October, is made of a rolltop breadbox bought at a church yard sale for $3.

She’s lost count of how many boxes and houses she’s made and given away.

“I give these as gifts. I’ve never sold any. That would take the fun out of it. But no matter what I make, I personalize it.”

For example, the child’s bedroom at the beach house contains miniaturized actual photos of her own children.

She reconstructed the first apartment of her son and daughter-in-law, right down to the engagement picture, wedding dress, wedding cake and store packages.

She made a room box when her first grandson was born, decorated with a Mickey Mouse border she’d miniaturized on her computer (she does a lot of this). There’s even a tiny birth certificate and photo of the new family on his tiny dresser.

“When you’re miniaturizing, one inch is one foot,” she said.

Edwards, publicity chair, got interested a couple of years ago when she won a dollhouse at the group’s annual show.

This show is the group’s effort to help out Make-a-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes for children with catastrophic illnesses. This year, they held a yard sale of miniatures, giving all the proceeds and a dollhouse directly to a Marion County child.

“She goes right to that dollhouse when she’s not feeling well,” Shaffer said. “It was meant to be that we didn’t have a show this year. God answered our prayers.”

Ideas will just come to you, she said.

“It may take you two years to get it to where you’re ready to do it.” In the meantime, save photos and items for the project until you’re ready to tackle it.

“Probably my next project will be a Mickey Mouse box. Whenever I find something, I’ll save it. And when I’m in the mood, someday I’ll sit down and start working on it.”

One house depicting her mother’s front porch was featured in “Miniature Gazette,” the official publication of the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts, as part of the “How I Spent My Summers” series.

She just closed her eyes and remembered the front porch at her mother’s house, and re-created it, down to the porch swing and plant stand.

“I tried to do everything the way it was back then,” Shaffer said. “This was the most satisfying, because I knew it had made her very happy.”

For more information, call 366-8170 or 363-6151.

E-mail Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.

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